PREVIEW: The Darkness II [PS3/X360/PC]

Traditionally, it’s been a rocky road for comic-book adaptations, and we don’t mean the one paved with chocolate, nuts and marshmallows. While some franchises have translated very well from the inky page to the video game (Scott Pilgrim, Sam and Max Hit the Road) others have done somewhat miserably (Iron Man, Superman 64). Others have somehow managed to flip-flop from one side to the other depending entirely on developer, publisher and marketing budget (here’s lookin’ at you, Bruce Wayne…).

The Darkness, however, which first graced our console screens back in 2007, was a pretty decent interpretation, by all accounts. It was dark, gritty, a little confronting and quite a bit awesome. And even though only a relatively small number of gamers stepped into the demon-possessed world of Jackie Estacado, it was enough to warrant a sequel, due to arrive in February.

This time, original developer Starbreeze Studios has handed the reins over to Digital Extremes, and a new broom really has swept clean, bringing with it all the shiny things we wished the first game had done.

Let’s step back a few years though, shall we? The original game saw you playing as Jackie Estacado, one of these anti-heroes we’re seeing pop up more and more in games these days. He’s a Mafia kingpin, who happens to be somewhat possessed by demonic powers, known as The Darkness. His first adventure saw him struggling with his new supernatural powers, while trying to save his beloved Jenny.

Fast-forward two years after the ending of the first, and we find ourselves in The Darkness II territory, with Jackie now Don of the Franchetti family, acting as director of a large Italian finance firm, if you catch my drift. He’s been suppressing the demon urges as long as he can, but the Darkness is starting to gnaw at his conscience, waiting to be allowed out to play.

[img_big]center,7750,2011-06-10/DarknessII_E32011_Brthrhood_Shot.jpg,The Darkness II[/img_big]

…and play you shall, in The Darkness II, with the most obvious new introduction: Quad-wielding. Tucked in amongst the stunning noir art direction, the smarter enemy AI and the generally-improved gameplay, the fact you can now carry a gun in each hand, while maintaining full control over both of Jackie’s demon arms is nothing to be scoffed at. One grabs, one slashes – and it’s easy to throw them both around with just a tap of the bumper.

Just like the original, these arms add a whole new element to what could have been a fairly generic FPS. Rather than running into scenes, all guns blazing, Jackie can now lurk in the shadows and take enemies out one-by-one, eating their hearts when he’s done (a tasty bonus for the Darkness!).

They’re also pretty handy (geddit?) when faced with the many in-game environmental puzzles. Four hands are better than two, when you’re trying to figure out how to open a door, throw projectiles or lift objects. Remember though, the Darkness – surprise – isn’t fond of anything too bright, so you’ll have to take out those overhead globes first.

Alternatively, Jackie doesn’t have to get his hands dirty at all, sending the Darkling in to make quick work of enemies. (By the way, you only get one Darkling this time around, rather than three. His powers have been tweaked though, so you won’t miss his friends too much…)

As before, eating hearts and collecting dark essence will give you bonuses and upgrades for Jackie’s weapons (including the Darkness). You’ll gain extra skills such as demonic lift (freeze your enemies mid-air, perfectly positioned to be sliced and diced), swarm (demon arms spew green fire), and gun channelling, which replaces your bullets with the dark essence you’ve been collecting. It can get messy, but it’s always fun.

[img_big]center,7750,2011-11-30/DII_Moon_10.28.jpg,The Darkness II[/img_big]

The Darkness II also looks great, with brushed textures and cel-shading combining to create a hyper-real effect and gritty comic book feel. And it plays great, with a storyline contributed by Paul Jenkins (who also wrote the original).

The gameplay might have changed, the visuals tidied up and everything given a good four years’ worth of new technology, but one thing remains the same. Mike Patton. From the very first time that The Darkness hiss-whispers to you, Jacckkieeeeeee, you’ll be hooked. Or should we say… possessed?

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