The Darkness II hands-on preview reveals new powers, controllable Darkling and Jenny?

When we caught our first glimpse of The Darkness II back in March, we didn’t exactly see Jackie Estacado in his finest hour. Oh sure, he’d become a top crime boss since we’d seen him last, amassing his own “family” after being possessed by a demonic force known as the Darkness in the first game. And that same demonic force still allowed him to tear a bloody swath through any thugs that stood in his way, now more gruesomely than ever.

However, it hadn’t been enough to keep him out of the hands of a menacing group called the Brotherhood, who – when our very first demo started – were in the process of nailing Jackie to a huge wooden cross. Our latest hands-on with the game took us back to that scene, showing how Jackie wound up in that awful predicament – and what happens to him afterward.

The new level began outside of the Lucky Mannequin warehouse, a run-down front for what turned out to be a grimy, low-rent brothel. After an attempted hit at a restaurant nearly killed Jackie in the game’s opening minutes, he’d chased down the person who he thought ordered the hit, but soon found out the situation was more complicated. He learned that a disfigured man was the real one calling the shots, and tracked him to the warehouse – where, it so happened, Jackie’s lieutenant Vinnie had a friend named Venus.

After trudging into the warehouse’s lobby, we saw a purple glimmer shining just behind a counter. This turned out to be a “relic,” an item that can be used to upgrade Jackie’s abilities (more on that in a bit). For now, though, we had to lie our way past the guard, navigate a labyrinth of hookers and johns (prompting the Darkness to get excited about “all this delicious suffering!”) and – finally – find Venus. We could give you a detailed account of what happened next, but honestly, this video sums it up a little more succinctly:

So here are the highlights: after following Venus back to her room and getting a pistol, we dove straight into the game’s combat. The pistol wasn’t useful just for taking down the guards immediately outside of Venus’ room; it also came in handy for shutting off bright lights, which – for a seedy warehouse bordello – the place was lousy with. Stepping into patches of light forces the Darkness back into Jackie’s body, shuts off his ability to regenerate health and casts everything in blinding black-and-(mostly)-white, so shooting out any particularly bright bulbs was an absolute must.

Gunplay’s all well and good, but the real fun came from using the Darkness’ tendril-like heads to (literally) cut Jackie’s enemies down. The right head (activated with the right bumper on a 360 controller) was able to violently slash at enemies, sometimes even chopping them apart, while the left was good for grabbing. Once we’d grabbed a thug, we could throw him, shoot him, slash at him or – by tapping A – execute him. Executions differ depending on which body part you grab a given enemy by, but the one we kept seeing involved squeezing the enemy with the boa-constrictor-like grabbing arm, and then impaling him with the slashy arm.

Grabbing’s also useful for slightly less gruesome stuff, like picking up large objects for use as shields, or longer, thinner ones that can be hurled like javelins to nail enemies to walls. And, as in the first game, the Darkness is powered by devouring the hearts of your enemies, which glow purple and can be yanked right out of their chests. Once eaten, these not only regenerate your health, but (like the relics) give you “essence” to use toward upgrading Jackie’s powers.

Speaking of Jackie’s powers, we saw a new one: Swarm, which envelops enemies in greenish (presumably monster-filled) clouds, and which was particularly useful later in the level, when we were surrounded by tougher, shotgun-toting guards. Also fun was Gun Channeling, which powered up Jackie’s bullets with Darkness energy and made enemies even more effortless to gun down – and which, when fully powered up, allows Jackie to see and shoot through walls.

Both powers – along with a whole lot of others – can be unlocked via Jackie’s “talent shrine,” which now appears as a wheel divided into four sections. Each section is a separate skill tree, with players able to unlock new upgrades for the demon arms (including abilities like an area-effect Ground Pound attack); new Darkness powers (like Swarm); new executions (and better benefits from executions); and upgrades for Jackie’s guns, enabling him to carry more ammo and deal out more damage. We were able to unlock a few low-level improvements with the essence we’d collected, but the top-tier stuff – like the gravity-well Black Hole attack, which is now triggered by spotting especially dark hearts among your enemies – remained out of our reach.

