Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Starbreeze Studios
Release Date: Q1 2007
A Gangster Darkly
The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay arrived to a surprisingly loud chorus of acclaim, escaping the curse of being tied to a disappointing film and distinguishing itself as more than just another shooter. It looked good, folks liked it, and it did more for the Riddick franchise than the over-stuffed, big-screen tale of Necromongers gone wild.
The crew that pulled that off, Starbreeze Studios, have set their sites on another mythology now, bringing a next-gen adaptation of Top Cow Productions' The Darkness to the Xbox 360 and PS3. The Darkness promises a style, vibe and story to please the series' faithful while delivering more of that not-just-another-shooter action to attract new converts. Three Starbreeze developers were on-hand in 2K's booth at E3 to show us how it's all shaping up several months out from release.
Darkness writer Paul Jenkins is participating in story development, giving complicated hitman Jackie Estacado an action-adventure based on events from the graphic novels. For the scaredy-cats who've not yet tiptoed into The Darkness, Jackie's a wayward member of the Franchetti crime family who ratted out his Uncle Frankie. Many of the Franchetti family share Jackie's low opinion of Frankie, but family's family and mob rules are mob rules, and you can't just go turning state's evidence without suffering some consequences. It falls to Uncle Paulie from Philadelphia, not so cuddly himself, to deal with Jackie's transgression.
The complicating factor, of course, is the Darkness. Along with the right to gamble and buy hard liquor, Jackie's 21st birthday brought the powers of the Darkness, a realm that seems to exist both beyond and within Jackie, granting him certain gruesome abilities that come in particularly handy when dealing with a mafia family and corrupt cops. The story of the game will follow Jackie as he harnesses the Darkness to restore some honor to the Franchettis, get a little revenge and generally make dark things happen to bad people.
Vowing to avoid omniscient point-of-view cinematics and keep things in first-person, the devs began the E3 demo in the aftermath of a hit, with Jackie talking to a mopper-upper character sporting some convincingly bloodstained yellow gloves. With cops on the way, the chitchat subsided, and soon enough a SWAT-style police truck crashed through a wall and set the stage for several minutes of shooting and dark-power-using.
Shooting-wise, you'll be able to dual-wield, but the gunplay looks like it will play second fiddle – whatever the variety of weapons and uses available for them in the final release – for everything will change when you slip into the shadows. In the demo, Jackie first summoned a pack of Darklings – crawling, acrobatic creatures from the dark realm – to jump on cops' faces and take saws to guys' throats. When the first batch of enemies was taken care of, he moved on to another group of unlucky antagonists, summoning a vortex of dark energy to suck them into the Darkness.
While no one's going to quibble with the ability to summon demons and create miniature black holes, the show-stealers were the giant, thorny tentacles that emerged from Jackie himself when he invoked the powers of the Darkness. You'll be able to use the tentacles to manipulate the New York City environments, knocking aside a dumpster to open a new path or smashing it into the side of an NYPD cruiser, which you'll also be able to pick up and toss. The highlight came, though, when Jackie sent one of the apparently super-stretchy tentacles on a twisty journey through a vent to take out a bad guy waiting around a corner, hinting at broader gameplay possibilities beyond sneaking, peeking and shooting. Starbreeze promises other manifestations of the Darkness, too, that will deliver impalements and other ways to put the shaft to earthly forces of evil and turn your victims into Darklings. In the interest of balance and variety, your powers won't be limitless, though. You'll have to slink around in the shadows to keep your Darkness powers at the ready.
Graphically, The Darkness so far looks fairly true to the visual character of the comic, with no shortage of blood and graffiti. You'll play through plenty of nighttime and otherwise dimly lit settings dotted with lamps and streetlights that just barely seem to be holding their own against the dark. From subway stations to sewers to construction sites and run-down apartments, the art direction will provide lots of pre-Giuliani-looking NYC settings in which Jackie – half Keanu, half Fabio – can cut a menacing figure as he goes about his business.
There weren't too many details on multiplayer modes at E3, other than that there will be some and that they will include opportunities to play as Darklings and to play in traditional multiplayer modes, as well as other modes that weren't disclosed. Another complement to the single-player action will be Darkness TV. In our E3 demo, our guide stopped beneath a wall-mounted TV to watch for a moment before getting back to the action. It's not clear exactly how you'll manipulate the content of Darkness TV or how it will be integrated into the gameplay – if at all – beyond being an amusing aside that gives you something else to do without actually having to leave the game world.
The Starbreeze guys promised a "no-filler," story-driven experience when The Darkness arrives next year, and I hope it doesn't get buried under the hype of other big-name titles coming in the wake of the PS3 launch. What I saw at E3 was promising, to be sure, and just long enough to raise questions like, will the shooting sequences be sufficiently meaty to keep you from feeling like you're just waiting for another chance to use your Darkness powers? Will the Darkness abilities themselves feel organic enough to satisfy fans of the comic while avoiding you-won't-like-me-when-I'm-angry gimmickry? I hope so, and if the release date sticks, we'll find out before the snow melts in early 2007.
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