The best thing that could have happened to The Darkness II was its delay to next February. Despite the generally good feelings most people had toward the original, Starbreeze-developed game, that title came out all the way back in 2007, and despite selling a million units, didn't exactly set the world on fire past its release. When publisher 2K Games announced a sequel, now under development by Canadian studio Digital Extremes, the general reaction most had toward the news seemed to be that of, "Huh, really?"
Had The Darkness II maintained its originally planned Holiday 2011 release window, it would have been decimated at retail. The word on this game was barely out there, coverage hadn't really spread beyond the most basic notions of its existence, and with so many high profile games on the docket for release this month and next, The Darkness II seemed poised to be one of those games that would be tossed to the retail wolves, and torn accordingly asunder.
Thankfully, that didn't happen, and with a February release now confirmed, The Darkness II might actually benefit from a bit of attention. It deserves it, too. While there are certainly a few quirky things here and there that fans of the original game might gripe about, for the most part my few experiences playing The Darkness II have reminded me of Starbreeze's game in all the most fundamentally important ways. It's dark, it's brutal, and it's got Mike Patton. What more do you need?
For those looking for a bit more of a breakdown than that, here are a few important tidbits regarding The Darkness II, its story, and its various mechanics.
This is Most Definitely a Darkness Sequel
I say this both in regards to the story, and the overall feel of the game. Despite the shift in developers and requisite change to Digital Extreme's own internal, proprietary game engine, The Darkness II feels very much like its predecessor. You may notice a few mechanical differences here in there, especially with respect to the way the guns feel, but that's not necessarily a criticism. The atmosphere of the game is definitively Darkness, evoking the vibe of the comic book and the original game quite well. Some have made note of the new art style, which uses something closer to a cel-shaded look, but it's not quite that. Rather, it's more of a line emphasis that is decidedly less cartoony than a typical cel-shaded game. It's understandable why some might be critical of the look in still form, but in motion, it actually looks pretty great.
You are again taking on the role of Jackie Estacado, still consumed by the overwhelmingly murderous force known as The Darkness, itself once again voiced by top-flight weird-voice-guy Mike Patton. The plot itself is a bit hacky, dealing with an appropriately mysterious "brotherhood" of "evil" that wants the darkness that lives inside you, and is more than willing to kill you and anyone else around you to get it. That said, when you're dealing with comic book demons and giant, sentient tentacles that feed on human hearts, hacky can be a good thing. Here, it mostly seems to be, with an appropriately bleak, curse-filled, and altogether hyperviolent tale that plays well off of the first one, at least in the couple of hours I've seen. Lots of games are dark and violent purely for the sake of being dark and violent, but The Darkness II seems to mostly find purpose for its aesthetic choices.
Get Ready to Climb the Skill Tree
The original Darkness made interesting use of its various combat mechanics by sheer virtue of combining typical gunplay with a pair of vile, gnashing, dragon-faced darkness tentacles that could perform a wide variety of attacks. It didn't necessarily need a ton more depth, because holy shit you have tentacles that can kill dudes.
Nevertheless, The Darkness II adds some depth to the combat mechanics via a skill tree system. Upgrades apply to everything from guns (more ammo, quick reloads, and such) to Darkness powers (special attacks, recharges, etc.) and the like. It's a fairly extensive list of abilities, which makes you wonder if you'll even get a chance to try all of this stuff out in one run through the game. Hopefully, the answer is yes.
You Have a Cockney-Accented Darkling Buddy Who Kills Guys and Sometimes Lets You Control Him
Well, not much else I need to say there, right? Indeed, Jackie's best buddy in his war against the brotherhood is a darkling who sounds like he just wandered out of a production of "My Fair Lady." This darkling buddy will show up at the most opportune times to help Jackie out, specifically by stunning and/or killing bad guys.
Elsewhere, you'll actually get to control this guy. Most of the game's puzzles, such as they are, revolve around light sources--anyone who played the first game recalls that Jackie's Darkness powers simply don't work when he's well-lit, sort of like Robert Smith. In one instance of the demo I played, a light source simply couldn't be destroyed via bullets, due to a sort of bulletproof cage surrounding it. In this situation, I mentally took over the darkling--because darkness powers, so shut up, okay?--and crawled up into the ventilation ducts to try and find the power source to shut down the light. While scurrying around the ventilation system, I could periodically drop down to execute an otherwise unaware bad guy, usually by slitting his throat in rather gruesome, gushy fashion.
These darkling sections are context sensitive, so you can't just control your little budy whenever you want. Hopefully those contexts go beyond "bullet-shielded light sources" as the game goes on.
You Will Hate the Bad Guy (in a Good Way)
The leader of the brotherhood is a reprehensible man. Gaunt, scarred, and sporting a haircut that looks like what was left of Hitler's head after he blew his brains out, this nasty, hissing creature is dead-set on getting the Darkness out of your body, and the only way for him to do that is to convince you to do it willingly. As you may have seen in some of the trailers, he does this by effectively trapping Jackie, crucifying him (literally nailing his hands to a cross), and showing him the many ways that Jackie has screwed up, even going so far as threatening to kill every member of Jackie's family until he gets what he wants. Unsurprisingly, this goes over poorly with both Jackie and the Darkness.
I seriously can't wait to murder that dude. You know it's coming.
It Doesn't Suck
Far be it from me to prognosticate a game's quality just based on preview sessions, but I sense good things for The Darkness II. Doing a sequel all these years later, with a new developer to boot, is a challenging proposition, but Digital Extremes appears to have built on Starbreeze's sturdy framework, and constructed something that feels like a proper follow-up. The shooting is good, the Darkness powers are appropriately violent, and the story offers more than its share of intriguing possibilities. Plus, Digital Extremes now has the benefit of a few extra months to fix bugs, tweak mechanics, and generally just make the game better.
Here's hoping it all comes together.