The Darkness 2 Hands-On Preview -- Time to Exercise Our DemonsBy Adam Rosenberg - Posted Oct 10, 2011
Jackie Estacado was beaten and nailed to a cross when we first saw him in Digital Extremes' initial showing of The Darkness II. Captured by Victor Volante and his Brotherhood, we watched as our demon-possessed anti-hero and mob boss resisted calls for him to release his hold over the titular supernatural entity. Volante’s Brotherhood understands the Darkness, and they want to control it. We don't know why, but a newly revealed section of the game indicates that Jackie has something to lose should he choose to part with this thing that has otherwise brought so much misfortune into his life.
I played a chunk from an early portion of The Darkness 2 last week, moving the series of events that ultimately lead to Jackie's crucifixion. A trail of evidence stemming from a recent attempt on his life -- the one we saw at the restaurant in that initial preview – has led our young mob boss to a brothel which we soon learn is owned and operated by The Brotherhood. Play begins outside in a deserted parking area next to a large, seemingly deserted industrial building. Jackie is unarmed and on his way to meet with Venus, who can get him a weapon and brief him on his tactical options. As one of the brothel’s ladies of the night, she knows the lay of the land.
As I make my way through an unoccupied part of the building to the brothel’s entrance, I see a purple glow emanating from a nearby office. It turns out to be a Brothers of Men relic, a collectible that gives Jackie a boost of Essence, which is the Darkness equivalent of experience points. It's going to be helpful in this particular outing, since the preview eventually gives a first up-close look at the game's ability tree.
First I meet up with Venus, who escorts me through the very lively brothel to her room. It’s essentially a playable cutscene, as you stroll through a very active environment that surrounds you with other people’s stories. None of it enhances Jackie’s journey, not necessarily, but it does help to make the game’s landscape feel alive all around you. Upon reaching her room, Venus shuts the door tightly and hands Jackie a gun. She then lays out the tactical situation on the building’s mysterious upper floors as she knows it. It’s an off-limits area that a “hunchback” man presides over. Those who do get to go up there often don’t ever come back. That’s all she knows, however; the rest is up to Jackie.
The hallways outside Venus’ room are dark and largely empty, save for a few guards that are easily taken care of with Jackie’s two Demon Arms and shiny, new pistol. Three firearms can be held at any one time; two single-handed weapons and a double-hander. You switch between them by pressing left, right, or up on the D-pad. Pressing down dual-wields both of your one-handed weapons; you can even switch hands by pressing down a second time.
Proceeding through the corridors in search of access to the higher floors, Jackie occasionally comes across a few well-lit areas. These are a problem, as stepping into one blinds Jackie and cuts off his powers. Many of the game's light fixtures can be “fixed” with a single bullet or Demon Arm swipe, but on my way to the upper floors I encounter a locked door bathed in a pool of light being cast by a grate-protected spotlight, effectively rendering it invulnerable to direct attacks.
It’s here that Jackie calls on help from his imp-like companion, the Darkling. These critters could be summoned in the first Darkness game, but in this second outing, the creature instead appears as a single, constant companion that aids you in battle. Occasionally – such as times like this one – you’ll even take control of your little pal.
Blocked by the unbreakable spotlight, you possess the Darkling and guide it up above the ceiling with help from a handy water pipe nearby. You have no distance attacks when in this form, but the creature moves quickly and quietly, flitting by above unaware lackeys without anyone hearing. Light is a big problem for the Darkling though, bigger than it is for Jackie. Step into a lit-up area and you’ll disappear in a puff of black smoke, respawning at an earlier point.
The Darkling proceeds quickly through the air vents, eventually happening upon an access point into a room in the area beyond the locked door Jackie’s still waiting in front of. A few enemies are nearby, but they don’t know I’m here yet. And they won’t, at least not until it’s too late to do anything about it. I carefully sneak up behind one, close enough for an attack button prompt to appear on the screen. I press it and watch as my Darkling buddy leaps up onto the doomed lackey’s shoulders and rips his throat out in a satisfyingly graphic display. Emboldened, I dash up to the next enemy in a nearby room and repeat the process. This is fun. I do that a few more times until a control panel is reached, allowing me to open the door for my Darkness-wielding master.
