ComicsAlliance Demos ‘The Darkness II’ Game & Free Comic Book Day Tie-In
It's hard to believe it's already been four years since the release of the original The Darkness game, based on the long-running comic book series from Top Cow Productions about a mafia hitman in possession of an ancient, primal and astonishingly violent force. ComicsAlliance had a chance to get some hands-on playtime with a demo version of The Darkness II on the Xbox 360 at a recent 2KGames press event, and fans can rest assured that the continuing story of Jackie Estacado and his demon-armed possession by The Darkness remains intact and as disturbing as ever.
Additionally, we spoke with Top Cow Publisher Filib Sablik about the game's Free Comic Book Day tie-in comic, and how the company hopes to leverage its popular games franchise into new comic book sales.
ComicsAlliance: Filip, the first Darkness game was a big hit, which I think might have come as a surprise to a lot of people given the (increasingly outdated) reputation of licensed video game titles. To what to attribute that title's success in the games market?
Filip Sablik: The great thing about the first video game is that it did very well for 2K Games when it was released. I believe it went platinum around the time of its release. I think what separates The Darkness games from other licensed game products is that it's not tied into another media release like a film or tv show. Those games tend to have a very short turnaround time and as a result there's only so much the developers, programmers, and publishers can do. With The Darkness II, 2K was able to take their time and make sure they found the right development partner in Digital Extremes and brought back Paul Jenkins to write the game.
In many ways, it's the same approach we take when making comics - quality is king. We've always felt internally, the toughest part about licensing your properties is finding the right partner. After that you should be able to step back and let them do what they do best. If you are constantly having to look over their shoulder and give a ton of notes, you've probably picked the wrong partner!
CA: With the sequel finally coming out, Top Cow has produced a tie-in title for Free Comic Book Day. The strategy seems admirably aggressive and designed to position Top Cow in such a way as to benefit from the large fanbase for the Darkness game.
FS: Once we knew that the sequel was definitely coming and 2K was going to announce a Fall 2011 release, we decided very quickly that this presented us with a unique opportunity for Free Comic Book Day. Free Comic Book Day is all about bringing new potential fans and readers into direct market comic shops and the interest in The Darkness II certainly has the potential to bring in gamers that have not read a comic in a long time or maybe never read a comic. Doing any other book this year strikes me as a completely missed opportunity. We were fortunate that 2K was completely behind it and also saw it as a great way to introduce gamers to the property and bring them up to speed on The Darkness.
CA: Tell us about the story in this book. It's designed to serve the story of The Darkness II while also sort of demoing the Top Cow Universe itself, correct? What if any challenges are there with that approach, in terms of storytelling? Are the continuities compatible?
FS: Definitely. We wanted to introduce readers to Jackie Estacado, bearer of the Darkness, the nature of the Darkness itself, the world, and bring readers up to speed on what happened in the first video game. The Jackie Estacado of the game universe and the Jackie Estacado of the comic universe are recognizable as the same character, but there are differences in the continuity. Part of that is that the comic has 15 years of history and a soap operatic quality to it and we didn't want to tie 2K down by being dogmatic that history. What they've done in the games is mined the comics for the best story elements and then built off of that source material in an incredibly respectful way. Plus having Paul Jenkins, who is one of the seminal writers of The Darkness, as one of the key creative people involved in the game ensures that the games feel true to the property.
CA: Longtime Darkness artist Michael Broussard drew the FCBD issue, but it was written by yourself and Matt Hawkins, rather than Darkness writer Phil Hester. Why did you guys opt to take on this project?
FS: A good part of it was due to the timing and scheduling. This project came together rather quickly and we knew we were limited on time to get the book created and to stores in time for Free Comic Book Day. Matt and I were already talking with 2K about a variety of other ways we could cooperate on promoting the game, so I think it was largely a case of right place, right time. Matt and I brainstormed the idea for the issue and he liked what I had done on Pilot Season: Asset last year, so he suggested I write The Darkness: Confession.
CA: What Free Comic Book Day events will you and other Top Cow staffers and creators be participating in this year?
FS: We'll be doing a bunch of store signings and events all around the country. In the Los Angeles area, I'll be appearing at Brave New World in Newhall, Matt Hawkins will be at Golden Apples Comics, Michael Broussard will be at Earth-2 in Northridge and then Earth-2 in Sherman Oaks, and the current The Darkness team of Sheldon Mitchell and Rick Basaldua will be at Collector's Paradise in Pasadena. Other Top Cow creators like Ron Marz, Phil Hester, Whilce Portacio, Joshua Hale Fialkov, Jeremy Haun, and Afua Richardson will all be participating in signings as well. Fans can find details at www.topcow.com by clicking on our Conventions & Events calendar.
FS: The Darkness is celebrating its fifteenth year anniversary this year, we have The Darkness II game coming out, the Artifacts event concluding this year, and The Darkness #100 on the way. It's a fantastic year for the property and a great time to jump in and find out why the character has stood the test of time. Phil Hester is doing some terrific work on the regular series, the first The Darkness: Accursed trade is available in comic shops for $4.99 and you can try it out for free this Saturday with The Darkness II: Confession!
Given that the first installment was so well received by the gaming audience, it seemed like a no-brainer for work on The Darkness II to begin soon after the first one's release in 2007. Unfortunately, due to "rights issues" it has taken a while to get The Darkness II development underway, but the game is now on track for an October 4, 2011 release on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. While the developer in charge of creating the Darkness games franchise has changed from the acclaimed Starbreeze Studios (The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay) to Digital Extremes (Dark Sector, Unreal Tournament, Bioshock), we came away feeling that the Darkness was safe in the capable hands of its new makers.
