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The Darkness II: hands-on preview

Even though it was just revealed afew weeks ago, The Darkness II is already far enough to have a playable demo on the PAX East showfloor. The hands-on session directly mimics the events we saw and detailed here, so this preview will focus on the actual controls and how the game's heart-chomping tendrils affect the action.

Above: A bloody mess (in a good way)

As in the first game, Jackie Estacado relies more on his Darkness powers than uzis, shotguns and revolvers. Sure, traditional firearms play a big part, but you need to use them in constant conjunction with your various demonic ablities. In the Xbox 360 version on display, tapping LB lunges your left tendril out at an enemy or object; from there you can either toss the payload back at other enemies (including launching poles, fans and mailboxes like projectiles) or, if it's a person, hold LB and perform a gruesome execution. And then, in true Darkness fashion, hold LB over their fallen body to consume the heart. In the first game, hearts fed into your Darkness level, which opened up new abilities - something like that is in part two, but 2K didn't elaborate in this demo.

Above: The executions are varied and remarkably vicious

My only concern with the grabbling/throwing arm is how close dropped guns are to fallen bodies. When you down a bad guy, he usually drops his weapon; if you want, you can reach out with the left arm to snag the gun and pull it to you (a la Dead Space's telekinesis). Problem is, the body is a much larger target than the gun, so I kept snatching up corpses instead of valuable ammo. It wasn't a major issue, but it did recur. The game isn't out until this fall though, so that's the exact kind of thing that could be tweaked before release. Not hung up on this, just happened to notice it.

The RB Darkness arm is for striking and slashing. Tapping it performs a simple attack, but if you hold down RB and flick the right analog stick you bust out a contextual swing that can snap wires and crush baddies with one blow. And that's where Darkness II starts to stand out from the glut of FPSes - using both arms at the same time. When you're reloading a pistol, you can stillslam a dude with the right arm and impale someone else to the wall with the left, so you're almost never at a point where you can't attack. It really conveys the sense of power and lethality you'd expect while toting around a gore-hungry monster.

Your only real weakness is the light, which immediately banishes the Darkness entity. While in the light, your vision is blurred and powers are unavailable, so you also quickly learn to avoid or destroy light sources. This is a holdover from the first game, but with new emphasis on direct action, expect to seek out the (literal) darkness more often.

Above: Yeah that guy's dead

During the GDC demo, 2K kept mentioning Darkness II's comic-like visuals. At the time, the TV was far enough away that those details didn't quite register. Now, having stood in front of the game, I can see what they mean - it's essentially like Borderlands, with thick lines surrounding otherwise normal-looking people and objects. It's a departure from the first game's hyper-gritty, nearly photorealistic take on New York (and its many subways), but it's still a good look. Have to see how it's used throughout the game's environments and cutscenes to decide if it benefits the experience or is essentially just a filter.

The original game is insanely cheap at this point, so if you passed on it (many did), check it out in preparation. The first has its issues (lots of backtracking, slow character movement etc) but the Darkness powers and storytelling are damn good even by today's standards. So far, part two's tackled both of those problems, so I'm definitely looking forward to more.

March 12, 2011