The Darkness II is best described as a natural evolution for the comic-inspired series. With Unreal developer Digital Extremes taking over from Starbreeze a number of changes have been made, all of which build on the original experience; working in the fluid gameplay and visual flare one would expect from a modern first person shooter and then some.
It’s been two years since lead protagonist Jackie Estacado ruined “Uncle” Paulie, second Don of the Franchetti crime family, sabotaging his drug ring before rolling up to the half-pint’s island mansion to finish him off. Jackie is now the head of the Manhattan-based syndicate, running things the traditional way, though still scarred after the murder of love interest, Jenny Romano. To make matters worse Jackie is still battling to control The Darkness, a hellish entity which bestows nearly unstoppable powers unto its carrier; Jackie almost succumbed to its grasp, narrowly avoiding becoming its puppet.
Penned by Paul Jenkins who also wrote for the first game, The Darkness II has its own standalone story, though still feeds in characters and places from the comic book series. Riddled with set pieces and unique personalities the narrative has plenty of substance, and even for those who have been following The Darkness there is still an element of unpredictability, Jackie facing a harrowing dilemma which is bound to be central focus of the game.
Over the duration of the current platform generation, our conceptions of the FPS genre have changed significantly. Returning to the original Darkness after having played Modern Wafare, Bad Company, Crysis, Homefront etc. will feel like a step back in time for some. Though fully functional and just as rewarding, it lacked the same finesse, precision and feature set of your modern day first person shooter. That said, it did feature open environments, dialogue trees and an engaging side quest mechanic, mainly thanks to the unique design traits of Butcher Bay developer Starbreeze Studios.
The Darkness II is best described as a natural evolution for the comic-inspired series. With Unreal developer Digital Extremes taking over, a number of changes have been made, all of which build on the original experience, working in the fluid gameplay and visual flare one would expect from a 2012 blockbuster release.
Ironsights and sprinting, two staples of the modern FPS, now feature in The Darkness II after being notably absent from the original; adding a much-needed degree of accuracy and maneuverability to the gameplay. Unlike the first instalment, the sequel is also much more linear, doing away with the somewhat excessive walking between environments for a limited, narrow design which lends itself to the game’s new cinematic approach. That’s not to say environments are de-characterised altogether, if anything they are the defining aspect of each level. Digital Extremes even working in locations from the original game, including an updated take on the Canal Street Station.
For both studios that have worked on the franchise The Darkness itself has been a key objective, making the player feel empowered and like the “ultimate badass.” Where the first game slightly dropped the ball, Darkness powers feeling cumbersome and intrusive, the sequel picks it back up and runs a mile. It may have been an almost redundant inclusion the first time around but the Demon Arms are now an essential component of Jackie’s arsenal in The Darkness II. Tearing shots into enemies is just as efficient as it’s always been but with a finite supply of ammo and healthy rewards for exercising flair during gunfights, lashing out Estacado’s pair of demonic tentacles will become a second nature.
Primarily the Demon Arms can be employed as a powerful melee instrument, capable of stunning opponents or even lopping off limbs thanks to the sequel’s revised control scheme, but they can also double up as an improv ranged weapon. Certain items scattered around in-game environments can be picked up and hurled at enemies, blunt objects delivering moderate blunt damage with sharp projectiles impaling their targets. Other powers are available, which can be mapped to two available face buttons, but what makes them most impressive is that, like the Arms, they can be used in tandem with regular firearms. Think of it as patting your head and rubbing your tummy, with the occasional mound of severed limbs and battered bodies here and there.[drop2]Darklings also feature in The Darkness II, though this time around you can’t spawn or command them like you could in the first game. Fortunately, this actually works for the better. You are given just one Darkling who stands in as an AI partner and, though he isn’t able to deal out masses of damage, they can cause a great amount of confusion within the enemy ranks, taking the heat off of Jackie during tense firefights.
Sure, some will miss the original squad mechanic from The Darkness but having the AI do the work for, as opposed to using an awkward single-button command system, is much more efficient and allows for the Darklings to be better characterised. The Darkling we had during our hour-long session was based on your typical London lout with a grim twist, donning a union jack vest, spewing foul language and wearing a dead cat as a head-wrap. After dispatching of enemies he’d even stand over them and urinate on their corpses.
What we said about the original Darkness and stepping back in time isn’t all true, even after four years it still has its moments when it comes to visual appeal. Shady environments, lighting effects and facial detail, though coupled with wonky animation and the odd blurry texture, still put The Darkness way ahead of games that are still being released today. Though just as pretty as the current wave of first person shooters, its the newly-integrated cel-shaded, comic-book aesthetic that give The Darkness II a slight edge, even giving Borderlands 2 a run for its money.
From what we’ve seen The Darkness II is a prime example of what a sequel should be and you don’t even have to be versed with the comic book mythos to get reeled in. Most, if not all, niggling issues we had with the original have been ironed out, the team at Digital Extremes including a succinct level of depth to what could have another everyday FPS. We haven’t heard anything regarding multiplayer as of yet, and given the dev’s fantastic work on Bioshock 2 we’ll be keeping our ears to ground as February 2012 draws ever closer.