When I heard that Digital Extremes had assumed the role of development for The Darkness II, I wondered how they would try to stand apart from Starbreeze Studios, a company which managed to take a relatively popular comic series and make it into a pretty good, if not flawed, game. It wasn’t for everybody, but it had a certain charm that was hard to ignore. So, when I spoke with 2K’s Seth Olshfski at PAX this year, I asked if a desire to stand out from their predecessor was the motivation for the sequel’s unmistakably more action-oriented and graphic noir style. His response? “It was a little bit more fuck it, we’re gonna go all out.’” I can respect that.
The Darkness II(Xbox 360 [Previewed], PlayStation 3, PC) Developer: Digital Extremes Publisher: 2K Games Release: February 7, 2012 (US) / February 10, 2012 (EU)
The first and most obvious change they’ve made to The Darkness II is a return to the comic book’s characteristic noir style. I personally feel the cel-shading suits the game quite well, adding pops of color to a previously monochromatic scheme and enhancing the game’s paranormal overtones. Digital Extremes brought Paul Jenkins, the original creator of the comic book series, back to pen the story for the sequel, which resumes two years after the events of the first game. This is now the second demo I’ve seen of The Darkness II, and it picked up where the last one left off, about a quarter of the way into the game, after Jackie has escaped the gang of mobsters who attempted to murder him at the restaurant. He arrives at a brothel located inside of a mannequin factory to meet with Venus, a “lady of the night” who happens to have intel on the men trying to capture him. After Jackie learns about Victor, the leader of The Brotherhood who is so desperate to steal and harness his Darkness powers, he becomes enraged and the brothel scene quickly devolves into an all-out brawl, with Jackie being utterly consumed by The Darkness on one side and bystanders being hacked and slashed and blown into pieces, one by one, on the other.
It should be mentioned that we were advised at the beginning of our demo to play the game on Very Easy difficulty. Jose “Fubar” Sanchez of Electric Playground, who happened to be there playing the demo along with me, scoffed at the idea and insisted that he, at the very least, play it on Easy. Oh, but that we could turn back the hand of time! Surprisingly, he only died once, which should lay any doubt about the man’s videogame skills to a monumental rest, because even on Easy the game doesn’t hold any punches. We found ourselves faced with as many as a dozen enemies in one room alone, half of whom shoot at you in between taking cover and the other half of whom charge you. To make matters worse, all enemies respawn when you die. That said, I feel the game’s difficulty is balanced by your special moves and quad-wielding abilities. The quad-wielding, which just refers to your dual-wielding guns and two demon arms, seems intimidating at first but in reality is more intuitive than you’d expect. One demon arm grabs things (LB on the Xbox 360 controller) and the other one slashes things (RB). Your left trigger fires the gun in your left hand, and so on. As long as you remember those basic controls, you can perform any number of combinations with them.
One notable addition to the sequel is that of a skill tree, which Olshfski explains was created to encourage a wider variety of player expression. Each of the Talent Shrine’s four branches -- Hitman, Execution, Darkness Powers, and Demon Arm -- contain both active and passive skills which are “purchased” using the Essence you obtain by eating the hearts of your enemies. In this regard, there are some noticeable RPG elements to the game this time around. The Hitman tree contains a heavy dose of passive upgrades which improve the basic properties of all standard guns such as reload time and magazine size. The Execution tree grants both practical skills, like Health Executions, which give health back to the player after performing an execution, and special finishing moves which force a gruesome (and often hilarious) death upon your enemy. The Wishbone execution, for example, splits your enemy in half from the crotch up. In the Darkness Powers tree, it was recommended that we choose the Gun Channeling perk, which deals significantly more damage and provides you with unlimited ammo for a short burst of time. All of the special skills regenerate after a minute or two and each has its own distinct functionality and visuals. Needless to say, watching a swarm of insects spit pools of green acid onto your enemies doesn’t get old.
Last, but certainly not least, the Demon Arm tree contains skills that enhance your demon arms and provide them with special moves, many of which can be combined to perform even more powerful moves. You can suspend your attacker in the air with the Demonic Lift ability and then use the Ground Pound move to slash down on them with your demon arm, causing them to explode. The special Black Hole move from the first game also returns in the sequel as the “pinnacle move” of the Demon Arm tree, with fewer restrictions on when you can use it. The Darklings, a target of criticism in the first game for their poorly directed A.I., return once again as a crucial component of the storyline and gameplay. This time, however, rather than having an army of them at your whim, you control only one. This Darkling is far more powerful than any one you’ve seen before though, showing that more isn’t necessarily always better. It’s also far more interactive, and will waste no time drilling holes and urinating acid onto the heads of your enemies. Even better, certain points during the game not only allow, but require you to enter the body of your Darkling and solve various puzzles to aid Jackie in finding his way around buildings. The character animation looks very good and is particularly evident during heavy combat scenes. In fact, one of the best things about this game is the variety of kills you can do and the various ways in which enemies react to them. You can shapeshift into a Darkling and sneak up behind an enemy to execute them, and the execution style and animation will vary depending where on the enemy you choose to attack.
As in the previous game, you will want to avoid light while harnessing the Darkness. When you’re in a well-lit area, the screen will quickly fade to white. Throughout the game, certain enemies can and will throw flash bangs, which create bursts of light that blind you. Part of the fun will be figuring out how to expect and avoid such obstacles. Now that I’ve seen a bit more of The Darkness II and experienced the combat firsthand, I can genuinely say this is on my must-have list of games for 2012. Between the quad-wielding, the addition of a skill tree, and the complete stylistic revamp, everything I’ve seen of the game up until now points to an improved sequel in just about every way. You’d be doing yourself a disservice by ignoring this one.