In The Darkness II, main character Jackie Estacado is having trouble deciding whether or not to boot the Darkness right out of his body, and – having played the game – it's easy to see why: demon tentacles are way too much fun. Oh sure, the associated psychological trauma and haunting visions of Jackie's murdered girlfriend deserve consideration as well. Yet, as I flung a guy at a building and then impaled him on a lamp post while he sailed helplessly through the air, I mean, we have to be practical about this, after all.
The demo kicked off with Jackie waking up in a dark, cramped room that felt, a bit like an evil Motel 6. Immediately finding himself unable to move, he glanced back and forth and noticed that there were giant metal stakes in both his hands. Yeesh. Mafia families do some pretty terrible things to each other, yes. But crucifixion? Not really their thing. So it was not a huge surprise when a grotesquely disfigured man stepped out from the shadows and revealed his intentions: he wanted the Darkness, and he wouldn't take “no” for an answer.
Before I could confront that rather pressing matter, however, the game flashed back to a significantly period in Jackie's life, which found him in an incredibly fancy restaurant, flanked by a mafia buddy and out to have a good time. However, just as Jackie started chatting with two off-duty female employees of another of his favorite establishments, a car came careening through the wall, instantly killing both the women and making mincemeat of Jackie's leg. So much for that good time, then. Rival mafia members poured in through the restaurant's new side door, and it's here that I was first given control. As Jackie's mafia pal dragged him to safety, I had to keep orange-suited assailants at bay by feebly firing off shots. All told, it was pretty intense, as fires spread and people did their darndest to fill each other full of lead all around me. At any rate, there have certainly been worse “here's how to use a gun” tutorials.
After weaving a bloody, scattered trail through the carnage, Jackie and mafia pal found temporary safety in the restaurant's kitchen. Then came the gas leak, and the mafia goon slyly quipping “burn in hell, Estacado”. The whole place went up in flames. When Jackie finally came to, all he could manage was to slowly drag himself out of the wreckage and right into the loving embrace of some jerk's pistol. Game over? Hardly. That's when the ever-popular demon tentacles finally made their long-overdue debut, and boy was it gruesome. Free of my control, they ran amok, throwing one enemy, cutting another right in two, and finally picking up the last one, coiling themsevles around him, and then bursting through his stomach as he screamed in abject terror.
The best part? Once given control again, I soon learned that I was capable of all that and more. In the first Darkness, the tentacles could be used for everything from stabbing to reconnaissance, but in Darkness II, the focus is on gore-spattered close-quarters combat. The basics: right tentacle slashes and left tentacle grabs. As for the whats, whens, whys, and – perhaps most enjoyably – whos, it's all up to you. For instance, I was able to yank a door right off a taxi and use it as a riot shield while I blasted baddies right and left. Then I threw down the riot shield, picked up a lamp post, and nailed some poor sap to a nearby wall. At one point, I even symmetrically sliced a guy in two – right down the center – and proceeded to finish off one of his partners in crime by flinging one of said halves right into his face.
Developer Digital Extremes is calling the system “quad-wielding,” and it fits. I really felt like I had four arms simultaneously at my disposal, and that's key to what made The Darkness II's combat feel so uniquely empowering. Put simply, I was downright unstoppable. Combat sections weren't battles so much as they were almost hilariously one-sided rampages. Better still, controlling it all was a breeze, with each tentacle being mapped to a corresponding bumper button on the Xbox controller. Honestly, as I moved through the demo's series of linear – though nicely designed – setpieces, the only thing that really concerned me was that it all felt a little too effortless. I'd have been more subtly the scariest thing in the room if I was a giant dinosaur with sharks for teeth. And yes, I'm well aware that The Darkness II is a story based experience foremost, but a little difficulty would have still been nice.
Powers are, however, slightly limited by the fact that – as in the first Darkness – light is not Jackie's friend. This time, though, it's pretty much crippling. Direct exposure snuffed out my powers and sapped both the color and clarity from my field of vision. Even so, longtime Darkness fans: you know the drill. Break light, kill everyone, break light, kill everyone. It's hardly revolutionary, but it does add an extra, thematically appropriate layer to combat.
Also on display during the demo was a newly personality-packed Darkling, which you'll remember from the first game as one of those little goblin-looking creatures that always followed you around. This time, however, there's only one, and he'll apparently have his own narrative arc, character development, and things of the like. During the demo, though, it was pretty much Darkling 101; he leaped on enemies, made darkly humorous remarks, and then urinated on their corpses. Definitely not pretty, but – in his own insane way – pretty darn effective.
After I fought my way through a falling-apart-at-the-seams train tunnel, the scene shifted back to Jackie's no-good, very bad day with his crucifixion-happy kidnappers. This time, though, Jackie was finished playing around. In a display that redefined the term “cringe-worthy,” Jackie slowly wrenched one of his perforated hands up its stake and then tore it free, leaving a gaping hole right in its center. Then he ripped the stake out of his other hand, stabbed one of the main bad guy's cronies with it, and – presto – freedom. Noting that Jackie had obliterated the giant spotlight that'd been keeping his Darkness powers in check, the central villain proceeded to beat a hasty retreat. This, however, wasn't over, he assured Jackie before stumbling out the door.
My time with the demo, on the other hand, was. But I came away from the whole experience very impressed – much moreso than I was expecting, seeing as original Darkness developer Starbreeze isn't in any way involved. By and large, Digital Extremes seems to have a pretty solid grasp on what made the original Darkness so great, and Darkness II seems to be following in that tradition – albeit with a bit more scripted “in-your-face” panache. Granted, that's a slippery slope, and one wrong step could mean falling into a pit of Call of Duty-style excess, spectacle, and silliness. Ultimately, only time will tell whether or not Digital Extremes is able to strike a nice balance and stay true to the highly regarded source material.