Hands-On: The Darkness II

Following both fan demand and company intuition, 2K Games and Digital Extremes are serving gamers a special order of Darkness II — complete with a side of salsiccia. The Top Cow comic-based video game is back for its much desired sequel, and it looks better than any other game we’ve seen on the PAX East show floor.

We got our first hands-on with the Italian mob centric shooter after a quick presentation from the developers. It goes a long way when compared to the first game, even running in pre-alpha. It boasts a new art style that ties the game closer to its comic book roots; the developers want you to feel like you’re playing a graphic novel when you go through The Darkness II. The game tells the personal story of Jackie Estacado, now Don of the Franchetti crime family, whose out for revenge after an attack that destroys his restaurant, and nearly kills him in the process. It takes place two years after the events of the first game.

Welcome to Little Italy!

Starting up, we see a black screen and hear Jackie narrating. Slowly fading in, a creepy-looking guy with some missing teeth is taunting a captured Jackie in a small, beat-up room. This is no cutscene. There are no cutscenes at all in The Darkness II — everything is integrated into the gameplay. Looking to your left and right, you’ll see Jackie’s hands nailed to a crucifix. The creepy guy taunting Jackie, who we’ll call Creeps, for now, is going on about how he wants control of the darkness, about how he can properly control it and Jackie can’t. The only way for him to gain control of the darkness, however, is for Jackie to give it up voluntarily. Behind Creeps, he has something of dark essence in a siphon artifact-like object. We’re not sure exactly what it was and the developers wouldn’t tell us when asked, for story purposes. We’re guessing its the Darkness — maybe Creeps can take it for Jackie without him volunteering, but can’t utilize its power until its fully given up.

At this point, we’re naturally confused. How’d Jackie end up in this predicament? Luckily, the game flashes back to where it all began so we can find out. We enter an Italian restaurant, seemingly owned by Jackie, surrounded in such proper atmosphere. A chap named Vinny, whose guiding you through the restaurant in this on rails (movement-wise) segment of the game, is greeting what appears to be the regulars of the regulars of the restaurant. “Hey, Frankie!” and “This ravioli is spicy” are just a couple of the Italian-esque phrases heard.

Jackie’s brought up to two lovely ladies sitting at one of the restaurant’s many tables in front of a window. “Remember us?” one girl asks him. “Of course he remembers us,” says her friend. Jackie, whose reply is delayed, responds with the ever-so-classy: “I didn’t recognize you without your clothes on.” Smooth.

Right about here is where this nice Italian restaurant turns into a hell house. The girl on the right, giggling, is suddenly shot though the window and in the back of the head, falling dead onto the table. Everyone begins to scream and before you know it, a truck comes driving through the aforementioned window. Restaurant destroyed, big toe broken off, and foot covered in blood, Jackie and Vinny have to fight their way out of the place. Vinny hands you a gun, kicking off the start of Darkness II‘s personal story.

This is where the actual gameplay begins. You’re still on rails, at this point, but you’ve got a gun to kill goons with and things are a lot more frantic. Gun-play is great. You no longer have a small red dot as your reticle; aiming feels smooth and each shot couldn’t have felt better. As Vinny literally drags you along, Jackie traverses the collapsing restaurant, as you play you can sense the anger in Jackie’s tone. He’ll scream: “I’m gonna slaughter these fucks”, “fuck you”, and “I don’t give a fuck about who you are, you’re dead!” At one point, Vinny hands you his gun. Now, dual-wielding, Jackie brings the guns in nearly touching each other. This was done automatically in this portion of the game, but we’re assuming you can separate and bring them together at any point later on — we didn’t actually try during our session. For a better image, pretend these slashes are guns you’d normally see on your first-person screen: \ / or ||. As Jackie is shot, we can see the game’s dynamic health system in effect. A minimal heads-up-display (HUD) is shown on the lower right of the screen; it’s merely your ammo count with a small clip vector in the background.

