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Australian Exclusive: The Darkness II Hands-On Preview
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 09:15am 13/05/11 | Comments
AusGamers was invited out to an exclusive preview session of The Darkness II at Digital Extremes' London, Ontario-based studio. Read on for our full thoughts...

“The holy fucking grail of secret societies,” exclaims Digital Extreme’s Ryan Mole of the new enemies you’ll be facing in their forthcoming sequel, The Darkness II. And he’d know. The guy is the game’s Lead Narrative Designer, which means he works hand-in-hand with The Darkness co-creator, comic-book legend and Scriptwriter for the game, Paul Jenkins.

It’s a good move, really, because there were complaints from gamers that the first Darkness lacked any real dynamic enemies or varying enemy types, though you could argue this was done deliberately so the Otherworld levels had more impact on the player (I know they did on me), but here it actively and successfully expands the universe for gamers who haven’t read the graphic novels or comics. It also expands the game’s action above and beyond the first, which may come as sad news to some, but really, the team’s focus here is on using the Darkness to become a “whirlwind of death” which, when you think about it, makes sense.

Over the course of our day out at Digital Extremes’ studio in London, Ontario (Canada), the guys working on the game made a massive effort to express their love of the first Starbreeze-developed effort but also suggested their bigger inspiration came from the game’s source material, The Darkness comics.

“We were looking at [The Darkness] and asking ourselves what was it we loved about [it] as fans,” Project Director Sheldon Carter tells AusGamers. “And for me, I was a fan of The Darkness before I even played the game. So what is it that draws me to this, you know, what draws me into this universe? And so we looked at the graphic novels and comics and you see the work that Marc Silvestri did building up this comic-book, and I guess it felt like “I want to play that!”; you know, I want to go through a world where there are big pops of colour - from blood usually, or Darkness - and then just that hand-painted feel too; I guess the early 90s Top Cow style kind of had the hard line [and the] hatching edge, and we wanted to emulate that for the game.”

And this is true enough. The art style they’ve injected might displease some who’re die-hards of the first game’s gritty (yet slick), dark look, but sitting down with Art Director, Mat Tremblay, you can see just how much the guys have pulled from the comics. Almost every texture in the game has been painstakingly hand-painted (about 80 - 85 percent, apparently), and features traditional comic-book styled cross-hatching for authenticity. Tremblay explains that this works with the team’s unique lighting system which combines “Smooth Shading and a Compressed Tonal Range” to dynamically light characters and the environment; mixing a sense of real-world realism with comic-book visuals. The end result really is very impressive.

“So typically in first-person shooters the world tends to be post-apocalyptic and monochromatic and so colour and saturation is not really used,” Tremblay explains. “ And that’s a rule of thumb, I guess. So we wanted to try and do something new and fresh.”

He’s also doesn’t really like the term “cel-shading” being applied to their art-style. Instead the team at Digital Extremes came up with a PR person’s dream of a buzz-word: “Graphic Noire” which, while certainly buzz-word worthy, really does do the game justice in the end.

With that in mind, and remembering that the game’s protagonist, Jackie Estacado, is a mob-boss, you can definitely assume the game follows in noire-inspired footsteps. It still comes with monologue moments from Jackie (at least the beginning of our hands-on demo did), and despite the revelation of the inclusion of the Brotherhood (who I’ll get to shortly), you will be fighting other mobsters ala the first game and the comics; allowing for a nice variation in enemy-types, keeping things grounded and nicely based in The Darkness universe.

“You know, just to go there, the thing we loved about the first game was the narrative,” enthuses Carter about the original Starbreeze title. “We thought we had a game where there was an emotional connection. I mean you got hit by that story, right; sitting on the couch with Jenny watching To Kill a Mockingbird, and then being held back to watch while The Darkness killed her; and, I mean, these are emotional moments that as a gamer hit you, and those are Top 10 for me in gaming moments.”

There’s no revealing of what they’ll be giving us to recreate those emotionally impactful moments during our preview session, and when I asked they all shied from the question, which tells me there’s going to be something in there, at least. Moreover, in at least three sequences during our play-through of the relatively short demo, Jackie sees apparitions of Jenny off in the distance, but this was all just a tease. For the team though, topping the moments Sheldon mentioned above, they certainly have their work cut-out for them.

It’s reassuring that they have Paul Jenkins on-board for The Darkness II, and his scriptwriting style is prevalent right from the outset. The demo begins with Jackie awakening to a giant rail-spike being hammered through his hand to a cross, crucifix style, and the clanging sound of metal striking metal through flesh is a cold reminder of how brutal the world of The Darkness can be. Everything for the players is presented in the first-person; much like the first game, never breaking that immersion of being Jackie - of being The Darkness. And that reminder also comes from Victor, your captor in this sequence, who apparently knows more about the power than you do, even as its host.

He’s trying to syphon the power from you in an ancient ritual, but through this painful process Jackie blacks out to flashbacks of just what got him here, and these are where we get to be in control again. We’re told at the beginning of our hands-on that this is a “for preview purposes only demo” and that the final game won’t deliver this narrative construct in the same way; massive chunks have been pulled from it and it’s all disjointed to allow for a basic understanding of events, but mostly to introduce you to the new, more “up close and personal” gameplay on offer.

