BARCELONA--If Starbreeze's Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay were the definition of a sleeper, then follow-up The Darkness is completely the opposite. The studio's first Xbox 360 game, The Darkness is building increasing momentum as a game to watch in 2007, and with the gaming world's attention fixed on Barcelona for X06, the team took the occassion to show off a playable demo of the game for the first time.
The first level we played is from early on in the game, but it takes place after the opening section where main character Jackie Estracado gains his supernatural abilities. Equipped with two pistols, our first task was to infiltrate a meat factory and burn the money of one of Jackie's enemies. The first corner we turned presented us with a non-playable character whom we had to converse with to gain intel about the factory and how to get in. The much-vaunted "vo-cap" technology in The Darkness has been designed to allow for realistic emotion on artificial characters, and even at this stage of development the animation was high quality. The overall graphical quality of the game is very high, but facial expressions are particularly realistic.
After talking to the man on the street, we were told by the game's designers to try out some of the different attacks at Jackie's disposal. He can dual-wield weapons, so the left and right triggers fire off the relevant pistols, and he will also reload the guns automatically. However, more interesting was Jackie's Demon Arms, which allow him to attack enemies and pick up objects from afar. A quick tap of the Xbox 360 controller's left bumper lets you call upon the demon attacks, but they will lose energy unless you head back into the darkness to replenish them.
The other supernatural power that we got to use was the ability to summon a demon to automatically attack enemies. By pressing Y to summon this saw-wielding little guy and then the same button again to tell him where to go, we managed to get him to attack all the enemies in the area in particularly grisly fashion. You have to be quick in ordering the demon around, as he will soon become bored and disappear, but he's great to use if you want to kill a couple of enemies without being seen.
The Darkness still has a couple of bugs that need ironing out at this stage--the game crashed twice during our brief demo--but we were able to get a feel for the enemy artificial intelligence. When enemies are alerted to your presence, they will quickly hide behind the nearest obstacle and fire at you from cover. If you want to confuse them, you can sometimes shoot out the lights and then send in your demon, or you can use your demon arms to tear through a room and send the enemies flying. There seems to be plenty of choice either way.
The second level we saw, which was referred to as "the tunnel" by the designers, was already seen at Leipzig but was playable at X06. It's the introductory segment to the game, before Jackie inherits his powers, and it takes place in an underground road system. With two gangsters in the front of the car bickering and the driver speeding, it's not long before the police are giving chase. For the next couple of minutes, this on-rails section is seen from your perspective as you watch the choas unfold. Then, as one of the gangsters is killed in a characteristically gruesome manner, you are trusted with a shotgun to fend off the police.
When we viewed this section of the game in Leipzig, it was behind closed doors on a huge TV with a surround sound system. At X06 it wasn't quite as immersive, but it's still a visceral and jaunting introduction to the game. While you don't have to do much to pass through the level apart from shoot at a few cops and construction workers, it's a fun and interactive way to pull you into the game and the story from the off. After running over numerous people and even shooting them off the bonnet of the car, the driver plummets into an underground construction site, and that's where our demo ended.
Our time with The Darkness at X06 was brief, but a chance to play the game allowed us to appreciate some of the nuances and hard work that have clearly gone into the game so far. The way that your character's arms move around obstacles is just one of the great touches, and the supernatural powers seemed to have been integrated into the game with thought and care. Above all, though, The Darkness looks to be treating the unique and mature subject matter with respect, and it will be interesting to see where the team goes with the series. The game is due for release next year on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.