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The Darkness II: The Prodigal Capo Returns

Company: 2K Games

It's been almost five years, but a sequel to 2007's well-received The Darkness is almost upon us. If you played the original (and you should have, because it's an excellent game), there are a handful of changes to be mindful of when going into this new release. 2K Games released a demo recently in the hopes that you can introduce yourself into some of the game's new mechanics well in advance.

Starbreeze Studios (developer behind the original The Darkness) is hard at work on EA's upcoming reboot of the Syndicate franchise, and developer Digital Extremes (Dark Sector and the multiplayer component of BioShock 2) has taken the reins. After playing through the demo for The Darkness II several times, I have a feeling that these guys know what they're doing.

As the demo for The Darkness II opens, you get a glimpse of another important change. It's with a heavy heart that I announce that Kirk Acevedo does not reprise his role as franchise lead Jackie Estacado. This particularly smarts because Acevedo's performance in the 2007 original was incredible. Not that I believe Brian Bloom's performance will be a slouch, but it's a noticeable tear in the fabric of continuity that will probably be hard to forget.

The Darkness featured the next-generation debut of Starbreeze's proprietary game engine, and it still looks quite nice today. However, that didn't stop Digital Extremes from trying something new. They are using the Evolution Engine (also proprietary), which looks nice and crisp. However, it's the art design that really stands out. If you played the original game, you might or might not have done so with the knowledge that it's loosely based on a Top Cow comic franchise. If you spend a bit of time with The Darkness II's demo, you'll have no doubt in your mind that the developers wanted to remind people of this. Cel-shaded is such a buzzword these days, but it's not the right one to choose when describing The Darkness II's striking visual style. It reminds me of the work id did with Rage last year; it's vaguely cel-shaded but still aims to incorporate an element of realism.

The Darkness II's demo really only exists to give you a taste of what's to come... and it tastes ultra-rare. The demo alternates between a gruesome expository scene and a series of action sequences. Apparently, Jackie has been kidnapped by a strange little imp who wants the Darkness for himself. So much, in fact, that he's in the process of crucifying Jackie and extracting the Darkness itself into a strange glowing relic. It doesn't take long for Jackie to slip into a series of flashbacks, and it's in those flashbacks that you'll find the gameplay.

It's made explicitly clear that all the threats the Darkness made to Jackie Estacado towards the vengeance-fueled end of the original game were unfounded; Jackie is in full control. He does not belong to the Darkness, and it appears that he has managed to contain it for quite some time. On the other side, it appears that a key plan towards the end of the original game has come to fruition; Jackie is now Don of the Franchetti crime family.

As you assume control of Jackie, he is led through a restaurant (one that is presumably under his control). Once you take your seat, a bullet suddenly screams through the head of one of your female companions and a van crashes through the window facing you. Cut to black.

Jackie wakes up to find his right leg mutilated and the restaurant swarming with armed goons. Vinnie (the man who escorted you through the restaurant in the beginning) hands you a pistol and drags you through the restaurant. This on-rails sequence is chaotic fun, and is somewhat reminiscent of the original's opening car chase.

The Darkness (voiced again in all its guttural demonic glory by Faith No More's Mike Patton) eventually re-emerges, delivering the ultimatum that Jackie already knows about. If he doesn't use the Darkness, he will certainly die. Long story short, Jackie lets the Darkness out -- meaning two giant snake heads appear alongside of him and proceed to violently dispatch every enemy in sight. Jackie's leg is repaired and you finally assume full control. And then you get a taste of the mechanical changes Digital Extremes has made.

Using the Darkness in The Darkness II is somewhat similar to doing so in the original, but there are a few key differences. Each of the demon heads hovering alongside you has a purpose. The head on the right can be whipped around in any direction, as influenced by the Right Analog Stick, to tear up the environment (and dismember/bisect enemies). The left head bites and grabs at stray objects and enemies. If, say, you grab a pole from a nearby dumpster, you can then hurl the pole through an enemy and pin him to a wall. If you grab the door off of a car, you can use it as a shield before slicing enemies in two with it. And if you grab an enemy... well, try it for yourself. I'd rather not spoil it.

Once you are reunited with the Darkling, Jackie's arsenal of the occult expands greatly. By being creative with your kills, you earn Dark Essence. This Essence can be spent at special shrines on power upgrades. It lends the game a role-playing edge that is altogether quite welcome.

It may be the beginning of a new year, but that doesn't mean we have to put up with a software drought for too long. The Darkness II will be creeping onto store shelves on February 7th.

-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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