PREVIEW: Demonic possession is an affliction that affects many people, most notably in the celebrity and political sphere, yet it's something rarely explored with sensitivity and tact by gaming. Why? Perhaps the reality of possession - rocking in a foetal position and bellowing to yourself in Baal's guttural voice - is an endeavour best left to angry teens on Xbox LIVE. Or just as likely: it wouldn't be fun. Luckily, way back in 2007 Starbreeze and 2K Games gave us The Darkness, a comic book adaptation which showed just how fun playing host to an infernal being can be.
This time around, developer Digital Extremes has been given the reins. Digital Extremes was charged with the multiplayer component for BioShock 2 which, if you're optimistic, speaks well of the respect 2K Games accords the studio, and if you're pessimistic, well, just look at how many people are still playing BioShock 2 online. And while the Digital Extremes team might have been somewhat shielded from impossible expectations that time around - this time they're following in the footsteps of the very well credentialled Starbreeze.
First, a primer for the Darkness-challenged. You play Jackie Estacado, a mob hitman who gets an unusual 21st birthday present. Estacado inherits the Darkness, a form of demon possession. The bad news: an inevitable conflict between Jackie and the Darkness for who gets to drive. The good news: Darkness powers and the voice of the Darkness (Faith No More's Mike Patton) gurgling demonically in your ear.
The powers in question are largely derived from the serpentine "demon arms" Jackie has while in Darkness form. Think of two controllable moray eels framing your screen and you're on the right track. On Xbox 360, the left and right triggers and bumpers control firearms and their respective demon arms. Holding down the right bumper while moving the right analogue stick allows you to slash the right arm in a variety of directions. The left bumper is a jack of all trades - allowing you to seize individuals, hurl them, execute them or even eat their heart after you've (messily) disposed of them. A smart user interface system acknowledges that this can be a lot of information for new players to take on board, and so it does a good job of prompting you as to which buttons do what gory moves.
The original game featured AI sidekicks - Darklings - evil little imps who helped Jackie. In the sequel, Digital Extremes has limited this to one in the hope it becomes a more fully fleshed character, albeit one whose involvement is scripted. Whatever reservations we may have about certain decisions Digital Extremes has made (see below) this is a move in the right direction, although we wish he was always by our side, not just when the plot calls for it. Any time he's on screen, Jackie's union jack shirt-wearing minion steals the show. He's a vicious, lively little beast and we hope Digital Extremes has gone long on dialogue lines for him.
Gunplay is considered integral to the formula by Digital Extremes. However, souls who would opt for the game's regular shooting mechanics are rare. Why shoot when you can pick up a bad guy, twirl him in the air and ram an arm through his chest? Or pick up a handy steel pole and hurl it javelin-style into some unfortunate's sternum? Or literally tear someone in two? Yes, the Darkness II all but writes the Australian Classification Board's rejection letter itself.
WHY YOU'RE BACK
What use would all those powers and limbs be without a purpose? In the first game it was simple. Jackie was coming to grips with his new powers and the loss of his girlfriend. This time around, writer Paul Jenkins (who writes for the comic series and also wrote the first game's story) places Jackie on top of the mob world. Estacado has climbed the mob chain and is now a boss in his own right.
As he's settling down in a swank restaurant with his dates for the evening - a pair of strippers - would-be assassins decide to plough a car through the restaurant window, into his table. This mangles not only his stripper-dates, but also one of his legs in the process. In the ensuing chaos, one of Jackie's lieutenants comes up with an exit strategy that consists of dragging - and being dragged - out of incoming gunfire.
Control begins with you firing at gunmen as you're slowly hauled backwards. Your view tilts and shifts at times, reflecting the fact you can't be choosy about point of view when you're being dragged out of a building with a crushed leg as people are shooting at you.
Once beyond the glaring lights of the eatery and ensconced in the shadowy streets, it's the Darkness' turn to take over. As the possession takes hold, Jackie's leg miraculously heals (his suit pants, alas, are irreparably ruined), his demon arms brutally demolish the shrieking would-be assassins, and the hunt is on.