The demo begins in a darkened room with you looking through the eyes of Jackie Estacado at a man that can only be described as Adolf Hitler if he was a disfigured zombie with longer hair. This man quickly begins to drive bright blue stakes into Jackie's arms in a brutal first-person Crucifixion. The man wants Jackie to give up The Darkness willingly, and seems to have the means to harness it.
Soon Jackie flashes back to a scene earlier in the day when he was having dinner at an upscale Italian restaurant. The setting is a bright contrast to the crucifixion scene in the dark and lonely room, with vibrant colors and paintings filling the space while you listen to the bustling chatter of a busy social scene.
The restaurant setting is an eye-opening example of the new "graphical noir" style that Digital Extremes is using with The Darkness II. Unlike other games that use an algorithmic cel-shading rendering technique to achieve a "cartoony" look, all of the textures in The Darkness II are painstakingly hand-painted to give the feeling of playing through a Top Cow graphic novel. Cross hatches dirty up tablecloths. Sharp, angular lines define facial features and clothing. Unique lighting and shadows keep environments from looking too sterile. It's a beautiful new styling for games and is probably one of the best reasons to at least check out The Darkness II.
Jackie sits down to eat dinner with two lovely young ladies when, all of a sudden, one is shot in the head and a car crashes through the window, wounding Jackie's leg. His lieutenant, Vinny, quickly comes to Jackie's aid to tries to drag Jackie away from the light and into a place where The Darkness can heal him. This begins the demo's first action sequence, which is an on-rails escape from the restaurant using a pistol. Dual-wielding is eventually introduced when Vinny hands Jackie a second pistol to fend off enemies.
Once Jackie makes it to the darkened alleyway of the restaurant, the true stars of game appear - the two demon arms of The Darkness (a voice role reprised by rocker Mike Patton). In The Darkness II, players have control over each demon arm (I prefer to think of them tentacles, but to each his own) via the left and right bumper buttons. The left arm functions as the "grabber," as players can use it to pick up objects or enemy bodies on the ground. For those who have played Half-Life 2, the function is similar to the Gravity Gun. You can use the left demon arm to pick up objects like poles and impale enemies with them.
(Fans of the first game will also be happy to see that, once again, you can eat the hearts of enemies to recover health.)
The right arm of The Darkness acts as a melee slashing attack. You press the right bumper while holding the right analog stick in the direction you want to slash in and the demon arm does the rest.
Coupled with the option of dual-wielding weapons, it quickly becomes apparent that you have four different options to attack enemies. Digital Extremes is calling this feature "Quad-Wielding" and have even trademarked it.
Further emphasizing the demon arms' power are the different "execution moves" that Jackie is able to pull off with The Darkness. In the first game, executions were focused on a close range melee kill. In The Darkness II demo, the demon arms become the sole dispenser of violent death. Holding down the left bumper after an enemy has been hurt and glowing purple will initiate an execution sequence depending on what part of the body is targeted. If you are worried that the brighter colors incorporated into the graphical noir style of The Darkness II might be a sign of a watered down violent experience -- don't be. Let me tell you, these new demon arms executions are gnarly. I almost had to turn away in revulsion a few times when maiming enemies using The Darkness.
Targeting the lower leg area of an enemy initiates the "Wishbone" execution, in which the left demon arm holds the enemy's body in place while the right one grabs a leg and neatly splits him in two. Aiming for the midsection starts what is called the "Anaconda," where both demon arms slither and coil around the helpless goon, crushing the life out of him. Finally, aiming for the head in an execution attempt initiates what Digital Extremes lovingly calls the "Daisypop." You can probably guess what that entails.
All the gameplay mechanics come together in an explosive open ended firefight in the middle of a large street in Little Italy. Using the left demon arm to grab a taxicab door to use as cover while I mowed down enemies with my dual-pistols and slasher demon arm was a cathartic experience. I'll admit, though, that I almost felt too obligated to use all four attacks of the "Quad-Wield" feature at all times during the fight. I'm the type of player that likes to find one effective attack at a time, so while I liked the options afforded to me, I'd probably settle into using either guns or the demon arms as my primary weapon. If you're a creative killer, though, you'll probably enjoy all the weapons at your disposal to maim enemies in differing ways.
The final playable section of the demo takes place through a New York City subway station and tunnels. It offers more chances to kill some enemies, but also introduces a vital companion in the game -- the Darkling. Fans of the first game will remember the four different types of Darklings that Jackie could order around to help even the odds. The Darkness II consolidates the ally concept into just one Darkling companion for Jackie. Digital Extremes promises to make up for the fact that there are less companions by beefing up the personality and effectiveness of the "new" Darkling. Instead of having to be micromanaged by the player, Darkling will act as an autonomous companion, distracting and attacking enemies, picking up weapons and ammo to bring to Jackie, and dispensing post-mortem justice via urinating on fallen enemies. (No I did not make that up.) He's got a bright Union Jack logo on his frontside and even talks in a cheery British accent. While it's sad to see some of the more strategic elements of controlling Darklings go away, there's just no substitute for the satisfaction value of having your diminutive British demon companion drench fallen foes with green pee.
Going back to the initial scene in the darkened room with Zombie Hitler, Jackie makes a daring escape from the room with the little help of deus ex machina. It's an in-game cinematic that truly sold me on the "graphical noir" style as there was a breathtaking shot of a silhouette standing in an open doorway with lighting that evoked imagery of vintage Frank Miller artwork. If Digital Extremes can continue delivering great moments like this, fans of the series will be very satisfied.
The Darkness II releases on October 4, 2011 on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC.