Fans of The Darkness comic book, a spin-off of the critically acclaimed Witchblade series, were initially skeptical of developer Starbreeze Studios' 2007 first person shooter adaptation of the title.
However, despite a lackluster multiplayer offering, The Darkness received a favorable reception, as fans and critics alike celebrated the title's storytelling, quad-wielding gameplay, and shooting/melee mechanics. 2K and new developer, Digital Extremes, announced The Darkness II back in February - confirming that, not only is the title in development, it'll be hitting consoles in Q4 2011. We had a chance to go hands-on with a preview build of The Darkness II at PAX East - to finally get another taste of those delicious hearts, I mean unique gameplay mechanics.
While the hands-on preview only showcased about 25 minutes of gameplay, one thing is apparent right off the bat - The Darkness II will take advantage of a lot more set-piece moments than the prior game. The opening three minutes of the demo start off with a bang (literally) and drag protagonist, and host of the Darkness, Jackie Estacado kicking and screaming (again literally) through the first scene of the title. It's not long before the character makes an escape from the light - and gets a chance to exercise his Darkness arms.
Interacting with the environment is a much bigger part of the game this round, since the Darkness arms are utilized more as actual appendages - as opposed to magical body peripherals.
The left arm is tasked with a grapple action - with a glowing reticule that snaps to movable objects including fan blades (which can be thrown at enemies for damage), car doors (which can be held as a riot shield), and weapons (should you be low on ammo or want a different firearm). Unaware enemies can also be grabbed by the left Darkness arm - resulting in a series of brutal one-hit execution moves. In some cases, players will even have the ability to decide where on a person or object they would like to grab (arm, hip, neck, etc) prompting a variety of different executions moves - as well as functional gameplay options.
The right arm brings back the familiar "dark tentacle" slash mechanic of the first game; however, this time the player has better control over the direction of the melee attack. Of course your other two arms represent staple FPS hands - for firing guns.
Once players master quad-wielding, there's no shortage of fun to be had: the environments are littered with interactive objects, allowing the player in rapid-fire succession, to slice a thug in half, while tossing a fan blade at another enemy, before grappling both of their guns and ripping off a car door for a shield, and dual-wield firing at the remaining band of shooters as you rush into cover. The combination of the improved arm mechanics as well as the numerous potential environment interactions within the set-pieces makes it easy to feel as if you really do have control of four separate appendages - working in violent harmony.
Of course it wouldn't be The Darkness without the iconic light/dark mechanic - forcing Jackie to once again shoot out lamps and other light-giving objects that would strip him of his power. That said, the two stand-out environments in the hands-on demo offered significantly more opportunities, compared to the prior game, for strategizing and personalizing an approach to each combat area. When Jackie finds himself under heavy fire in a brightly-lit open street, it makes sense to play the area as a typical FPS until you're able to take cover and knock out some lights.
However, in the latter-half of the demo, Jackie makes his way through a series of subway platforms where the center of the area is illuminated - and the sides remain darkened. This section, more than the open street, allows the player to devise a unique approach, either sticking to the shadows and taking out unsuspecting enemies, or knocking out lights and tearing head-on into the middle of the fray.
The level design isn't on-par with the thought and care put into a game like Splinter Cell: Conviction but The Darkness II definitely provides less-involved, and faster-paced, options for players who might have felt as if the first game's light/dark mechanic was too tedious to navigate effectively.
The story, which was one of the original title's biggest successes, is equally compelling this round - with an even more aggressive and action-oriented pace. Fan-favorite Mike Patton reprises his role as the Darkness in the sequel, sounding just as creepy as ever - but not as creepy as the Darkling character - which the Digital Extremes promises will be more integral to the story this round.
If you're still unsure about whether or not The Darkness II might be up your alley, consider this: it's probably the only game you'll play this year where a monkey-like demon pees (lime green colored urine) on vanquished enemies - with his head tossed back in manic laughter.
The Darkness II is scheduled for a Q4 2011 release.