Shortly after getting through the door, I happen upon the demo’s lone talent shrine, which is the only place you’re able to spend collected Essence on new abilities. There are four trees you can spread out into, covering demonic abilities (related to your Demon Arms' attack powers), execution abilities (boosts that are applied whenever you perform an execution), gun channeling (using the power of the Darkness to amp up your firearms), and a straight-up weapon tree, for beefing up your clip size and the like. The tree is easy to navigate, with clear markers indicating which abilities you'll need to unlock in order to access the better ones. Digital Extremes was nice enough to start me off in this demo with a healthy stock of Essence and the Swarm ability, a new power that lets Jackie shoot a green and black cloud of funk at his enemies, stunning and damaging anything it touches.
There's a lot of variety here, including some powers that look like they could combo well. Demonic Lift knocks a nearby enemy into the air, suspending him temporarily. Follow that up with Ground Pound to smash them down in a "bloody explosion." A cool weapon tree skill allows you to Active Pump your shotgun, allowing you to press a button immediately after firing to up its rate of fire. Dark Blast looks like fun too, kicking up the damage on thrown objects and causing them to detonate on impact.
I immediately grab Dark Armor, a passive ability that make Jackie more damage resistant when he’s in the shadows. I also choose to boost my Swarm's capabilities. The last of my collected Essence goes to one of the execution tree's boosts, meaning that I’ll now get some health back when I grab an enemy with my Demon Arm and trigger one by pressing the A button. Other execution powers give you boosts like more ammo, and each new one is mapped to a face button as it is purchased.
The talent shrine visit turns out to be setup for this demo’s final fight. A challenging gauntlet awaits, set inside a maze of half-built walls and loose construction materials. Gun-toting Brotherhood rookies are everywhere, and they’re joined by a new type of enemy with a gigantic mutated arm. Melee is a specialty for these guys, as you might expect.
Also scattered through the room are fixed light emplacements. Much like the grate-protected spot at the locked door earlier in the demo, these lights can neither be shot nor slashed. Instead, you’ll need to trace the yellow wire from the light to the generator that powers it, and knock it out. It's here that I finally get the sense of gameplay that's seen some evolution since Starbreeze Studios' efforts on the original release. The powers in The Darkness tended to foster very stealth-minded play; Jackie could be plenty lethal, but he tended to be most effective, early on especially, when staying out of sight.
The demo’s final room highlights a more direct, action-centered approach that I’ve been feeling from previous looks at Digital Extremes’ efforts on The Darkness 2. Sticking to shadows is a necessity now more than ever, and finding cover to hide behind is your best friend, but these Brotherhood thugs are very aggressive. Running and hiding won’t cut it; this game throws opposition at you that you’ll need to face head-on.
I fight as Jackie through the room and finally make it after a couple of attempts, stumbling through a door and into a blast of bright light. It seems at first like I'm going to be gunned down again, but this turns out to be a cutscene which eventually leads us to Jackie's crucifixion and his first encounter with Volante. The Brotherhood boss presents me with a choice, the particulars of which I've been asked not to spoil here. It's a binary choice for you to make though, and one that I'm told has some lasting impact on the game's story. Other moments like this will come up as you progress, and it won't always be a one-or-the-other pick.
The sequence ends just as we'd already seen, with Jackie breaking free from his captors. Digital Extremes has one last surprise in store for this demo, however. The voice of the Darkness suddenly manifests, beckoning to Jackie as he proceeds along a crumbling, brick corridor in some kind of apparent dream state. The voice leads him to a solid wall, though that’s no problem when you’ve got a pair of lashing Demon Arms protruding from your back.
I use one to grab the wall and reveal the space beyond it, where a shocking scene awaits me. Jenny Romano, Jackie’s now-dead girlfriend from the first game, is there, lashed between two pillars of rock and calling for help while the flames of Hell burn all around her. Amidst her cries, I hear the chilling voice of the Darkness once again. It warns me not to give up its power to Volante, or I risk losing Jenny forever as well. Not an unexpected twist, but a tantalizing one that once again gives Jackie a reason to fight.