The Darkness 2 Hands-On Preview [PAX 2011]

I haven’t played the first Darkness game so I can’t say whether it was good or bad, but either way it wasn’t a bank-breaking success and thus, I was somewhat perplexed by the fact that 2K opted to do a sequel. My confusion turned to dismay when I heard that the game was being taken away from its original developer, Starbreeze Studios, and given to Digital Extremes – a studio whose biggest lead developer credit is the aptly named Xbox shooter Pariah.

Second chances are not common in the video game industry. Studios get shut down even when they put out good games and IPs that don’t exceed expectations are rarely heard from again. That being said, all I can say is thank god someone decided that The Darkness deserved a second chance. No matter how the original game was, I am confident that the Darkness 2 will blow it, and the majority of the FPS genre, out of the water.

Games like Killzone and Homefront say they that they put a premium on storytelling, but ultimately I think they fall short. Then we come to The Darkness 2 and it seems as though the game will actually deliver in this regard. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the series, (which is everyone who hasn’t played the first game or reads comics) The Darkness series is the ongoing saga of Jackie Estacado, an Italian Mob goon who becomes possessed by a demon, the titular Darkness, after his boss kills his girlfriend and almost kills him. In the sequel, Jackie has become the don of the Estacado crime family and when he begins to be pursued by forces that know about his powers and want to take them for their own, it’s up to Jackie to stop them.

The story may sound lackluster, (it’s Goodfellas with magic, so what?) but this plot is more than superficial and the game does a great job of immersing the player in the story.  Connecting the story to its comic-book roots, Digital Extremes uses a high-contrast semi-cel-shaded look that makes the game look like a comic without feeling cartoony.  There are no videos in the game, all cutscenes and storytelling are done in-game, and the view never leaves the first-person, which would implicitly break the fourth wall by changing perspective. You are Jackie Estacado, with all of his power and his problems.

Making the player feel like they’re Jackie Estacado takes more than just good storytelling though. The gameplay for Darkness 2 integrates your supernatural abilities and gun-play to create a unique system that routinely presents lots of options for varied, creative mayhem. Darkness 2’s number one gameplay mechanic is the “Quad-Wielding” system. Yes, I said Quad-Wielding!

At any time, Jackie can hold two guns, as well as his two demon arms. The demon arms have specific functions, but both are versatile tools of destruction that add a lot of depth to the combat, and will hopefully stay fresh and fun for the whole game.

The left arm can grab objects or enemies. Grab a pole, chuck it at someone and you can impale them. Or you can rip off a car door, use that as a shield while you dual wield two guns, and then eventually chuck the door at another baddie, cutting him in half. Furthermore, if you pick up an enemy with your demon arm, you can “execute” them, either ripping them in half or punching a hole in their chest.  Executions, a mechanic returning from the original Darkness, are context sensitive based on what part of the enemy you grab, allowing for many types of gruesome deaths.

The right arm is for slashing, and feels like using a whip.  Players can control the direction they slash in with the right stick, allowing for strategic use of the arm based on the situation.

The demon arms are mapped to R1&L1/the bumper buttons and the guns are mapped to the triggers, allowing easy access to all of your options on the fly without any switching or menus. The result is similar to the balance of weapons and Plasmids in Bioshock 2.  Players are constantly switching off between shooting, grabbing and slashing. As a result, players never feel like they’re stuck doing the same thing over and over, every situation is unique because how you tackle it changes based on your instincts.

The Darkness 2 doesn’t need to compete with the rest of the FPS genre because it’s doing something that other games can’t seem to, mixing story and gameplay in a first-person setting. And doing it in a way that works incredibly well.

The Darkness 2 will be in stores in 2011. Until then, do yourself a favor and check out The Darkness if you haven’t already.