Our Adam was supposed to be taking a look at the Darkness II right about now for a last preview before release, but he's caught the bubonic plague or something and is currently desperately trying to stop his remaining organs from falling out of his body. So, in lieu of that, I've had a go at the demo that appeared on Xbox BOO Live HISS earlier today. It is due on PC, but Xbox FOR SHAME Live THE HORROR has an exclusive for a week, so we have to wait. What, exactly, are we waiting for? Well, when my 360 stopped red-ringing and managed to stay functional for a half-hour, I endeavoured to find out, by way of a prelude to the PC's own demo.
Immediate thought: it's so noisy! It's so sweary! It's so violent! Does old man Doom know that his kids have turned out like this? After all that sound and fury, I want to curl up in a corner and read Jane Austen books until I feel civilised again.
However, The Darkness II is after all a tale of a demonically-possessed Mafia big-wig, so it's hardly going to be tea, biscuits and polite conversation. The demo is a collection of scenes from what I think is the early game, chopped up for better promotional flow, so it's possible the introduction is a little more slow-burn, as with the original Darkness' idling around your girlfriend's flat stuff (which admittedly came after a shooty bang-bang bit anyway). In the demo, we're straight into a crucifiction-based torture scene, as a melty-faced baddie attempts to extract the sadistic super-power that is the Darkness from returning protagonist Jackie. He's all hissy mean-man, with no hint of nuance, but then this is an unrefined comicbook world in everything from concept to inky-outlined aesthetic. The outline stuff doesn't really come across in screenshots, but then again it sort of fades away in high-action scenes because you're too busy filling the screen with bullets and blood. It looks like a cross between BioShock and a higher-detail, far bloodier XIII, which I'm happier with than an attempt at photo-real, though I'd personally like it to look a little wilder. It seems caught between stools, afraid to fully edge into either the realism or the cartoon camps.
Some exposition happens, some control doesn't happen, then it's off to what I couldn't work out from Textbook Villainman's sibiliant threats was a flashback or a flash forward, but I could work out was set in a restaurant. Jackie's there was a sweary thug-chum, and he's introduced to two heaving-cleavaged blonde ladies who titter and flirt until a sudden pair of bullets make their heads explode. Messily, every so messily. Still no control by this point, by the way. Then it's explosion time, following which Jackie's leg is horrible, burned, withered mess. He's dragged away by his chum, and finally I get to do something. But only shooting - the game's doing all the moving for me.
Baddies can survive a couple of shots to the head, but so can Jackie. As he's dragged to what should be safety but is in actual fact just more shouting, shooting men, he's hectored by the until now dormant Darkness to let it loose. Clearly, he gives in pretty quick, otherwise the game would have to be called "Moany Burnt-Legged Pacifist II".
It's extended tutorial funtimes for the next few minutes, but once the game allows free use of its 'quad wielding' combat it's agreeably excessive. Guns on the trigger buttons (although I prefer holding just one gun so I can use iron sights with it - apparently this is impossible with two), demono-tentacles on the shoulder buttons. Roughly speaking, the left tentacle grabs and the right tentacle batters, so each skirmish can be a mix'n'match bunch of guns, choking, eviscertaing and throwing, as you see fit.
It's quite disgustingly violent, what with all the heart-eating and head-ripping, but in a way that serves to prove how bland and tame something like a COD is. The kills are gruesome, but you do notice them as something more than "and now I have made that particular collection of pixels disappear" as a result. The quad-wielding combat is all very immediate and mercifully free of finger-wrecking combos - point, decide, press, maim/kill, eat the corpse's heart to regain afterwards. Lovely.
I'm not a fan of the enemy dialogue though, which seems to come from the Splinter Cell: Conviction school of "I'm going to something-something you, Player Name" over and over and gets a bit tiresome. Then there's the Darkling, a goblinoid, independently-controlled offshoot of the Darkness, which dresses as a parody of a punk and speaks in the least convincing Cockney accent since Nolan North's Penguin in Arkham City. I suppose I can forgive Darkness II that as the character's supposed to be stupid and ridiculous, but I increasingly think I should practice my own Laaaaaandaaaaaaahn accent then make my fortune by offering my vocal services to tin-eared videogame casting directors the US over.
Being a demo, I only got the briefest of looks at the upgrade system, but it looked to be a fairly generous skill tree. Broadly, the avenues you can explore are tentacle powers, Darkling abilities and gun upgrades, so all being well it may be possible to build a character that's at least partially specced to your preferences, like a sort of uber-violence, nuance-free Bioshock 2. It all seemed entirely on rails and was regularly willing to seize control away from me, but at least cutscenes remained in-engine and from the first person perspective.
Then it's off into some conveniently collapsed train tunnels for some pop-up baddie shooting, before back to more boring hissing from Melty-Face Baddie and what might just be the most horrible thing I've ever seen in a mainstream videogame. I won't describe it fully, but it involves a man forcibly removing himself from a crucifix. Ew.
So, I'm neither convinced nor unconvinced at this stage. It makes a right old racket, but I don't know that it's entirely unhinged enough to justify its crudity. For instance, the Darkling doing a nasty green pee in public wasn't very funny the first time, and certainly wasn't the tenth time. While the over-the-top combat's a giggle and pleasingly freeform the game did seem sadly bereft of the "ooh, this is different" curiousness of the first Darkness' pace and tone. There's much to be said for a straight-up action game right now though, and as long as this can keep its uninspiring panto villain and control stealing in check it could be an ideal early-year starter before 2012's main courses arrive.
All being well, we'll have the demo on PC next week and I can see how its graphics and controls translate to The One True Format.