Breaking down The Darkness 2 demo [Preview]18 Jan 2012
Well, that wasn’t quite what I was expecting.
The Darkness was a slightly clunky shooter, but a slightly clunky shooter with heart. It had a striking pseudo-noir aesthetic thanks to the faded colours and sharp contrasts of light and darkness. It had personality through both Kirk Acevedo’s voicing of the protagonist, mafia hitman Jackie Estacado, and Mike Patton’s astounding vocal portrayal of The Darkness itself.
It had a sense of place through the free-roaming mission hubs as you wandered New York subways heading from mission to mission and picking up the odd side-quest. It had the unusual option of sitting on the couch watching To Kill A Mockingbird for two full hours with Jackie’s girlfriend (which remains one of the most oddly touching scenes in videogame history). And, obviously, it had lashings of gore and gothic horror, because at heart it was about killing a lot of people with demons and tentacles and guns.
Having now played the demo of the sequel, I can comfortably confirm that there’s still a lot of gore, via killing people with demons and tentacles and guns. I’m not quite so sure about the rest.
The demo of The Darkness 2 has – as the splash screen tells us – been tweaked somewhat from the full version; events have been re-arranged, and things are in different order to how they’ll be when the game launches next month, which is somewhat surprising because it all flows fairly well.
The demo opens with Jackie waking up with his hands nailed to what might well be a cross, and a spotlight pointed directly at him to prevent him from manifesting The Darkness, as some shady types try to convince him to relinquish control of it to them. From there we’re firmly into flashback territory as we find out how Jackie got into this situation in the first place.
Unsurprisingly, it’s a rather bloody tale: Jackie’s having dinner at a restaurant along with a load of his mafioso pals, only to be interrupted when the brains of one of his supermodel-looking companions are splattered all over the entrées. The next few sections are clear-cut tutorials; we learn to shoot as Jackie (now with a mangled leg) is dragged to relative safety by an underling.
Inevitably things get worse, and Jackie makes the fateful decision to once again invoke The Darkness. In the space of a few seconds his wounds are gone, fanged tentacles have sprung from his back, and there’s a stereotypically British Darkling leading him through a run-and-gun battle in the streets and then down into the subways. Business as usual, then.
Joking aside, this does feel like business as usual in a lot of ways. The shooting isn’t as clunky as that of the first game, but it still doesn’t feel as super-slick as that of most comparable games (although that may simply be because I haven’t had time to get used to the controls). Not that this matters, though: in combat, the guns are really just a side dish to the Darkness powers, and the new quad-wielding system means that you can use both Darkness and firearms simultaneously.
And the Darkness powers are tremendously fun to use. Whether you’re lobbing poles to impale enemies to walls, cutting them in half with hurled dustbin lids, shielding yourself from bullets with a car door, or simply picking up foes and bloodily tearing them in two like wet tissue paper, you can really run rampant with these abilities. Killing foes in more interesting ways (headshots, environmental kills, executions) earns you more essence, which in turn lets you upgrade your abilities – split across four trees – faster. Which, in turn, gives you more toys with which to murder.
A lot has either changed or simply isn’t present in the demo, though. There isn’t so much as a sniff of a hub area, or side missions, or multiple-choice conversations, or indeed anything much aside from combat, with the only nod to any of this being hidden collectibles. I suspect (and hope) that this is simply because it’s a demo, though, and 20 minutes of joyful carnage is more likely to sell the game to a player unfamiliar with the series than 20 minutes of watching The Streetfighter on a hobo’s TV.
Then there are the graphics, with the dark half-gothic, half-noir style replaced with comic-esque cel-shading and bright colours. An odd choice, but fairly effective: it gives the game a distinct style, and it doesn’t really lessen the chaos or, um, darkness of the world itself. It’s also perhaps fitting, being that The Darkness was originally based on a comic anyway.
But for all that’s changed, The Darkness 2 still feels like The Darkness. It’s perhaps down to the general personality and themes of the game, and the fact that the combat mechanics are enjoyably familiar, and – much as I’m hoping that this sequel will reintroduce a lot of the aspects I adored in the first game – I’m not overly worried.
Regardless of how many of the side mechanics might shift, the game is still recognisably The Darkness. It just looks like it’ll be a different interpretation of the core themes, and “different” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad.” We just need to see how the core mechanics hold up over the long term, and which of the side mechanics we really miss.