Last week, 2K Games gathered some games reporters together to check out the reveal of a new mystery mode in Digital Extremes' The Darkness 2. The running theory held by most going into the event was that the mode would be some sort of online component, either competitive or co-op. It turned out to be the latter, though with a surprising amount of meat for what could have easily come off feeling like a tacked-on throwaway.
At the core of The Darkness 2's online play is the Vendettas campaign, a completely separate story that unfolds parallel to protagonist Jackie Estacado's own adventure. 2K had previously hinted that Jackie's newfound role as a mob boss would create some new gameplay opportunities, and it appears that Vendettas is it. Playable either solo or in co-op teams of two, three, or four people, Vendettas follows four characters who each have their own, unique link to the same force that gives Jackie his powers.
And yes, solo. While Vendettas is ostensibly being tuned for two players on the game's Mobster (read: Normal) difficulty setting -- "ostensibly" because my hands-on time made it clear that some tuning is still required -- it is essentially a separate second campaign. It's more focused on straight-up action than the story will be, but that's to be expected in a mode designed for co-op play. Puzzles and expository moments don't really have a place here.
The four playable characters help make Vendettas feel like something separate from, but connected to, the single-player campaign adventure. Jackie's power over the Darkness is very much a part of his being, whereas the secondary foursome are powered by the Darkness-imbued weapons that they carry. It's not just four flavors of gun, either; each co-op character feels markedly different from the next one.
In fact, only one of these characters actually has a Darkness-powered gun. Shoshanna, the group's only female and a rather badass ex-Mossad agent. She carries the Arm of the Night, which is basically a magically-powered sawed-off shotgun. It automatically regenerates ammo, and its shots can be charged up, expending an entire four-shot clip in exchange for a more powerful blast. She can also level up her Darkness skills along the Gun Channeling tree.
Inugami is the samurai warrior of the group, and as you'd expect his Darkness weapon is a cursed sword called Kusanagi. It has the shortest range of the four, but also the most flexibility. You can slash with the sword by pressing the right trigger, but players can also control the direction of the slash by holding down RB (on an Xbox 360 gamepad) and moving the right analog stick. Inugami can level up Darkness powers along the Swarm powers tree.
Jimmy Wilson is a profane, booze-loving Scotsman from Glasgow. He's the only one of the four characters I wasn't able to use during the hands-on session, but his Darkness weapon is a throwing axe that boomerangs back to his hand after it's found its mark. Jimmy is awesomely able to use his Darkness power to summon Darklings that he calls Little Jimmys.
J.P. DuMond is our fourth, a well-spoken Creole witch doctor who hails from New Orleans. J.P. is a practitioner of voodoo magic, and his Darkness powers come from the skull-topped staff that he carries, capable of levitating enemies and, in an execution move, tearing them in half. In terms of unlockable skills, J.P. possesses the Black Hole ability.
The Vendettas campaign is the main component of the co-op play in The Darkness 2. There comes a point in the main game when Jackie asks Vinny, one of his underlings, to bring in a group of professionals for one reason or another. This is where the Vendettas campaign is born; Vinny finds this foursome of Darkness-powered freaks and puts them to work for the Family.
There's also a second part to Vendettas, called Hit Lists. These are standalone missions that don't necessarily have any tie to the story -- though some might feature elements from it -- for one to four players. Your progress collecting essence and unlocking new skills for each of the four characters is persistent across both modes, so you can bring your success in Hit List over to the Vendettas campaign.
The hands-on portion of the event offered up the first two Vendettas story missions and one Hit List mission. The gameplay is largely the same between the two, though there's obviously a bit more of a story lurking around at the fringes of the former. The locations I played in were all open and on the large side, and environmental hazards like generator-powered lights (remember: light disrupts Darkness powers) add additional twists.
Based on the small amount of time I spent playing, I'd say that there's a lot of potential here, but work still needs to be done on tuning the difficulty. The story missions felt about right, but the lone Hit List mission seemed a bit too challenging for two players to take on, especially since these character's were starting out fresh, with none of their higher-level Darkness powers unlocked.
That said, it's hard to complain about the presence of a second playable campaign and these Hit List missions, especially since you don't even necessarily have to play them in co-op if you don't want to. Certain Hit List missions require multiple players, but the campaign most definitely gives you the choice. Digital Extremes has put on a good show for The Darkness 2 so far in preview sessions, and this Vendettas mode only makes the February 7 release seem more like an essential buy for early 2012.