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Jackie Estacado returns to The Darkness after four years absence and under new developers...
It's over four years since Starbreeze Studios' originally set its hand to a game adaptation of Top Cow's long-running comic book series, The Darkness. That's almost a full generation in videogame terms, or a whole World Cup ago to everyone else. Whatever the case, it's far enough in the past that you'd be forgiven for forgetting about it if you hadn't given the original title more than a cursory glance. Now returning in the guise of a direct sequel (something that the comics never did, despite innumerable spin-offs and crossovers), The Darkness II promises to add much more to its overall conceit than the standard trimmings of a videogame sequel on a two-year development cycle. For one, development has changed hands entirely from Starbreeze Studios (now working on the Syndicate reboot for EA) to Digital Extremes, a developer that's been more well known for its collaborative and contract work on games in the past than its full, standalone releases. Digital Extremes' work on the multiplayer of BioShock 2 is undoubtedly where the 2K Games link comes from (2K publishes The Darkness), but the studio's labours on an impressive PC port of Homefront in recent times is also worthy of note. Opportunity knocks for the Canadian company to develop its own title from scratch then; an opportunity it hasn't been presented since a mediocre attempt with Dark Sector in early 2008.
It's got a mixed bag to follow as well – Starbreeze's original attempt at The Darkness hit as much as it missed. The game was memorable for features like containing the full playback of classic movies at certain points in-game and displaying some stand-out visuals on the then fledgling Xbox 360, but not so memorable for its more essential components like gameplay. Perhaps it's reassuring, then, that Digital Extremes appears to be starting from scratch here and interpreting its own depiction of The Darkness universe aside from what Starbreeze laid out before it. The most noticeable difference is a visual overhaul, and that's not an overhaul in the sense that more polygons and support for the latest shaders have been added; it's an overhaul in the sense that it looks totally different. Gone is the emphasis on paragons of FPS realism such as pixel-perfectly rusted metals, beaming light effects, and surgery-grade blood spatter – now the style has taken on something of a cel-shaded palette. 2K Games has coined the term 'Graphic Noir' to describe this, effectively blending together styles from comic books, film noir, and photo-realism to develop the look. A less blurb-heavy definition would tell you that it's a blend of conventional FPS visuals and the cel-shading effect – textures have apparently been hand-painted by the artists at Digital Extremes, leaving the bold outlines and creamier colours you can see in some of the screens.
Despite this redirection under Digital Extremes, The Darkness II will be taking up the plot where its predecessor left-off. Well, more or less: those of you who played the original will remember what happened to protagonist, Jackie Estacado's girlfriend, and this forms a key part of the story in the sequel. Time has moved on as well though, as Jackie has risen through the ranks of the mafia underworld in the gap between the two games. He's now the head of the Franchetti family and has suppressed his Darkness powers in order to get there (cue a neat plot twist that has them returning to the fore so that you can re-learn the controls through a tutorial). That plot twist is an attack on a restaurant where Jackie is relaxing with other mobsters, and it's conveniently where we picked-up the game during our hands-on. Jackie is flung to the ground in the explosive attack, forcing him to shoot at his incoming enemies while flat-out on his back. What's immediately noticeable here is the quality of Digital Extreme's down-the-gun animation – clearly the studio has been lavishing a lot of attention on this area, with stylish reloads and some oh-so-cool visual tricks with the dual-wielding.
As Jackie escapes the burning restaurant and stumbles out into the back-streets though, his Darkness powers start returning and it's here that Digital Extremes goes beyond the dual-wielding paradigm. Prepare yourselves, because 2K Games marketing spiel is just about to blow your two-dimensional mind with – wait for it – 'Quad-Wielding'. I know, I know – you're panicked and have nothing in your mind but questions... here's the deal: 'quad-wielding' is two guns on the trigger buttons, and dual-controls for the two eel-like tendrils over Jackie's shoulder on the bumper buttons. While the first game did have dual-wielding, you weren't able to control the tendrils in quite the same way as you are now. The left bumper controls a tendril in the top left-hand corner of the screen, and vice-versa for the right bumper. You can also command these tendrils to pick up objects from the game world by passing your reticule over them, which they'll then proceed to throw at incoming attackers. Melee attacks are more plentiful too, allowing you to dispatch a variety of finishing moves including the memorable heart eating of the first game. First-person shooters do tend to suffer from hammy controls when melee is extended beyond a rifle butt, although Digital Extremes does appear to be constructing a balanced feel to the combat even if it doesn't always feel silky-smooth. It's got a lot more going for it than Dead Island's melee combat though, that's for sure.
Where the original game allowed you to dispatch Darkling imps on your adversaries as AI-controlled assailants, their use has been changed around a bit for this second game. There's now a single Darkling – a cheeky little scamp with a cockney accent and Union Jack vest – that guides you through the game world and adds a kind of narrative commentary along the way. At points where Jackie is stuck behind a locked door or other insurmountable object, you can switch perspectives to the Darkling and crawl through air vents or gaps between floorboards to reach the next objective and open up the path for Jackie. Given that the fashion in FPS games is to avoid puzzle solving elements altogether, it's good to see The Darkness II being brave enough to go with something a little more varied. Hopefully Digital Extremes can flesh out these features into something that genuinely taxes the mind when the full game is released in February.
We've purposefully left this preview spoiler-free, but couldn't end without noting a touch of plot choice during our hands-on. It's all to do with a strange hunchbacked fella called Victor Valente, who seems to be pretty keen on pinching Jackie's Darkness powers. We won't go into his methods of doing this although it did end up in a tortuous decision that Jackie has to make about two of his mob buddies. Whether this actually has any significant effects on the game or if it just ends up as a vacuous and illusory feature remains to be seen. The first game did promise elements of this with occasional RPG trappings such as dialogue choices, non-linear design and side missions, but ultimately never delivered any substantive knock-on effects to the game's story. Hopefully Digital Extremes can succeed here where Starbreeze Studios wasn't quite as successful. Whatever the case though, The Darkness II is shaping up promisingly at the very least – it's very much a redirected sequel with its own identity, but not without noting the occasional high points of its predecessor.