The Darkness II preview

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From the left side of the screen, an oily tendril yanks a hitman off his feet and dangles him upside down by the ankle. An execution prompt flashes on the screen, then the right tentacle grabs his other leg and pulls. "This is called the Wishbone," one of the developers from the aptly-named Digital Extremes explains. The tentacles rip their victm's body in half from crotch to crown, giving us a good look at his spinal cord. In The Darkness II, eating the heart of an enemy is one of the tamer things players can do.

Players take the role of Jackie Estacado, a mobster who is also host to a demonic force, the Darkness. It gives him tremendous regenerative powers and a pair of black tendrils that almost have a malevolent will of their own. It also brings trouble, like the assassination attempt portrayed in the demo, and the near-crucifixion he endures at the hands of a man intent on taking Jackie's powers. He also gets an imp sidekick who wears a Union Jack, talks like a soccer hooligan, and urinates on enemies' corpses. I'm not sure whether that's part of his curse or a fringe benefit.

When he is in the grip of the Darkness, Jackie is nearly unstoppable. His left tendril can seize enemies or bits of debris and throw them with the speed of a bullet. Players can use it to spear enemies with pieces of rebar, or simply to yank them close for a coup-de-grace. At one point in the demo, it rips the door off a taxi and turns it into an impromptu riot shield for Jackie, blocking some of the incoming fire. His right tendril can slash like a sword, and players can control its direction.

Jackie can also dual-wield weapons with his human hands, which means that in combat players are grabbing, ripping, and shooting nearly everything in sight, and often at the same time. It's a daunting control challenge, but very impressive during those few times I managed to bring all the elements together.

The Darkness, however, is anathema to light, and Jackie loses his powers when exposed to it. I spent a fair bit of the demo shooting out light fixtures to gain space to move, but that did not seem like a shallow gimmick once I found myself surrounded by enemies. It forced me to think plan ahead like a cover-shooter, but without the safety that cover provides. Instead, it's about moving swiftly to a position where you can eviscerate enemies before their shots or the light has a chance to bring Jackie down. It also means that players have to rely on both their guns and their tendrils rather than ignoring one in favor of the other.

Another point Digital Extremes emphasized during their presentation was the art style, which uses a combination of thick object borders and hand-drawn textures to lend The Darkness II its distinctive look. The goal is to make the game resemble the comic books it is based on, but it's difficult to assess how successfully it meets that goal in its current pre-alpha state. As Jackie walks through a restaurant early in the demo, the screen is busy with thick borders and orange-hued flesh tones. Like Jackie himself, this is not an art style that likes the light. It seems much more effective communicating murk and magic.

The demo is obviously a very guided experience, but I was also a little disappointed by how linear and conventional some of the settings were. You finally get control of Jackie in the back alleys behind his restaurant, then fight you way down a street in New York's Little Italy before heading into the subway system for an escape. It's all very confining, and these are some very familiar shooter settings. Hopefully the level design will be more open outside of this heavily funneled convention demo, because Jackie's powers cry out for more freedom.

The Darkness II definitely seems like it strikes a good balance between making players feel like a comic-book antihero while also maintaining a sense of peril. Both the gameplay and art style were promising. What the demo failed to communicate was any reason to care about Jackie or his world, especially if you have not played the first game, which never appeared on PC. Its hyper-violence veered toward sadism, and I am concerned at how much emphasis the demo placed on that aspect of the game. The Darkness II seems interesting, and it might even be great if it becomes less concerned with looking cool.