It took only twenty minutes to make my way through everything The Darkness II's demo had to offer, and in that twenty minutes I saw more evisceration and 'things that make me squeal “ouch”' than I have in any other game this generation. Hyperbolic as that may sound, Digital Extremes make very clear from the get-go that their take on Top Cow's supernatural noir isn't about to pull any punches, and it certainly ISN'T for kids.
The scene opens in a dank and blood-stained dungeon, in which our anti-hero Jackie Estacado is being 'persuaded' (via the long-dead art of crucifixion) to give The Darkness up to his captors. Some form of makeshift altar glows a vivid purple in the centre of the room, waiting for Estacado to release upon it the demon within. Anyone who played Condemned's lacklustre sequel will immediately start to worry about this far more direct approach to the supernatural than its predecessor, and I'd be right there with them. Gone is the very grounded set-up that introduced The Darkness's intrusion upon the real world in the first title, replaced with a more ethereal, though paradoxically more grisly introduction.
Unfortunately, the writing has taken a slight hit in the process. The voice acting is competent, with the new Jackie providing a less clichéd Mafia gangster than the first, but any kind of nuance in the demo's (admittedly brief) narrative is quickly trampled by heavy-handed exposition and banal diatribes.
Still, I'm focusing on the negatives, and there's very little else to complain about. Soon you're flashed back to the middle of a blazing gunfight in a restaurant, and it becomes quickly apparent that the gunplay has been tweaked to near perfection. The guns still lack a little weight, but the effects are much more satisfying. Enemies crumple convincingly, and aiming down the sights is quick and precise. Set-pieces have become a much bigger part of the experience, as is the case with many games these days, but never does it feel so scripted that the gameplay suffers.
Another area in which the series can now stand tall is its visual sheen. Characters are given a thick black comic-book style outline, but retain realistic textures to balance the artistic with the visceral. It's a nice touch, and one that works given the contrasting nature of The Darkness II, particularly evident during your first encounter with a 'Darkling'. British gamers might snark at the faux-cockney accent and the none-too-subtle Union Jack shirt, but it's when the creature begins to urinate on the corpses of your enemies that The Darkness II's bizarre brand of humour risks true offence. I'm certainly not someone that believes violence in the media will somehow transform us into real-life psychopaths, but there's a simple matter of taste that Digital Extremes seem worryingly happy to ignore.
That said, they certainly haven't ignored the shortcomings of the original title when it comes to controlling The Darkness itself. Overwhelming as it may at first be, you'll soon find yourself ripping car doors from their hinges to use as makeshift shields, simultaneously devouring the heart of a recently deceased enemy and machine-gunning victims anew as effortlessly as it looked in the trailers. Gone is the clunky interface of old, replaced with a fluid and responsive control scheme that anticipates (most of the time) exactly where you want each blow to be placed. Digital Extremes have done an astounding job of making you feel like the ultimate killing machine, and you'll be left hungry for more. The excellent Mike Patton reprises the role of The Darkness itself, and while the all-important relationship between Jackie and the demon isn't explored in any great detail during this brief sample, it's clear that the full game will be as full of conflict and concurrent reliance as its predecessor.
Despite a few kinks in the exposition, The Darkness II looks to be one of the first truly impressive big-budget titles of 2012. The combat is slick, the set-pieces impressive, and according to the demo, it's going to be bloodier than a pre-Christmas turkey farm. I'm in.