As the follow-up to the critically acclaimed Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay, The Darkness is an important release for Swedish outfit Starbreeze Studios. Adapted from a Top Cow comic book with a brand-new storyline from writer Paul Jenkins, the game ambitiously mixes first-person shooting with superhuman abilities in the form of a young Mafioso. Jackie Estacado is a don in New York's Franchetti family mob, and on his 21st birthday, he's taken over by a mysterious force called "the darkness." This is where the game begins, and as Jackie, you must harness your increasing supernatural power while also struggling to control it.
Anyone who has seen our previous coverage of the game will be familiar with the gloomy New York setting, in which Jackie is able to roam around without many restrictions. However, it was recently announced that the famous East Coast city will only make up two-thirds of the 16-hour game, with the other third set in a mysterious place that the developers have called "worse than hell." Another aspect of The Darkness that was previously kept under wraps was the multiplayer component, which will let players compete locally and online in four different game modes. Luckily, both new features were on show for the first time when we made a recent visit to 2K Games' UK headquarters, and we can now report back with our first impressions of both.
Our preview begins with another look at the single-player game--a story that starts with an exhilarating car chase through a series of winding tunnels. We've seen this sequence a number of times before, but what's noteworthy is how much the engine has improved since our last viewing at Microsoft's X06 event. With the majority of the game now in place, the last few months have clearly been spent polishing its look and feel, particularly the cinematic look and feel. A motion blur has now been implemented to provide a more natural effect as you look around, while the bullets have a Matrix-style visual trail as they fly through the air.
Jackie himself has also been given a complete overhaul, with the pale-white gothic figure replaced by a more masculine-looking version. It might seem like a small point in a first-person shooter, but as with Riddick, much of the story is told via in-engine cinematics viewed from a third-person perspective. It will also be important to fans of the comic, as the original Jackie is a mean character who feels no remorse about killing people. In addition to cosmetic improvements, Starbreeze has licensed a wealth of old movies, TV shows, and adverts that will show on television sets inside the game, and they promise to maximise the storage space of the DVD and Blu-ray discs to offer a wealth of content. The developer also let slip that the entire Darkness comic book collection will also reside on the disc as an unlockable extra.
Motion blur and new character skins are mere face-lifts in comparison to the other new feature in the game, though--the Otherworld setting that will make up around a third of the game's content. It's a world that Jackie will dip in and out of as he not only becomes more powerful but also has to fight with the darkness for control of his body. This struggle is manifested in a World War I setting, where undead soldiers are forced to relive the horrors of the trenches over and over again. In one section, Jackie wakes up paralysed, unable to help three soldiers that are about to be executed by a demonic guard. You're helpless to do anything as they plead for their lives, but as you regain consciousness, you can pick up an authentic period rifle and take out the executioner. These are no mere mortals, though; they will come back to life after 15 seconds unless you use your dark powers to eat out their hearts.
The reason for the Otherworld setting hasn't been revealed by Starbreeze for fear of spoiling the story, but it's clear that it's meant to provide Jackie with a means of improving his powers. When shot, the enemies in the Otherworld emit a black cloud that reveals the darkness of their own soul--the darker the cloud, the more your supernatural powers will evolve by absorbing it. One such power is the demon arm, which you can use to impale enemies and smash crates. At first, it's only a tiny arm--enough to scratch enemies and break small boxes but not to do any serious damage. At its most powerful, though, the demon arm will be able to pick up cars and toss them around like toys.
Aside from physical darkness powers, Jackie is also able to call on specialist darkling creatures that can perform specific tasks. Even better, these darklings take on the characteristics of your fallen enemies. For example, if you feast on the heart of a kamikaze pilot, the resulting darkling will run at enemies and explode in front of them. The darkness powers are also susceptible to the lighting conditions around you. You can easily see enemies in unlit areas from their outlines, while your darkness draws power when you remain in the shadows.
Jackie's not just limited to the darkness powers when he wants to have fun, though. When you're close to enemies, you can take them out with a number of cool moves that change depending on the current weapon you're using. Jackie will sometimes kneecap his enemies or shoot them in the face in moves that are reminiscent of the "gun-kata" from the film Equilibrium, which the development team openly admits taking inspiration from. However, there's a practical benefit to this effect, too. Starbreeze noticed how players will often overcompensate when turning to shoot neighbouring enemies, so they decided to use an automatic attack mode instead. This mechanic also serves to turn The Darkness into an "anti-Gears of War"--in other words, a game in which you're encouraged to fly into a room all guns ablaze, as opposed to staying in cover.
The multiplayer aspect of The Darkness isn't in such a finished state at this stage, but the developer felt confident enough to throw us into a six-player local deathmatch on the latest build. Designed to provide simple but intense gameplay, the multiplayer game hinges on the ability to control both humans and darklings. The humans are able to use weapons and armour, while darklings can move faster and climb across walls. It's a little like the Aliens Versus Predator concept, and each of the four multiplayer modes will let you play as one of the two races, or switch between them.
Speaking of modes, three of the four will be familiar to shooter veterans. Deathmatch, team deathmatch, and capture the flag should all be self explanatory, while survivor is The Darkness' take on a familiar formula. Everyone starts as a human apart from one player, whose job it is to kill the humans and turn them into darklings--the last human alive wins the match. The other version of survivor is similar in that every player but one is a darkling, and the single human is the only player who can score points. Therefore, the idea is to kill the human to become one yourself, and then attempt to score by eliminating other darklings.
We were able to play against six fellow journalists in a shape-shifting deathmatch mode, meaning we could morph between human and darkling for different situations. The darklings can completely cover the maps to find nooks and crannies, but they can only attack with claws from close range. The humans are less agile, but they can use weapons such as pistols, rifles, and shotguns to attack the darklings from a distance. Advanced players can use a mixture of the two skill sets for greater effect--climbing onto a ceiling as a darkling and then falling down as a human lets you execute unsuspecting enemies. At this stage, though, it seemed like the best tactic was to play as a darkling and attack from behind--they can't kill enemies with one hit, but their speed makes them difficult to kill unless you're a crack shot as a human.
We got to play three of the six levels that will be available in deathmatch mode. They offered a mixture of large open spaces and small confined areas, and it certainly seems that the maps have been designed to accommodate the largest number of players possible. The game is still slightly buggy, with players occasionally falling through floors or walls, but The Darkness is already showing plenty of potential, with a good portion of development time still to run.
Our updated hands-on of The Darkness certainly demonstrated how the game has progressed in the time since we last saw it. Graphically, it looks more polished than ever, with the mix of contemporary New York and World War I trenches showing just how experimental some of Starbreeze's ideas are. While the multiplayer still needs some polish before it can shoot up the Xbox Live popularity list, it shows plenty of early promise. The Darkness is slated for a late Q2 2007 release date on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, so stay tuned for more information in the next few months.