The Darkness II is based on the comic book series of the same name,selling around 30 million copies since it first appeared in 1996. In the first game, Mafia kingpin Jackie Estacado tried in vain to save his beloved Jenny, but the sequel - handled by Dark Sector studio Digital Extremes rather than original developer Starbreeze Studios - deals with the fight to keep control of his Darkness powers, from himself and others. Digital Spy ventured into the shadows to check out The Darkness II.
The Darkness II starts two years after the first game, with Jackie now don of the Franchetti family, controlling a sprawling crime family. At first, it seems as though all his desires for power, women and money are satisfied, but deep within him the unquenchable thirst of the Darkness lingers, waiting to be reborn. Jackie is not only fighting his own demons in The Darkness II, including the loss of his beloved Jenny, but also a horde of Mafia goons (dressed, rather oddly, like children's TV presenters) and a sinister figure who wants to take control of the Darkness for himself.
Are you afraid of the dark? Maybe you should be...
One thing that strikes you right away about the game is its art style. Digital Extremes has really gone for a true comic book feel, and it has worked. Some of the environments and explosions are a little underwhelming, but it's the overall feel of the presentation that really brings the game to life. The team has used cel shading with the graphics, making the black outlines thicker and more pronounced, while adding a brushed and hyper-real texture to the colours that feels distinct and impressive. The process, which apparently involved painstaking work handpainting the game assets, was certainly worth the effort.
One of the standout points from The Darkness was the narrative tools employed by British writer Paul Jenkins, and it's pleasing to see that he has returned for the sequel. It's clear that this game will not hold back in any way with its content - spikes are driven into hands, heads explode like bloody pumpkins and bodies are cleaved in half. Its strong stuff, but hey, that's why people are afraid of the dark, right?
We played a ten-minute demo of the game that is presumably very near the start. The demo began with Jackie crucified on a board with spikes in his hands, as a sinister, rather Adolf Hitler-esque figure named Viktor attempted to encourage him to part with the Darkness. Unmoved by the creepiness, Jackie was then transported via flashback to an Italian restaurant scene, as we assumed control of him. In a Goodfellas-style sequence, we were led by a Mafia ally through the bustling eatery to a chorus of 'Hey! Ho! This guy!' from the other sycophantic mobsters.
Wiseguys, gunplay and demonic temptations
Jackie took his seat in front of two young women, with whom he clearly had a previous, ahem, relationship, and was just settling down to dinner when one of the girls' heads was split apart by a bullet, and then a van came hurtling through the window. The player was then handed a pistol and thrown straight into the action against an onslaught of rival Mafia goons. There are few surprises in the gunplay - the right trigger fires and left trigger locks down iron sights. The guns are very quick-firing, which is a bit unrealistic but also feels relatively satisfying. The hit detection seems pretty sound and the enemy AI - a bugbear from the first game - appears to have been improved.
With his right leg totally mangled, Jackie had to be dragged around the burning restaurant, taking out bad guys as his associate looked for safety. The scripted action sequence led to the restaurant doors as Jackie was handed another pistol to wield against the oncoming horde, spitting bullets at them as they stormed the entrance. After being dragged into the kitchens, Jackie soon realised the stupidity of the move as there was no way out and a bullet had set off a gas leak in the cooker. It only took a Molotov cocktail and a "burn in hell" to trigger the inevitable.
The scene then cut back to the interrogation, as Viktor - who is head of an ancient order called The Brotherhood tasked with protecting the Darkness - urged Jackie to give up the power, saying rather cutely: "If you read anything but comic books and menus you'd know there are rules." But it was not long until he was back in the restaurant, having miraculously survived the explosion. A goon came in and started taunting him, playing out the joy of the prostrate rival boss and getting ready to end his misery, unaware that the Darkness was about to be unleashed.
The Darkness consumes you, and it is good
The gameplay once more features the relatively standard first-person shooter mechanics mixed with Jackie's supernatural powers. The Darkness shoots two demonic arms from his body, which can be used in combat and to interact with the environment. One arm is controlled with the right bumper, enabling you to slash away at the enemies. The left bumper activates the grabbing arm, snagging enemies, but also objects to be hurled as weapons. The grabbing arm has other uses, such as wrenching a car door from its hinges and using it as a temporary shield.
Exiting the restaurant, Jackie worked his way through the army of goons. The mix of guns and Darkness powers is solid, and there are good options for combo attacks. The player can also perform executions, targeting different areas of an enemy's body (highlighted like a glowing X-ray) and then triggering the finishing moves, such as punching a tentacle through their chests.
The tentacles also are used in the environmental puzzles, such as ripping open a door security box and disabling it. It should be noted, though, that the Darkness powers only work, well, in the dark, and so it's always necessary to shoot out any lights. The player can eat hearts of dead enemies to level up Jackie's powers and earn bonuses, such as unlimited bullets in your weapons for a short period of time.
A key change about the sequel is that the Darkling powers from the first game have been simplified, changing from the previous four Darklings down to just one. This little being will have a much bigger role, accompanying you on the journey and helping out where possible. The Darkling will be able to interact with the environment and use weapons to help dispatch the enemies.
After moving into a subway, Jackie jumped between the tracks and eliminated the enemies, before a train crashed through the station, wrenching the platforms asunder. Jackie then moved through the wrecked carriages, fighting more goons, before the scene switched back to the interrogation, as Viktor continued his mission. But this time, we were able to hammer the X button to drag Jackie's hand over the spike impaling it, and then use the blade to slam into a soldier's neck, before shooting the other one. This sent Viktor scarpering for the exit and the demo to an end.
The Darkness II appears an interesting prospect. The game builds on the things that were good about the first outing, including the storytelling and atmosphere, but also crucially turns up the dial on its comic book inspirations. The game was initially scheduled for release this October, but 2K has wisely opted out of the competitive autumn market in favour of February next year. From what we have seen so far, it seems that this journey into the shadows could be worth the wait.
The Darkness II is due out on PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 on February 7 in North America and February 10 in Europe.