We have our Darkness arms; both left and right, and both of these are controlled - on Xbox 360, the demo platform we’re using - with the right and left bumpers respectively. This clearly leaves the right and left triggers for weapons, and there’s dual-wielding weapons added for good measure, which leaves the whole thing, really, as something of a “quad-wielding” experience. It’s a component the team are touting heavily, and to be honest, at first it’s a bit convoluted to come to grips with. This is because action is thicker and faster in The Darkness II; enemies are much smarter than in the first game, and aren’t as afraid of you as The Darkness (especially the Brotherhood),but you have a few new moves to perform to counter this.

The left Darkness arm is used to grab enemies, potential shields or projectile weapons, while the right arm is used for directional slashing. You can also still feed The Darkness by eating the hearts of fallen enemies which will replenish any depleted health. You can pick up various parts of the environment, but it’s not so free-form. Interactive areas will highlight, such as car doors for shields or construction poles for projectiles. The left arm can also pick up an enemy from different body-parts, which allows you to perform different types of executions that range from biting a head off to splinting him in two, vertically (there’s a horizontal offering, too).

I’ll be honest, in its current state, and with a select few moves, this game is going to have a hard time getting through our ratings system. However, it is due to release in October, so there’s yet hope if an R18+ rating is introduced post-June, and we’ve put a specific and direct question into the powers that be at 2K for specifics on the potential for watered down content for Australia (which, of course, we don’t want), so stay tuned for an answer on that.

After a solid five or 10-minutes with the game’s “quad-wielding”, it quickly becomes natural to engage in combat in tactfully different ways, and it also very quickly becomes utterly satisfying. Another new component to the game is the introduction of a single Darkling as an AI-controlled side-kick. He’ll disappear and reappear at his leisure, but basically highlights the way for you to go, or brings you weapons and ammo, if he’s not eating the face off of enemies to help in the thick of it. When you’re standing idle, he’ll interact with the environment in humorous ways, and example of this came at the entrance to a Carnival ground where he got sick of waiting for Jackie to move and so jumped into a dodge ‘em car and pretended to drive it recklessly.

Our hands-on portion only saw me playing against the mobsters trying to topple Jackie’s empire (it’s two years since the first game and Jackie is now Don of the Franchetti family). The unveiling of the Brotherhood was handled by the game’s Lead Designer, Tom Galt, who demonstrated the different enemy-types we’ll be facing off against when tackling the Brotherhood.

Basically, these guys are a cult who’ve been around for thousands of years, and they worship The Darkness. This means a few things - for one, they’re not afraid of The Darkness, in fact, they see it as an honour to both face a Darkness host and to be killed by it. Secondly, they’re more prepared for facing The Darkness; grunts have their faces shielded by a mask that is specifically designed to thwart Darkness powers. You can shoot this off, but it means you need to be good at the shooting portion of the game, and not just spam your Darkness powers. The next level of front-line Brotherhood are melee characters who have their entire right-arm and upper body shielded from Darkness power. We’re told these guys have been promoted from the initial grunts, and so take their role seriously; getting all up in your grill, slashing their shielded arm against you. They’re fast and furious and need to be taken down with a combination of projectiles, your weapons and then the meat of either Darkness arm. There are also support Brotherhood who carry with them powerful shoulder-mounted spot-lights, because light is obviously the natural enemy of The Darkness. You’ll need to disable them with either your straight up human powers (ie shooting out the light), or by being quick enough to throw something large and devastating at them.

As powerful as you are, on paper fighting these three enemy-types alone sounds more than doable, but Galt runs us through a typical arena-based encounter in a reasonably open area with all three attacking you. So take all of what I mentioned their individual strengths and abilities to be, and you can see you’ll have both of your hands and your demon-arms’ mouths full. He demonstrates the tenacity and intelligence of them, especially the support light-wielding character, who tries to survive by moving quickly and hiding behind cover for short periods to make it harder for you to hit him, all the while the grunt is taking pot-shots at you from behind cover and the melee guy is in aggressive arm-slashing pursuit. It’s hectic as all hell, and even the little Darkling minion - who certainly helps - doesn’t things overly easy.

It’s a balance factor, and throughout the day the team fielded questions about the first game and basically that being so powerful by the end it felt a bit cheap, and if they’d broached that concern here for the sequel. Thankfully they consciously recognised this factor, but remained tight-lipped about specifics on their end barring tidbits hinting at different powers manifesting over the likes of the Crawling Dark (which was my favourite weapon in the first game) or the Black Hole.

Apparently we’ll know more at E3 and beyond, but so far I’m impressed. The truth is, however, Digital Extremes still have a lot to prove here because the first game was ground-breaking on so many levels. But this team respect the pedigree and even more so, the source material, which they actively revealed during our studio visit - the fact they brought Paul Jenkins in to script and Mike Patton in as the voice of The Darkness again is proof enough of this. Equally, It helps that this isn’t a reboot, but rather a proper sequel to a much revered title, but with a unique Digital Extremes stamp. I’m sold on the art-style, the combat and the narrative - how effectively they tie all of this together though, will remain to be seen, so stay tuned for more on The Darkness II from AusGamers, especially a forthcoming video interview with Project Director, Sheldon Carter, next week.

Latest Comments
Posted 10:28am 13/5/11
Mike Patton as the voice of The Darkness again, awesome.

This is actually looking heaps better than I was expecting it to be, I'm interested now. But wow is it colourful compared to the first one.
Steve Farrelly
Posted 10:45am 13/5/11
It kind of works Khel, I think once you spend a bit of time with it it'll work. It's an impressive set of tools they've built to make it run like this though
Posted 11:26pm 14/5/11
if only the first came out on pc. I got halfway through, it had real potential, but the framerate had me pretty frustrated.
Posted 09:34pm 15/5/11
Oop! I see blood!
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