The demon arms performing an execution

As we make our way through the restaurant, past the bar, and into the kitchen, Vinny attempts to open the back door, where we would try to escape. Failing to open the door, a cocktail molotov comes flying through the order window from the front of the restaurant and into the kitchen. “Burn in hell, Estacado,” screams a voice. The screen then fades to white and we’re thrown back into the earlier scene with Creeps.

Nothing too significant happens at this point. Creeps basically asks Jackie to willingly give up the darkness. Jackie, being the cocky bastard he is, asks him: “Why don’t you fucking take it if you’re suck a fucking genius?” At that point, Jackie, still nailed to the cross, gets slapped around a bit. Shortly after, we went back into gameplay, this time with fully free control.

Jackie wakes up in the debris remaining from the restaurant. This time, he’s different, he’s more powerful — the darkness has awakened and is by his side. The two snakes, who boast a much-welcomed redesign (minimal, but effective), take out a goon in the alleyway Jackie crawls out into. Immediately after, they reform his big toe and lift him off the ground. This is where we got our first test run with the game’s ‘up close and personal’ combat system, which utilizes the two demon arms (or snakes, as they may appear). Basically, you can slash enemies horizontally, vertically, or in any direction, whip enemies, or use the arms to perform executions.

The arms really have great use this time around. Other than being fantastic for close-range combat, the arms can also pick up dead bodies (in any location you choose — head, left leg, left thigh, right leg, upper arm, etc.) and other objects, throw them, pull things, and hold things — all while simultaneously wielding your guns. There was one point where we ripped off the door of a yellow cab (on our own) using the demon arms, then used it as defensive cover as we shot at our enemies. The game pulls off the whole ‘quad-wielding’ thing very well.

Darkness has its weak spots, though. Particularly light. Light is your enemy in The Darkness II. Its presence will cause the demon arms to retreat and Jackie’s health to stop regenerating. With that said, I expect we’ll see major emphasis on enemies utilizing light, or attacking Jackie during the day.

Our key darkling, assisting Jackie

Moving forward, we’re reintroduced to darklings: little demon creatures who assist Jackie during the game. They were present in the first Darkness and come back for the sequel, but this time, rather than release a slew of them, the team is focusing on one single darkling. While they’ve yet to share his name (w asked, they won’t budge), he’ll be a key character to the story and narrative; he’ll help out Jackie by bringing him weapons, ammo, and even by taking out a few enemies. There’s one point where we see him on the head of a goon, riding him like a cowboy. He’s not shy, either; during another segment, you’ll see urinating right in front of you!

The next piece of this (rather long, but oh so glorious) hands-on gameplay session sees Jackie entering the subways of New York. Taking a look at the subway map poster, developer Digital Extremes did a swell job in replicating the New York City metro stops. We’re based here, so we would know. We’re pretty picky about that kind of stuff, too! After seeing the maps, another shootout occurs, which gives us a chance to test out a shotgun we recently got a hold of. We liked the shotgun, specifically, as it does away with the timely reloads of shotguns in your everyday shooter. Jackie loads another shell into the chamber immediately after pulling the trigger, making for a super smooth and fast shotgun experience.

Finishing off the subway goons, we headed into the subway tracks (no, we didn’t get shocked by the third rail). A train begins coming our way and Jackie automatically gets himself safe into a crack in the wall so it doesn’t hit him. For some reason, the train doesn’t stop and drives full-speed past the train stop we just came from. The train crashes and we follow it into the depths of the subway. After taking care of a few more goons, we’re brought back to current day with Creeps.

Jackie manages to escape, pulling his hands through the nails that were holding him down (it looked painful). On the floor and looking up, Creeps grabs the artifact containing the dark essence and books it. There, the demo ends. Once again, as Jackie seemed like he was powerless to do anything at all during that point, I’m pretty sure the artifact was holding the darkness that he once controlled.

The Darkness II is my game of PAX East, no doubt. Every bit we played of it felt amazing — I wanted to steal the console running the game. A sequel to a hidden gem that seems to do nothing but improve, The Darkness II should definitely be on your radar. It’s out for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC this fall.

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