Death is no option: Digital Extremes on The Darkness II

By Nathan Grayson
4 March 2011 13:29 GMT

A Darkness sequel? That Starbreeze won’t touch it with a ten foot demon tentacle? Sounds bad: it won’t stop DI making a game capable of breaking free from the shadow of its predecessor, though.

The Darkness II

Developed by Digital Extremes.

Coming to PC, Xbox 360, and PS3.

Launching Fall 2011.

We loved the original Darkness. It was brilliantly progressive in so many ways – from its heavy focus on a mature, well-acted story to, of course, the infamous sofa scene, wherein you could watch the entirety of “To Kill a Mockingbird” with main character Jackie’s girlfriend. Sure, the game had its flaws (we still have Vietnam flashbacks every time we walk into a subway station), but it managed to take a unique comic and translate it into a perhaps even more unique game. Honestly, though, that’s selling it short. It wasn’t just good “for a comic game.” The Darkness was a damn fine game in its own right, and it stood on its own two feet as a defining example of videogame storytelling.

Flash forward nearly four years. Original developer Starbreeze Studios has moved on to some shadowy mystery project that’s totally not Syndicate, and Jackie Estacado’s been on the shelf, sleeping soundly under a thick blanket of dust. Now, though, 2K’s decided to get the old band back together. Well, sort of. This time, Digital Extremes is developing. You may know them from such hits as “who’s Digital Extremes again?” and “No, seriously, who’s Digital Extremes?” Understandably, The Darkness’ feverishly devoted legion of fans is having a bit of a fit.

Turns out, however, that the Dark Sector and Pariah developer may very well be a bigger fan of The Darkness than you are. And that – we think – is precisely why The Darkness II is already looking so spectacular. Believe it or not, these guys get it. After speaking with project director Sheldon Carter, we came away with the impression that Digital Extremes really understands what made so many people fall in love with The Darkness in the first place.

“Our high level mantra is ‘in service of story.'”

“What we’re looking at right now, Paul Jenkins was the writer on The Darkness 1, so he’s also the writer on Darkness II. Basically, we’re structuring the game based on the story. So it’s narrative-driven, meaning that – in a lot of cases – what you’re doing is based on story progression,” Carter told VG247 after a GDC Darkness II behind-closed-doors session.

“It’s the same writer, so those [non-action moments like the potentially hour-long sofa scene] were driven by him in the first game, and they’re driven by him in the second game as well. We’re totally supportive of that. I mean, that’s what the charm of The Darkness 1 was – that you had these moments. Our kind of high-level mantra – above even the things I was saying we were proud of in the game – is ‘in service of story.’ That’s how we looked at it,” he added.

Moment of truth

Granted, it’s one thing to say that you’re doing everything right. It’s something else entirely, of course, to actually pull it off. The demo Digital Extremes presented, however, was pretty convincing evidence that it’s definitely on the right track.

The demo opened with Jackie living it up in an incredibly fancy restaurant. We were immediately struck by the game’s use of a striking, varied color palette that – while still dark and foreboding – definitely hearkened back to The Darkness’ comic book roots. But this isn’t just any old slapdash paint job, either. Digital Extremes is practically working itself into an early grave to nail down a very specific look.

“The graphic noir [art style] is basically us flipping through pages of the comic and going ‘ok, what makes this awesome?’ What did Mark Silvestri do to start this IP that is awesome, and how do we get a player to play that?  Turns out that it’s high contrast. It’s hatching, so we have people going through and hand-painting the whole game [laughs]. You know, it’s a big endeavor to make that work, but I think it’s important,” Carter explained.

“We have people going through and hand painting the whole game.”

It’s certainly a change of pace from The Darkness 1’s muted color scheme and sometimes overwhelming, well, darkness, but in motion, the game still looked very much like the original. On the upside, animations were suitably smooth and natural, and the audiovisual sense of “there-ness” was still uniformly fantastic. However, many textures looked a bit dated, and characters weren’t quite up to snuff with gaming’s bold expedition across the uncanny valley, which is being headed up by powerhouses like Heavy Rain, Unreal Engine 3, and CryEngine 3.

A series of unfortunate events

Cocksure and more than a bit full of himself, Jackie marched to the back of the incredibly spacious restaurant. There, he was greeted by two particularly voluptuous women, whom he claimed he barely recognized now that they were actually wearing clothes. Keep it classy, Jacki– HOLY SHIT, A CAR JUST FLEW THROUGH THE WALL. Just like that, Jackie was on his back, his little corner of cockiness was mostly on fire, and his lower right leg was quite gruesomely wounded – exposed flesh glistening for all to see. And of course, it was all in first-person, a perspective which the original Darkness used to great effect.