Without going into too much detail, Jackie soon encounters a nemesis who wants his powers. However the Darkness can't be coerced out of its host, it must be granted. Hence the impasse: sure, Jackie might have the power of the dark gods inside of him, but his rival has somehow managed to nail him (literally) down in a chamber. From there, chaos ensues, setting up a cat-and-mouse style premise.
In our hands-on, we roamed the streets of New York and pursued gangsters into the subway system, as well as spending some quality time in the aforementioned torture chamber. Very rarely were we wasting time in transit - the Darkness II piles on the action with the same heavy hand it doles out the gore. You won't be waiting for stuff to happen, put it that way.
The visual style of the game is what Digital Extremes dubs "graphic noir", a nod to the game's comic book forebears. With realistic visuals being so 2007, so Starbreeze, Digital Extremes' Evolution Engine offers a cel-shaded style with heavily outlined characters and objects operating on a limited palette. It reinforces the graphic novel feel as well as enabling one of the Darkness' key mechanics - eliminating light sources. These cause pain to Jackie's demonic passenger and debilitate his powers. The more shadow, the happier Jackie and his host are. Conversely, stand under a fluorescent light in Darkness form and the screen saturates with light and the Darkness hisses in agony. Point taken - stay out of the light.
The design intent behind a limited colour range is to have characters stand out more. Who hasn't been frustrated by player models that seem to blend in with the scenery? The Darkness II's engine achieves that goal, but the highlighting mode for key objects in-game - whether it be bins that can be thrown, wall plates that need to be smashed, or any other useable item in close proximity - is joltingly vivid. The good news: you won't be spamming buttons in futility as you look for something to use - they blaze off the screen. The bad news: it's a glaring peek behind the curtain and a reminder you're playing a video game when objects scream PICK ME UP. That's fine when the game is Borderlands, when it's the brooding, shadowy world of Jackie Estacado, it's a little jarring.
We have a few. For starters after you've roamed about dismembering people with your demon arms and eating their hearts, plinking away with a firearm really seems a step backwards. Further, the on rails segment of the game is so forgiving that we can imagine subsequent play-throughs would be robbed of any urgency. Then again that's what variable difficulty levels are for.
Finally, a restricted colour scheme is one thing, but the Darkness II seems content to follow one of the most enduring and anachronistic traits of the first-and-third person shooter genre: disposable, forgettable minions.
If you've seen one henchman, you've seen them all. They're identically dressed and have no individual characteristics to speak of - just an army of clones to blow away en route to the next mission objective. It's a little unfair to expect Darkness II to be the game that changes all that, but it certainly isn't afraid to perpetuate the model. And given the decision to focus on one Darkling in the pursuit of more character, it's not like Digital Extremes is a stranger to the notion that quality trumps quantity.
While on the henchman subject: imagine yourself a nameless gun for hire confronted with a four-limbed demon-man shooting and dismembering your fellows. Do you (a) stick around to see what happens or (b) freak out and flee to live another day? There seem to be a lot of unhealthily courageous, unfazed gangsters in Jackie's world. Or maybe we ought to remember: comic book adaptation.
The first Darkness game enjoyed a great deal of appreciation - if not cult status - for punching well above its weight when it released in 2007, a year that brought us Mass Effect, Crysis, the Orange Box, and a plucky little number called Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. This time around it's fair to say expectations are higher.
It takes some gumption to rework the visual approach taken by Starbreeze - an outfit noted for their devotion to eye candy - but Digital Extremes largely pulls it off, our semantic design quibbles notwithstanding. And the play mechanic is hard to fault - at least in the short term. Tearing apart a room full of baddies, even if they're barely a cut above scenery in terms of individuality, is a blast. And the storyline shouldn't be a concern, with the antagonist nicely framed early on.
What will be interesting to see as the game approaches completion is whether Digital Extremes and 2K Games try to push it. It may have been less than half a decade since the last Darkness, but for big publishers a lifetime of change has occurred since then. The days of being able to put out a tight, solid game for core gamers on the relative down-low are history for outfits like 2K Games. The way the market operates today suggests every full-price title is expected to be a big deal. How 2K goes about pushing the Darkness II beyond its existing cadre of fans and followers of the comic series should make for interesting watching.