Our local Fox news channel here in Washington, D.C., recently took a very stern, almost apocalyptic look at modern comic books. The reporter decried that the days of Archie are long gone, and in its peachy place are full-length comics filled with over-the-top gore, women wearing exceptionally provocative outfits, and an overall lack of concern from the comic creators for what children could read and interpret as real life. After scratching my head and wondering where the local news media has been for the past 15 years, I thought the fine folks at Digital Extremes will have a lot of explaining to do with the release of their comic-inspired The Darkness II.
At a recent press event here in the nation’s capital, I had a chance to go hands-on with The Darkness II in all of its bloody, demonic bliss. This is a game that breathes new life into the overly-crowded first-person shooter market. It seems a couple times a year I make a similar statement about a game trying to redefine its genre, but something feels different saying it this time around about The Darkness II.
Tom Galt, lead game designer with Digital Extremes, made it clear that The Darkness II is not trying to compete with the likes of Call of Duty. In fact, competitive multiplayer—the real bread ‘n butter of most first-person shooters—is completely absent in The Darkness II. That’s largely because the team is after a more story-driven experience.
“It’s super important for us to tell a story,” Galt said. That element of narration, of care for the main characters is frequently sidestepped in shooters, but that appears to be one of the strongest legs in The Darkness II.
The other leg helping to keep this game standing is the quad-wielding combat system. The traditional first-person shooter mechanics are here, including right trigger to fire your primary weapon, and left trigger to aim. If you dual-wield guns, your left trigger (the one used to aim) will fire your left-handed weapon. Your Darkness abilities, two black snake-like arms extending from your back/shoulders, are tied to the two other trigger buttons. The left arm can reach out (Stretch Armstrong style) and grab enemies, or it can grab objects which serve as deadly projectiles. Your right arm is your beating arm, and you’ll use it thrash enemies in relatively-close quarters. There are a host of other abilities associated with The Darkness powers, but the basics are fairly easy to learn.
The game picks up two years after the events in The Darkness, and sees Jackie Estacado as the mob boss. Over the past two years, Jackie has managed to fight back The Darkness that plagues him, but after a heated intro segment you’ll soon learn why his powers must return. In the one-hour of gameplay, I had a chance to see some interesting story elements, including some of Jackie’s hallucinations. I know only a bit about the original game, but the teaser I was given through these hallucinations (at least, I think they were hallucinations) made me want to know more about Jackie, his girl, his family, his mob, his powers, and what makes this Crow-like character tick.
Early on in the game you’ll get all your basic abilities and quickly learn to stay out of the light. One segment took us through the subway system of New York City. The station’s light fixtures kept Jackie’s powers at bay and prevented us from regaining health. Galt informed me that you can knock out lights or simply avoid them to keep your powers. The interplay between light and dark is extremely important for the gameplay, and even played a key role in the first boss battle I encountered.
Jackie gets a Darkling this time around, and he essentially serves as your sidekick, both in gameplay and in comic relief. Sporting a British flag t-shirt and a cat on his head, the Darkling is snarky, and takes frequent breaks to urinate or fart. Digital Extremes did a great job of making the Darkling quite useful in the gameplay department, and funny without detracting from the otherwise serious themes.
This is, after all, a game that sees you ripping enemies apart limb by limb, or beheading enemies in brutal executions. The Darkness II takes the comic book style to the limits, not just in its brilliant art style, but also in its noire approach to combat and action. The art style really took me back. There is detail on brick walls and on your demonic arms that are easy to miss in the heat of the battle, but it’s wise to take your time and enjoy the full color, cross hashing artwork. It’s not every day I say a game is like artwork, but in many ways The Darkness II’s swagger bleeds from the comics, lunges to a television screen, and falls into your eyeballs in a way that I simply haven’t seen in a long, long time. As I turned corners through the city streets, I swore I was turning pages of a comic.
The game will sport a four-player competitive mode and includes a talent tree system that is sure to keep players fully engaged. The talent system is based on essence you collect from killing enemies (also in relics). You spend these points to upgrade talents in four trees—one on executions, new powers, weapons, and your demon arms and darkness abilities. Galt explained that you won’t be able to max out a tree in one session, so you’ll get a New Game+ mode that allows you to retain your abilities and continue to spec your character to your play style.
“Our goal was to make sure no matter how you want to play the game, there are talents to fit that play style,” Galt said. You can also re-spec talents, but this will cost extra essence.
While a single hour is tough to properly judge a game, it’s safe to say that The Darkness II has potential to give gamers something fresh during an otherwise dull season. Pre-order perks are still available, so check your local retailers, but otherwise you’ll probably hear more coverage on this game if—like my city—your local news likes to talk about trends in gaming; you know, trends like violence, realistic characters, and gory entertainment. We’ll have complete coverage of The Darkness II when it hits retailers on Feb. 7 in North America and Feb. 10 in Europe. Just try not to forget to stay out of the light—it hurts.