2007’s The Darkness was what one might call both a critical and commercial success, receiving very solid review scores and selling over one million units. Even with all of that success, if you mentioned the game to a lot of gamers they would tell you that they never heard of it. The game told the story of Jackie Estacado, a mafia hitman whose family has a very “dark” and dangerous secret. The game then takes players on a journey of extreme violence and emotional despair that has seldom been matched since. And that brings us to now.
Yesterday, in the conference room of a downtown Washington, DC hotel I had a chance to sit down with Lead Game Designer for the The Darkness II, Tom Galt of Digital Extremes for a hands-on demo and some rather interesting conversation. The first thing that Tom told me was how much pressure he and his team felt taking over the franchise from original developer Starbreeze, they really felt like they had their work cut out for them. They spent a lot of time trolling the forums to really try to understand what players did and didn’t like about the first game. He says that it quickly became apparent to them that above almost anything else fans of the franchise cared about the story. From the hour I got to spend with the game and Tom, I can tell you that the story is very well done and engaging. The team wanted to focus on the story, but they also wanted to make sure they made a top-notch first person shooter at the same time. They wanted the game to have the visceral feel of Call Of Duty but have the joy of Halo, a tall order to be sure.
The Darkness II is as about as interesting a shooter as you will play this year with its combination of shooting and Darkness Powers working together to create a controlled chaos that when mastered is more satisfying than I can describe. The Darkness Powers are what make Jackie an “almost” unstoppable force allowing him to summon powers that make mere mortals no match for him. In talking to Tom about finding the right balance, he said they definitely leaned toward wanting players to feel like they were “real badasses”. I can confirm that they have accomplished this mission and done so in a way that ultimately just works. In terms of character development, the game has a light RPG element that allows players to use a talent tree and gameplay spheres to customize their character to their style of play. There is quite a bit of depth here and if you really start to develop some of these trees I think you will really be happy with the results, but trust me it won’t be easy.
The demo was on Xbox 360 and I have to admit I am a PS3 guy so my learning curve was a bit longer. Even though I was out of my element, I did manage to get up to and past the first boss fight of the game. The game looks great with a highly stylized presentation reminiscent of Borderlands and Prince Of Persia. The gunplay felt solid and very responsive, I was quite impressed with the number of weapons that you come across even very early in the game. Speaking of weapons you come across in the game, there are tons of environmentals that you can use to destroy your enemies, everything from car doors to metal rods. I’m telling you, there is nothing more satisfying than impaling a guy from distance, which is much easier now as the team has built-in a little bit of auto targeting to allow you to spend more time decapitating and less time aiming. When Jackie starts to combine his ability to dual-wield multiple types of guns with the devastating powers of The Darkness you enter into what is known as “quad-wielding”. Once you master this technique, the amount of options for dispatching your enemies almost starts to become overwhelming. You can of course eliminate your opposition with bullets or by throwing things at/through them but by far the most satisfying method is by using “Finishing Moves”. Finishing Moves allow you to decapitate enemies in all sort of unique and gory ways, my early favorite was “The Anaconda”.
Now of course Jackie has the backup of his crew, but he also has some more sinister help in the form of a Darkling who remains with Jackie throughout the game and performs several useful actions such as showing him important items during boss fights, as well as allowing Jackie to use him to reach places he otherwise wouldn’t be able to. The primary Darkling in this game is very versatile and surprisingly funny, just what a good sidekick should be right.
All of this action is wound up inside an excellent story that will take players into the mind of a tortured soul that is literally and figuratively trapped inside an epic battle between “light and darkness”. As my session came to a close I asked Tom what does he want players to understand about The Darkness II that might not be initially apparent and his answer was an intriguing one. He said that he wanted players to know that while the game does contain an extreme amount of violence, it’s not just violence for violence sake. He wanted players to know that ultimately this game is about Jackie, his struggle and emotional well-being and that as the current holder of The Darkness the violence is part of who he is. While I will admit that the game is EXTREMELY violent and graphic, with such a good story it never feels like violence for violence sake. In the end, Tom summed it up best “Violence is simply the end result of who and what Jackie is, you just couldn’t tell the story without it”.
The Darkness II will be available on February 7th in North America and February 10th in Europe.