Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The Darkness II: The Human Inside

The Darkness II: The Human Inside

Jackie Estacado has been consumed by The Darkness, but his body is fighting back...

UK, January 25, 2012

 As heroes go, Jackie Estacado is pretty unappealing on the surface. The protagonist of the video game (and comic book) series The Darkness is a hard sell on two counts. First off, he's a hitman turned mob don, whose day-to-day activities involve running a criminal empire. If that wasn't bad enough, he's also the human host of a demonic spirit known as The Darkness, who, while bestowing on Jackie great and terrible powers, is intent on dragging his soul to hell.

And yet Estacado, and the infernal parasite inside him, proved an intoxicating cocktail to players in his first video game outing around five years ago. The Darkness didn't exactly sell by the truckload when it was released in 2007 - indeed, it was almost lost in a year that included the likes of BioShock, Assassin's Creed, Mass Effect and Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare - but something about Estacado touched a nerve among gamers and The Darkness garnered a cult, which steadily grew in the years that followed.

Perhaps it was the fact that he and the game he inhabited were more layered than the initial pitch made them seem. The Darkness augmented a shooter template with mechanics hinged on supernatural powers, and the game's basic revenge story included a play by its protagonist for redemption and an investigation into the nature of the evil presence that infested him. Estacado, himself, was a mess of contradictions; he was a hired killer for the mafia, yet he seemed to have a strong moral code and a tenderness towards the downtrodden which allowed players to sympathise with him.

These were traits that Digital Extremes kept in mind when they set to work on the sequel to The Darkness. Sheldon Carter and Cliff Daigle, the Creative Director and Senior Artist respectively on the game, say the appeal of their game lies in the fact that, for all its dour demeanour, The Darkness is in essence about hope.

"The path of redemption is always open," says Carter. "I think Jackie's main draw is that he has the potential to be redeemed. He's got a very solid core of true humanity. It's buried pretty deep, but it's definitely there."

"Of course, he's an ongoing series character", Daigle chimes in, "so there's always the carrot of him having a happy life and everything working out, although, if that were ever to happen to him, I don't know where you'd take him from there."

Both Carter and Daigle say they were fans of the first game so when the call came in from 2K that Estacado was being revived, they leapt at the chance.

"It was a good day," says Carter. "I bought my first Darkness comic when I was 17 years old, and I'm also a massive Faith No More fan, so for me it was a dream scenario where I got to work with Mike Patton and The Darkness."

Along with FNM's lead singer, Patton – who once again lends The Darkness his feral rasping – Digital Extremes looked to the first game's final level to inspire the gameplay in the sequel.

"That sequence, which we loved the most, right at the end of the first game is where Jackie's powers have gone absolutely nuts," says Carter. "He rips down a staircase, he punches through walls, he tears enemies in half – he's just going off with the powers that The Darkness has given him.

"We were like; 'that's it right there! Let's use that.' That sequence became our base-level experience."

Players will find that the control system in The Darkness II is more streamlined than in the previous game. Whereas in The Darkness, players were required fumble between the D-Pad and face-buttons to activate lethal and non-lethal Darkness attacks, in the sequel the left and right bumpers do most of the heavy lifting. The right bumper unleashes a slashing attack, while the left enables Jackie to use a Darkness tendril to yank open doors, hurl projectiles and pick up foes, which can then be torn apart by tapping a face button.

"The control system happened like 'that'," says Daigle, snapping his fingers for emphasis. "We got that with the first try!"

He and Carter share a look and then the pair explode with laughter.

"It was a nightmare," says Carter. "I think at one point we may have been thinking about shipping the game with a pedal. Every time we went to the board on the control system we were like, 'just one extra button, if only we had one extra button!'"

With the gameplay in place, Carter says the story took care of most of the game's balancing. The sequel kicks off two years after the events of the first game, with Estacado at the head of a New York crime family. In that time, he has kept the demonic presence inside him suppressed and become haunted by memories of his dead lover, Jenny, who was brutally murdered by The Darkness and his evil Uncle Paulie.

As The Darkness II begins, Estacado is the victim of a bomb attack on a restaurant. In short order, he's faced with having to let The Darkness loose in order to survive, and is then made aware that the attempt on his life may be more than a simple mob hit. Estacado soon learns of the existence of shadowy outfit known as The Brotherhood who, it turns out, aren't after him, but the demonic force inside him.

"We knew we had to up the stakes and we knew we had to give players a challenge, now that Jackie's powers were more brutal," says Carter.

"That's where The Brotherhood came in. We knew we needed an enemy that knows how The Darkness works – and also something that wasn't a part of the first game at all."


"The Brotherhood understands The Darkness and they've actually ripped it out of hosts in the past. What they bring to the table is combative know-how – flares, flashbangs and shoulder-mounted spotlights – and arcane knowledge about its weaknesses and they use that tactically against Jackie.

Aside from being a counterbalance to the player, The Brotherhood also play a pivotal role in the Darkness II's narrative, in that they spur Jackie's parasitic demon into action. The Darkness, it seems, is utterly terrified of The Brotherhood and to ensure Jackie does its bidding, it reveals it has Jenny's soul in its clutches. If Jackie doesn't defeat The Brotherhood and give in to The Darkness, Jenny's torment will know no end.

It's a plot point that muddies the moral waters while giving Jackie a straight objective; refusing what The Darkness wants isn't an option, but if he complies all hell will break loose. It's character driven moments like these, Carter says, that give The Darkness II real narrative pull with players.

"The more you play the game, the more it reveals about Jackie and his complexity as a character. He's no angel, but he's appealing all the same. His feelings for Jenny are a big part of that."

"Without Jenny, it'd be very hard for players to sympathise with Jackie," says Daigle. "She's what humanises him and he knows that too."

He smiles: "Without her, he'd be a monster. She's his light in the darkness."


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