Demonstrably Good: The Darkness II’s killer demo

By Brenna Hillier
21 January 2012 12:51 GMT

Last night, a significant slice of Sydney’s gaming public turned up to play The Darkness II – not the game, but the demo – because it’s that good. Brenna Hillier chats with the sequel’s producer.

The Darkness II

Developed by Digital Extremes as a sequel to Starbreeze’s 2007 original.

Concerns the adventures of one Jackie Estacado, whose symbiotic relationship with an ancient and malevolent entity known as the Darkness gives him super-human powers.

Features a unique “quad wield” control scheme with one button for each of Jackie’s hands and demonic arms.

Based on one of Top Cow’s most successful properties; part of the same universe as the Witchblade. A live action film is in development.

Sydney’s Insert Coins event – regularly drawing capacity crowds to the Oxford Art factory just months from launch – played host to 2K’s official Australian premiere of The Darkness II last night.

I was there, an hour early, to conduct an interview, and by the time we wrapped up, it didn’t seem worthwhile leaving. With 15 minutes to kill till the doors officially opened, I secured a stool, a drink and a demo station, and settled down to give it a go.

It’s a sizeable demo, of at least 15 minutes, and as this was my second playthrough, I took my time exploring, trying out different approaches – dying quite frequently, as shooters are not my forté.

When the title screen flashed in front of me once more, I put the controller down, more than satisfied, and turned around – to be confronted by the accusing glares of several impatiently waiting gamers, clearly disgusted with my performance.

Although doors had only been open for half an hour at most, and 2K had packed in at least a dozen consoles, every single one was already marked by a queue of minimum three eager players. There were close to 50 people waiting, and as the night drew on, that number grew rapidly to over 100, at all times.

Some people waited for over an hour to play The Darkness II demo in a stuffy, noisy bar – an experience which is freely available to Xbox Live Gold subscribers in the comfort of their own homes. Something special was clearly happening here.

It helps that Digital Extremes has done such a superb job, art and craft, into constructing what provides an excellent taster of an unusual game. The developer has put serious time and effort into this one.

“We had a prototype of this demo that we took to PAX East in March last year,” producer Seth Olshfski told us. “So it’s almost a year old. That demo was fine,” he added, giving a rueful laugh, “but it needed a little polishing. So we’ve kept fussing with it since then.”

One of the reasons why the demo has taken so long is that, while highly representative of the finished game’s aesthetic and gameplay, it’s a very different presentation to that of the finished product. Digital Extremes thought long and hard on how best to introduce The Darkness II to players – the pace we expect when we site down to the first level at the beginning of a ten hour campaign is not the pace we require from a fifteen minute taster.

“We’re showing you how we tell the story; we’re showing you quad wield; we’re showing you the graphic noir visual style – without giving away anything that makes you go ‘oh, now you’re ruined it.”

“We took maybe the first four or five levels, and cut little chunks out of them, and re-jumbled them together,” Olshfski continued.

“And then used the crucifixion interrogation scene as a narrative construct to tie them together.

“We had a couple of goals. One was to show people how awesome the gameplay was, and lead them through the tutorial which was logical.

“Another was to show them how we told the story. By walking you through a restaurant, not by showing you a cutscene. By having the controller vibrate, and you’re like, I wonder why the controller is vibrating? Oh! It’s because I’m having a nail driven through my hand.

“But also not give away the story of the game. We couldn’t just play the first level, because that gives away the story of the game. You have to say, in the first level of the game, well, this is what the point of the game is. We didn’t want to do that.

“So, we’re showing you how we tell the story; we’re showing you quad wield; we’re showing you the graphic noir visual style – without giving away anything that makes you go ‘oh, now you’re ruined it.'”

Players firing up The Darkness II on release day expecting to feel that vibrating controller will be disappointed.

“That’s maybe five to seven levels in, the interrogation scene,” Olshfski explained.

“That’s way into the game.”

Stitching the demo together may have been a laborious process, but 2K and Digital Extremes are unlikely to begrudge the effort. The Darkness II isn’t just another shooter, and that’s something that’s very hard to convey from a trailer or a screenshot.

“I think you really need to play it to get it,” Olshfski said, a sentiment I fully agree with.

While 2K doesn’t have any statistics as to how quickly the demo is being downloaded, the buzz is extraordinary, and Olshfski is delighted by the reaction to the team’s hard work.

“It started being downloaded while I was on a plane coming here. I can’t wait to go back and be like ‘guys, how’d we do?'” he said gleefully.

“People are emailing me with all the press stuff. I have friends who are like, ‘Did you see that Cliffy B tweeted that your demo was amazing?’ And I’m like, did he! Well then!”

The Darkness II launches in early February on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. A demo is now available to Xbox Live Gold subscribers, and will trickle down to Silver level, plus Steam and PlayStation Network users, next week. Can’t wait? Check out Pat’s play through. Watch for our full interview with Seth Olshfski next month.

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