The Darkness isn’t Jackie’s only companion, of course; there’s also the Darkling, a Cockney-accented goblin who continually scurries around during combat, maiming Jackie’s enemies. The little, frequently costumed scamp can be picked up and thrown, causing him to explode (which he hates) – but more interestingly, we learned that it’s also possible for Jackie to take direct control of him at certain junctures. One such juncture popped up when Jackie reached a spotlight that couldn’t be shot out, and which was keeping him from tearing apart an electronic lock. The clear solution? Send the Darkling into an air duct to find a way to switch the light off.

Control over the Darkling replaces the first game’s “Creeping Dark,” which let Jackie send out a remote-controlled Darkness tendril to squeeze through tight spaces – and which the developers deemed inappropriate to Jackie’s character in the sequel. So instead, we scrambled through the ducts as Jackie’s pet hobgoblin, glancing through gratings to watch as the bad guys prepared for the Darkness’ arrival – something that included dragging a big, wooden cross across the floor.

We also got an earful of the Darkling’s constant chatter; as a mouthy little twerp who reacts to everything he sees, it’s possible he may have the most recorded lines in the game. Fortunately, he’s got the murder chops to back up his monologues, which we found out by creeping up behind an enemy and executing him – at which point the Darkling leapt onto his shoulders, yanked his head backward and slit his throat with a single talon.

Once the lights were off, we were free to climb up to the top floor of the warehouse, where Jackie’s disfigured nemesis was waiting. The enemies up here were a lot tougher and better prepared than the goons downstairs, with better guns and devastating flashbangs. They also had big, bulletproof lights that could only be taken out by following their power cords to generators, something that proved a little difficult when several armed goons were breathing down our neck.

Of course, the thing about facing down goons with better guns is that you can steal their guns when they’re down – and before long, we were mowing down enemies with a pistol in one hand, an Uzi in the other, a Darkness-held shield in front and no shortage of evil powers to bust out when the crowds got too thick. Sadly, it couldn’t last, and before long we were hit by a blinding light that seemed to come from all directions, and which had no clear source. Screams and taunts rang in our ears and Jackie, stripped of the Darkness and firing blind, rapidly lost consciousness.

So if you were wondering how Jackie wound up nailed to that cross, well, now you know. Interestingly, though, that wasn’t the end of our time with the game – and while the disfigured man’s speech was something we’d seen before, the stuff that followed was new. As before, Jackie’s new enemy demanded he give up the Darkness to the Brotherhood (something the Darkness itself violently urged Jackie to resist). And while Jackie clearly hated the Darkness – which had, as those who played through the first game will remember, saved his life but forced him to watch as his girlfriend, Jenny, was murdered – he wasn’t about to give it up to some pissant mystic with half a face.

One Sophie’s choice (which we won’t spoil here) later, the Darkness drove Jackie into a trance in an effort to convince him to resist. The resulting vision took Jackie off the cross, through a wall and into a shadowy realm where the Darkness ordered Jackie to do its bidding. When he resisted, the Darkness revealed it was holding Jenny’s soul captive. Give up the Darkness, the demon hissed, and Jackie would lose Jenny as well – and it’s that knowledge, we learned, that will give Jackie a reason to pull himself off the cross, fight his way out and keep fighting (both against the Brotherhood and the Darkness itself) through the remainder of the game.

As usual, The Darkness II is shaping up to be an awfully slick game. The cel-shaded visuals look great, the gameplay is gratifyingly violent (if confusing, once the gore and demon arms start to fly) and the revelation about Jenny – who was the heart and soul of the first game, and whose death still stands as one of the most shockingly emotional moments of the current console generation – pretty much guarantees our interest. And hey, if nothing else, its release will be a reason to look forward to this February.

Oct 10, 2011

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