Hello, Darkness, My Old Friend.
The Darkness, Starbreeze's 2008 shooter, was unusual in many ways. Though it was violent, it wasn't defined by this violence. It had a strong sense of place, a grimly entertaining story and a variety of gameplay. Anyone who sat with the protagonist's girlfriend for the last time and watched To Kill A Mockingbird until she fell asleep on his/your shoulder couldn’t fault the fineness of the storytelling. The many side-quests you could get in the NYC underground station (jumping on the tracks to grab nickels, scaring off punks) cleared it up; this was a very pure FPS-RPG, guns and conversation perfected, unusually without compromising the shooter or the story.
So, so much for the original; how about the sequel?
Firstly, it's worth saying that this isn't a gratuitous sequel; the end of the first game did not give the player closure. If anything, Jackie Estacado was a settled, calm individual at the start of the game, though slightly troubled about telling his girlfriend Jenny about his mafia involvement, and ended it as a vengeance-driven wreck, who'd lost all he'd ever loved, and had no satisfaction in the ending he gained. Paul Jenkins, the writer from the first game, is picking up from where the story hung.
So, cut to two years later and Jackie is now the head of his deceased, villainous Uncle Paulie's mob organisation. He's managed to suppress the powers of the Darkness - until a brutal attack from the Brotherhood reawakens it. “It’s a pretty catastrophic attack on his family - the mob family - which kicks off the Darkness II and lets the genie out of the bottle.” says Sheldon Carter from Digital Extremes.
The Brotherhood is an organisation that once was dedicated to the capture and destruction of the Darkness; over the generations though, their purpose has shifted and they've been corrupted by its powers too. They’re one of many “throwbacks to the comic book” says, Carter.“The Brotherhood know about the Darkness, worship it and want it. They couldn't care less about Jackie's mob connections; they just see him as a host for the one thing that they want.”
Our demo begins in a fairground, where the Brotherhood are hiding out. Older gamers will remember the fairground in Blood; comic readers will know the Joker's hideout in Killing Joke; this is that sort of fairground, a convoluted, garish, ugly trap. And pulp media characters don't avoid ambushes, they walk straight into them. Jackie begins by finding his pet Darkling, a well-worn imp with a sick sense of humour and what sounded like a Cockney accent, cackling to itself in a wrecked bumper car. They walk out together to face the Brotherhood.
I ask about the change down to a single Darkling, the trapped soul of a minion; “We are a really narrative-focussed game and we needed another character, especially in a FPS to see and deal with. It mirrors your personality; it is a grim story, you need that kind of levity.” Even in combat, the Darkling attempts humour; riding one enemy like a rodeo steer then, when he’s thrown off, grabbing another one’s leg and trying to drag him out of cover. “What we tried to make him is your sidekick rather than a gameplay tool; he still has some elements you can customise and control, but mainly he's a fully realised character.”
Notably, the Darkness itself isn’t so enthusiastically helpful. Several times during the demo it taunts Jackie about his lost girlfriend Jenny, even biting at him and struggling with him over his weaponry. When he responds, cursing it, there are two things you notice; first the voice actor has changed; and, second that he’s a much grittier, older Jackie now. “He’s aged appropriately, become a little more regal; he's the Don now. He’s used to being obeyed.”
The Darkness has also grizzled in abeyance; notably, Jackie can now dual-wield guns, whilst the Darkness's reach and power seems to have expanded; it can reach out and grab guns for Jackie, slash at enemies, or hurl scenery to impale them. It develops further as it eats the fresh hearts of evil men; glowing talent shrines, found throughout the game, allow Jackie to select new paths for its powers. Powers we saw included Gun-Channelling, which gives Jackie’s weapons increased damage and limitless ammo, and Heart of Darkness, which allows him to see and shoot through walls.
Heart-eating in the game both gives you XP and lets you regenerate health, so is a prime driver towards close quarters fighting. “That's why we put in the dual wield and the demon arms, so you can kind of be more close combat. Hearts are great for that; they only last a certain amount of time, maybe five seconds before they stop beating.” Later on, if Jackie can find a particularly black-hearted individual, the Darkness can grab this and toss it, turning it into a great ghostly black heart, sucking in all the enemies in its locale - apparently one of the top-end powers.
The Darkness has also developed a range of hideous execution moves. I think I saw it grab one many by his ankle and tear him in half, whilst another had his head taken clean off. All the sickening ingenuity of the human mind in developing nasties has been deployed here. “the graphic noir, our art style, we were inspired by the comic books; we felt we should be true to the source material, artistically. If you go through the comic books, you'll see the pages we were inspired by; they probably still beat us out, they probably still go that one step beyond, but we tried our best...” Notably these moves also are controllable by the player, and mechanically give different resources, from ammo to health to shortened power cooldowns.
Are they not worried that the level of this violence will attract the insalubrious vultures of the moralising media? “Frankly, it's not even a cavalier thing, we just didn't think about it. We're just being true to the source material; we're going to make the game we want to make and as long as the publisher is cool with it, we'll take that vision. Because out art style's not hyper-real, we can kinda get away with a level of violence.” That’s as maybe, but they do say that they’re producing alternate content for territories that are likely to censor it; the art style is certainly garish and strange enough to defray our worries a little.
As Jackie ploughs through waves of enemies, we notice that numbers are popping up on screen, reflecting the experience he’s getting; as always, it’s immersion-breaking. Is that final? “If we get to that point that when they get the kill, players totally understand that the essence is coming to them I think we could take the numbers away. But when we take them away, people do really miss them.If I slash the guy up the air while throwing a pole and manage to skewer him into the side of a building, we want the player to know the game is rewarding them.”
It turns out that the Brotherhood has fought The Darkness before, so they know how to neutralise it; specialisation. They have standard soldiers, heavily-armed, but grist to the Darkness' mill. However, they also have two specialist groups; the whip specialists, who can disarm Jackie; and floodlight and flare carriers who can push The Darkness back into him; essentially, if both of these are effective, Jackie is completely disarmed. This is what happens at the end of the demo, as everything whites out... and Jackie wakes in an asylum.
There were two key locations in the first game; the subway hub and, um, hell. Will Jackie return to the subway? “In one of our earlier demos, we had a scene blowing up the subway; it was a metaphor, that part of his life is behind him...” Another hub then? “We do have... it doesn't make sense to have a subway because, you know, Jackie was a low-level thug and it made sense for him to wandering around in the subway. In our game, Jackie has been the Don; he's able to traverse the city quite a lot easier. We still have all those elements, exploration, the dialogue system; you can go talk to Aunt Sarah, Jimmy The Grape, lots of those returning characters. Fictionally, getting pennies off a rail track doesn't make sense any more; but there are things that do, in the same vein.”
How about Hell? Will they return to that First World War setting? “The way we've gone artistically, leaves us in a really good spot for what we can do with more supernatural elements. Darkness I was hyper-realistic which meant you had to have a hyper-realistic hell. You can imagine from seeing the game, the vibrant colours... there are things that you can do supernaturally and location-wise that we're really excited to show.”
It’s unlikely this game will give the troubled mind of Jackie Estacado closure; Jenny is preying on his mind, appearing to him in visions, and the Darkness takes pleasure in his pain. Defeating the Brotherhood is merely a means of survival and will leave him no better off, spiritually. We suspect some other plot element will be thrown up, to move him nearer to salvation or damnation; but, having enjoyed the first one so much, we’re much happier not knowing about it just yet.
The Darkness II is out on October 4th 2011.