Turns out, Jackie made more than a few enemies after becoming don of his mafia family, and some of them showed up to spoil his good time. What followed was a tightly scripted shootout in which one of Jackie’s mafia buddies dragged him out of harm’s way as he – by which we mean the player – was forced to gun down his would-be murderers. And we mean that “would be” bit quite literally. After rushing into the restaurant’s kitchen, Jackie caught a nice, big whiff of gas just in time to see a hand – presumably attached to a man, though possibly the Thing from Adams Family – drop a lit match and whisper “burn in hell, Jackie.”

KABOOM. Jackie then came to in a small, dark room. To his right was a skinny, slimy-looking monster man, and to his left, a musclebound silent type who was one part Call of Duty and one part your nightmares. The zombie guy’s – as we took to calling him – goal? To suck the Darkness right out of you. And hey, Jackie’s not exactly the Darkness demon’s biggest fan, so it’s a win-win, right? We thought so too, and then the big guy started hammering away at Jackie’s undefended face.

Another scene change. Jackie awoke in the held-together-by-pebbles-and-hope remains of the restaurant kitchen. Suddenly, he was surrounded. Multiple thugs, all with itchy trigger fingers. Jackie, on the other hand, had no triggers of any sort – just fingers. Not exactly a fair fight. And then the good ol’ demon tentacles emerged to even the odds. This time, however, the tentacles are far more versatile, as we soon saw when – among other things – they threw a guy at the second story of a building, grabbed a car door and used it as a shield, impaled a man with a support beam, and sliced another poor sap in two – right down the middle.

“You could easily play that encounter we went through with no guns.”

“When we look at Darkness 1, obviously it’s got lots of action in it. What we looked at – our take on it – is the demon arms and how they work,” Carter explained. “We saw them as an opportunity to grab guys close and rip them apart, to be able to use them all in concert. Like, to be able to have your demon arms working and you’re shooting two guns. So I think we’re more action-oriented in that way. We improved the core shooting in the game, and we went to this quad-wielding to let you do multiple things at the same time.”

“You walk into an environment, and, well, you could easily play that encounter we went through with no guns. You could just walk in there and be like ‘ok, grab this, toss this, eat a heart, get the bladed demon arm, start slicing some guys up.’ You can kind of mix and match your strategies.”

You don’t know jack

The rest of the demo proceeded in a similar fashion, with Jackie gleefully skewering everything that moved while the new-and-improved Darkling literally urinated on their corpses. In fact, it was all a bit too gleeful for our tastes, especially seeing as Jackie kept alternating that with incredibly grim hallucinations of his brutally murdered girlfriend, Jenny. Carter, however, assured us that it’s all intentional.

“The tone of Jackie is something we constantly work on, actually,” said Carter. “Really, what we want him to be is that – like, a good parallel is almost a Tony Soprano. He’s a guy who’s gruff and badass with his guys and with the world. He has a front that is ‘the mob boss.’”

“So now that Jackie’s a mob boss, he has his mob boss front, but then there’s also other moments where he reveals the struggles that he’s having with… the story points I can’t tell you about [laughs]. We like Jackie to express himself the way a mob boss would around his guys. And when he’s in private or with certain other characters, then we can reveal a bit more,” he added.

“I just feel privileged to be working on [The Darkness II].”

From what we could tell, those “certain other characters” include the ghoulish main bad guy and his brick wall of a buddy. At the end of the demo, Jackie – who was in the process of being ceremoniously crucified – tore his hands free from the colossal (and colossally painful-looking) nails that held him in place. Barely remaining conscious, he then plunged one of the nails right into the side of the big guy’s face. The whole scene was brutal, intense, and more than a bit horrific, with the malformed central baddie booking it out of the room before Jackie could use the Darkness to grab ahold of him. Then the screen faded to black, and that was the end of the demo.

The L-word

At the end of the day, we came away very impressed with both The Darkness 2’s demo and the almost gushing passion that Digital Extremes clearly has for the original game. Of course, we’ll always remain skeptics until we have a controller in our hands, but for now, we certainly like what we see. Digital Extremes, meanwhile, is making sure to keep everything in perspective.

“I think that most people who played the first game loved it. It’s hard not to love that game, so I feel confident that they won’t have forgotten about it. I mean, people still talk to me to this day about moments from that game. So I don’t worry about [sales potential] so much,” said Carter.

“We’re fans of [The Darkness], so we don’t really look at it like a burden. We look at it like a privilege. So when 2K came to us and said, ‘hey, want to work on The Darkness 2,’ it wasn’t like an ‘oh no.’ It was a ‘fuck yeah!’ I don’t really feel any pressure. I just feel privileged to be working on it.”

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