The Darkness Update - What Evil Lurks...

Starbreeze Studios' dark, comic book-inspired shooter has been shaping up since we last saw it at E3, and we got to see the first few levels of the game in action for the first time.

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Sweden-based Starbreeze Studios made a big name for itself two years ago with a single game, the superbly crafted Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay. It was on the strength of that game's reputation that made us excited to see a new build of Starbreeze's upcoming title, The Darkness, including a handful of never-before-seen action sequences. If you haven't been keeping up, the game is based on the Top Cow comic book of the same name and focuses on Jackie Estacado, a youthful mafia hitman who becomes embroiled in a bloody feud with his crime-boss uncle. Jackie boy's got one ace up his sleeve, though--he's possessed by a malevolent force called the Darkness, which confers a whole mess of neat demonic powers on him.

The catch is, these powers only really work when Jackie is actually immersed in darkness. For example, if he's fighting in the light, he'll be limited to standard arms, like pistols, shotguns, and the like. Riddick had its share of outright gun-battling, but it also focused just as much on stealth. The Darkness doesn't seem to be that kind of game, though. You're not shooting out lights so that enemy characters won't be able to see you, or won't know you're there--you're doing it simply to create greater areas of darkness that will increase your killing powers, which include a gigantic tentacle called the demon arm that can pick up large objects; the creeping dark, which allows you to project yourself ahead of your physical body to alter the environment; and a black hole-like power that will suck every object in an area--including people--into it before sealing itself again.

Back at E3, we got to check out the first demo level of The Darkness, in which Jackie used all the above-mentioned powers to combat a squad of police that had surrounded the building he was hiding out in. The demon arm came in handy for flinging squad cars to and fro here, for instance. This level also revealed Jackie's ability to summon darklings--evil minions that kill at your command--from thin air, and these nasty little guys will basically act as foot soldiers that will fight for you when you can't handle everything yourself. In keeping with the books, the darklings will have a darkly comic aspect to them. They'll sometimes urinate on the corpses of enemies they've killed, or throw up a touchdown sign after a successful slaughter.

Killing's a lot easier when you've got the forces of darkness growing out of your shoulders.
Killing's a lot easier when you've got the forces of darkness growing out of your shoulders.

We learned a lot more about the darklings during our recent demo. There will actually be around 10 different types of darklings, each with different specialties. One type will act as a light killer, helping you disable all the lights in a room to enhance your (and their) powers. Another kamikaze-style darkling will hurtle itself at enemies to take them out. Then still more darklings will come equipped with all manner of yet-unspecified weapons. Interestingly, while most of your powers will be granted by the storyline, you'll find more darklings by devouring the corpses of especially evil people. You'll have to watch for subtle clues as to who you can eat to gain new powers, which should put a sinister new spin on your typical collection mechanic.

The demo we saw also featured the first couple of levels from the beginning of the game. The Darkness opens similarly to Riddick with a cinematic, semi-interactive level complete with scrolling credits. This time, it's an action-packed police chase through a tunnel, in which you're riding with a couple of your uncle's hitmen, weaving in between oncoming traffic and ducking as the occasional car goes flying overhead. You'll eventually gain a shotgun when the original passenger-side gunman bites it, requiring you to take out incoming threats yourself as your crony heads down a series of maintenance tunnels and evades the cops before an explosive finale.

That's only the first five minutes of the game, though, and it gets a lot more interesting from there. Read on to find out what else we saw.

Turns out you're in search of the foreman in a construction-company front for a rival Irish gang, and you'll spend this next level sans-Darkness powers, relying on a pair of pistols and getting a feel for the shooting gameplay. This looks more or less like what we remember from Riddick, though you can dual-wield those pistols, and there's an interesting motion-blur effect when you take damage. There's no melee combat, per se--a little disappointing, since Riddick did melee combat arguably better than any other first-person game to date--but you will have access to "gun katas," which are brutal, gun-focused instant-kill moves you can perform up close.

