The Darkness Preview

Following mixed reception to three original games released throughout early 2000s, Sweden-based independent developer Starbreeze Studios scored a big hit in 2004 with The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (Xbox, PC), an adaptation of the Vin Diesel vehicle The Chronicles of Riddick. The film saw poor critical reception but, in an uncommon reversal of the typical movie-to-game relationship, Starbreeze's game received nearly unanimous critical acclaim. Now, the studio looks to further the reputation it gained with Riddick by adapting for consoles Top Cow Productions' modern-day gothic fantasy comic series The Darkness.

I last checked out The Darkness in July of last year and chatted with Starbreeze developers Mattias Snygg and Jens Anderson. Recently, I was able to see a newer Xbox 360 build of the game, which is also coming to PlayStation 3, and discuss the project with one of its creative personnel working from the other perspective--comic book artist, The Darkness co-creator, and current Top Cow Productions CEO Marc Silvestri.

The Darkness is the story of Jackie Estacado, a high-level mafia wiseguy who at age 21 becomes inhabited by the arcane power that shares the series' name. With the power of The Darkness, Jackie has access to numerous abilities, including wielding powerful tentacles and summoning imp-like Darkling minions. These powers are represented in the game alongside the more straightforward first person shooter gameplay, allowing the player to manipulate heavy objects within the physics-based world, and solve puzzles and dispatch enemies using the Darklings.

"What [Starbreeze] thought the world would be was exactly Jackie and The Darkness," said Silvestri on working with the Swedish studio. "They got it right away. We just said, 'Oh my God, when can we start?'"

Silvestri was sure to stress the importance of conveying the Jackie's character to players as soon as the game begins, properly framing the moment in which Jackie--and players--first have access to the powerful abilities. A consummate playboy and ruthless killer, Jackie is the epitome of the suave gangster.

"The most important thing when pitching a character at Top Cow is whether you want to be that character. I grew up with horror and science fiction, and I never wanted to be Frankenstein--I wanted to be Dracula," laughed Silvestri, pointing to Jackie Estacado as a perfect example of a character that readers--and players--want to become.

"The vast majority of people who will come across it now have never seen The Darkness before," he admitted, "but Starbreeze has made sure Jackie is communicated so well. You're never bored, from the first three frames.

Starbreeze's game begins with an on-rails first person car chase sequence reminiscent of Valve's extended interactive cutscenes; the player, as a passenger in a convertible driven by a fellow mobster, does not have any control over the car itself but can look around and, after hitting a certain point in the scene, take shots at pursuing police offers. Soon, Jackie realizes he has been set up and betrayed by the mob, which had for most of his life also served as his adoptive family. This real-time introduction seemed noticeably visually improved over the version showcased last year, likely due to Starbreeze gaining experience over the course of its first Xbox 360 and PS3 project.

So pleased with Starbreeze's telling of The Darkness is Top Cow that the comic writers even plan to incorporate some of the studio's own additions to the mythos into the series itself.

"They haven't detracted, they've only added," stated Silvestri. He was clear that, despite the successful series having been in existence for over a decade, Top Cow wanted to be sure to wait to wait for a fitting creative partner before pursuing major licensing deals. "No offense, but we didn't want to be like 90% of the other licensed games," he admitted. "Nobody cares about your own work more than you do."

Fittingly, Starbreeze has created a very dark New York for the game, one dominated by grime and shadows. This is crucial not just for atmosphere's sake, but because The Darkness actually draws its power from...the darkness. In order for the demonic entities to manifest themselves, Jackie must be out of the light; to achieve this, the player can shoot out light sources such as street lamps.

Turn the page for descriptions of Darkness powers and the game's multiplayer.

_PAGE_BREAK_ When wielding The Darkness, two large demon-headed tentacles growing out of Jackie's back flank the game screen and can be manipulated in various ways. These arms can stab and crush enemies, destroy obstacles, shield Jackie from attacks, and, as Jackie's poweres strengthen, throw large objects such as cars. One autonomous tentacle can be sent out away from Jackie's body and controlled in first person by the player to dispatch enemies Jackie cannot reach or crawl through tight areas such as air vents in order to acquire items or solve puzzles. The large arms also essentially serve as the HUD for The Darkness. Their heads are marked with patterns whose color indicates which Darkness power the user currently has selected, and the length of the patters indicates the current level of the player's dark power meter. Finally, the number of eyes on the tentacles indicate the level of the player's Darkness powers. Using the smaller tentacle, players can devour the hearts of evil enemies--but not innocents--to refill the dark power meter and work towards leveling up the powers. Devouring the hearts of particular enemies or bosses may also grant specific special abilities.

Music fans will be intrigued to know that, among The Darkness' full cast of voice actors, Mike Patton of Mr. Bungle and Faith No More fame will be providing the voiceover work for the dark power itself. As the game progresses, it tosses out lines of dialogue--delivered with a contorted vocal styling that Patton fans will know he can provide--that shift from being hostile and threatening towards Jackie ("You are nothing but my vessel," "I fill your pores") to becoming more encouraging as Jackie gets a handle on his abilities ("I will protect you, vessel," "You and I will be as one.").

At certain points throughout the game's levels, the player can summon Darkling minions through small portals. Over the course of the story, several types of Darklings become available. These include the standard combat-oriented berzerker, the exploding kamikaze, and the Gatling gun-armed gunner. The Darklings are accompanied by hefty doses of dark humor; the female gunner smokes a stogie and wears a helmet bearing the slogan "Born to Kill" from Full Metal Jacket, while the bearded kamikaze chatters in a Russian accent, wears a top hat, and urinates on the corpses of Jackie's enemies.

Throughout the game world, programs airing on television sets can clue players into gameplay events occuring elsewhere. For example, paying attention to mobster activity reports on the news may actually allow Jackie to reach an attempted ambush early, giving a tangible advantage. Starbreeze has also acquired the rights to numerous real-world television shows and films that are shown in their entirety on the in-game TVs, including episodes of the Popeye cartoon as well as Murnau's classic horror film Nosferatu. In another nice touch, loading times between levels are masked by monologue's by Jackie that set up story elements or character development.

Finally, I was able to check out some of The Darkness' multiplayer mode in a four-person deathmatch. Multiplayer plays out much like a standard shooter deathmatch, with the notable exception of being able to toggle options such as allowing players to transform into Darkling berzerkers at will. This proves to be a great benefit to the multiplayer, as deathmatch would be fairly unremarkable without it. Playing as a Darkling of course gives players no ranged attack, but it does boost speed, confer a particularly powerful melee attack, and, best of all, allow players to scale sheer walls with great speed. Darklings also have the secondary bonuses of being much more difficult targets, thanks to their small size and quickness. All in all, The Darkness' multiplayer is unlikely to be an online staple, but it should prove a fun diversion, particularly early on as players experiment with the novelty of the Darkling.

Particularly with Starbreeze's pedigree, it is not difficult to be confident in how The Darkness is shaping up. The game has a well crafted atmosphere, with the promise of a good deal of gameplay variety as long as the various Darkness powers are well integrated alongside the game's FPS mechanics. Though multiplayer does not seem to be a huge draw, Starbreeze's focus was clearly on the attractive single-player.

Silvestri certainly seems pleased. "It's like if, in the movie biz, we got the perfect director, the perfect star, the perfect studio," he said. "And this is our first video game! Hopefully we can have that again."

2K Games expects to ship The Darkness for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 this June. In our prior interview, designer Jans Anderson implied the game may also see a PC release, but gave no confirmation or projected release period.