Evil powers are all well and good, but sometimes you can't beat the feel of cold steel in your hands.
Evil powers are all well and good, but sometimes you can't beat the feel of cold steel in your hands.

Shooting is all well and good, but the game obviously doesn't really open up until your uncle makes an unfortunate attempt on your life, your Darkness powers awaken during a darkly epic cinematic scene, and you unleash pure hell on your former family-in-crime. But whatever--the bastard was only your adoptive uncle anyway. Time to exact revenge. And when you've got two monstrous heads protruding from your shoulders ready to eviscerate any attackers, that's not so hard.

In the all-new level we saw, Jackie was attempting to infiltrate and take out one of his uncle Paulie's underground drug rings. This could be accomplished by speaking with a nearby bum--using a very Riddick-style dialogue tree--to gain the password to the hideout. Alternately, you could just go up to the door, use your powers to knock it in, and just tear the place apart instead. Like Riddick, this game will use a semilinear structure whereby you'll have sequential story goals to complete, but you'll also be free to visit any other accessible areas to explore and complete available side missions. (The game will even have a subway hub to facilitate transportation between areas.)

In this debug build, Jackie had more powers during the drug-ring level than he would typically have at this stage of the game, and using the demon arm and black hole, he utterly steamrolled over the mobsters in the hideout. That's to say nothing of the darklings, who have a malicious will of their own and will massacre the foes before you with real abandon. But we were assured that later on, you'd be facing suitably supernatural foes that will be a much greater challenge for your dark powers--though we didn't get any hints just yet as to who or what those foes will be.

One of the few criticisms leveled at The Chronicles of Riddick was its lack of a multiplayer component, a complaint we never really understood given the game's robust and highly engrossing single-player experience. The Darkness is looking to contain all the same winning elements in its story mode, yet Starbreeze plans to add multiplayer to the game all the same, especially given the popularity of Xbox Live--though maybe not in the form you'd expect. The team is still designing the competitive gameplay, but the plan is not to let you play as Jackie, with all his overwhelming powers, but rather as the various darklings seen in the storyline. No details were available beyond that, except that it will support 16 players--but given the success of games like Splinter Cell that have focused on differentiating their multiplayer gameplay from their story modes, we're excited to see what Starbreeze cooks up.

Such luminaries as Oz's Kirk Acevedo and Faith No More's Mike Patton will bring The Darkness cast to life.
Such luminaries as Oz's Kirk Acevedo and Faith No More's Mike Patton will bring The Darkness cast to life.

Then again, we've been excited for that ever since we polished off Riddick, and we're happy to see exactly how much The Darkness reminds us of that game, down to the dialogue trees and the way you can wiggle the camera angle around during cinematic sequences. They're not skimping on the presentation quality, either. For instance, the game will feature the voice talents of Kirk Acevedo (HBO's Oz) as Jackie, Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under) as his love interest Jenny, and Mike Patton (of Faith No More and a bunch of other bands) as the Darkness itself (that last bit is some of the best gaming-related news we've ever heard). And that in-game television system we mentioned in the E3 demo--which plays lengthy, full-motion video clips on sets you can channel-surf on yourself--will be more elaborate than we'd expected. In the new demo, one television was displaying a news report on Jackie's dark dealings, but it could be changed to a full-length Popeye cartoon or even the classic silent horror film Nosferatu in its entirety.

We're quite pleased to see The Darkness shaping up so well with a number of months still left to go in development. The game is already running quite smoothly for the most part on the Xbox 360 on an upgraded Riddick engine--and of course its visuals show the same combination of artistry and detailed technical polish as that game--and we were assured that production of the PlayStation 3 version is also continuing apace (both are slated to ship in early 2007). When the release date draws closer, publisher 2K Games is also talking about doing a comic tie-in series that will consist of five or six issues, the first of which may be given away as a preorder bonus with the game. Sounds cool enough, but then, we didn't really need our arms twisted to get excited about this one in the first place.

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