It's not set to emerge blinking into the daylight until early 2007, but The Darkness is definitely near the top of our Most Wanted list following another solid showing at the Leipzig Games Convention.
Ever since Starbreeze took the wraps off its first next generation project at this year's E3, it's been a game we've been somewhat keen to get our hands on. But despite originally being slated for a November 2006 release, publisher 2K Games has granted the Swedish team more time to make sure the game delivers on its obvious promise. The downside, obviously, is that the team's still in 'presentation mode', and to an extent we're still forced to rely on a certain amount of blind faith that it really is as good as it looks.
For the purpose of the Leipzig demonstration, Starbreeze cut straight to the chase in the assumption that we already knew about Mafia hitman Jackie Estacado's "awesome and terrible" Darkness powers, and how he inherited them on his 21st birthday. At war with his own Mafia family following a betrayal, it's your job to regain control of the Franchetti family in somewhat unorthodox fashion - involving giant tentacles with jaws on the end of them. As lead designer Jens Andersson says of the E3 presentation: "It really showcased what you will be able to do with the Darkness powers within the game." If you want to find out more, now's a good time to revisit our first preview of The Darkness.
Dark is the new light
"Now here at Leipzig we have new stuff to show you," Andersson promises."It's the introduction of the game, so it's before Jackie receives any kind of Darkness powers. It's more a traditional shooter in this first segment up to the point he gets possessed basically on his birthday."
At this point we shown the "special" cinematic introduction sequence, born out of how much they "hate" long tutorial segments that "have nothing to do with the game" - not to mention "long cut-scenes that you have to look through before you get the chance to play". Appropriately, we're treated to a "heavily scripted sequence which you basically can't fail, but you have some form of control and it gives you a sense of what the game is all about before doing all the necessary tutorial elements."
After all the chatter, we get to witness a few minutes of a dialogue and action set inside a moving car, complete with an on-the-move shoot-out in an underpass. During this extended intro, the frantic dialogue, erratic driving and fearless shooting dominate the exchanges to give you a flavour of the kind of unsavoury characters we're dealing with. From our vantage point, it wasn't altogether clear which bits you controlled - whether the driving bit was entirely on-rails, or whether we're shooting intermittently, but it was a typically cinematic way to kick off proceedings.
Construction time again
Following a dramatic car crash, where one of the old (wise) guys complains about his busted up legs and messed up suit, the demo switches to more traditional tutorial territory, as "we need to make sure people understand how to play the game". "If you heard what he said during the tunnel sequence we have ended up in the construction site where Jackie and the guys are supposed to pick up the foreman, so it's like a bunch of construction workers that are in league with the mafia, and you have to take them out, basically."
And take them out you do. Jackie's handed the two trademark gun and you get a chance to use Starbreeze's familiar yet unique first person shooter mechanics. "In The Darkness we have been working pretty heavily with these guns to increase the immersion of the game. In Riddick we took one step with introducing seeing your own body - and of course we have that stuff in here as well - but we wanted to go even further with The Darkness," insists Andersson, showing off the 'vo-capped' technology, which allowed Starbreeze to simultaneously record the face, body and voice-over for the most natural effect possible.
"We have implemented a system where the player interacts with the environment around him." he says. "For example, if you go up to this crate he moves his hands up above the crate, just to get a clear line of fire on whatever the player's looking at." It's a pretty seamless system - move to the side of a crate and the player's hands adapt dynamically to the side, or adjust over the top of the crate if you walk up to the middle of it.
Aim and fire, aim and fire
Meanwhile, Starbreeze's approach to aiming has been tweaked slightly as well, with an in-built aiming delay " that's very similar to the traditional mechanics of the small circle going larger when you stand still...instead of having a HUD element of giving that feedback it's more or less based on the physics - the physical properties of the movement of the hands. So that's pretty neat," Andersson adds.
Riddick's influence on Starbreeze extends to the number of different attacks available to the player, for example stealth kills and counter attacks that allow you to garrot someone, or use their weapon against them. "Jackie is a hitman, so he has guns already, but we still like the idea of it so we've implemented something that we call execution kills, which basically works in a manner where if you get close enough to a person you have the context-sensitive system that will pull off a special attack. It's a pretty neat system and it's really fun to play and just to see all the different kind of variation of execution kills you can pull off depending on what weapons you have and stuff like that."
After showing us the basics of running around shooting and some grisly executions, we get to see another immensely cool feature for the first time - of how the TV's used in the game. "We have it not only running full feature movies and stuff but also running gameplay-relevant information," Andersson reveals. "It's a neat way of giving info to the player without sort of having to bring up dialogue or whatever." I'm sorry. Full-length movies? Apparently so, with old classics like Nosferatu seen running in-game, giving players something else to do while we're running around shooting things, and devouring perps with our pair of giant tentacle jaws. Some ten hours' worth of movie material is promised for the final game, including Hitchcock classics.
The PS3 version may boast even more, thanks to its Blu-Ray storage advantages. Elsewhere we get to witness live news clips of our antics, which is an interesting way to sidestep having traditional cut scenes. Later we get to see a pre-recorded clip from Jackie's uncle Paulie - again, a smart means of moving the gameplay on without taking the player out of the action.
In terms of the bedrock of technology behind the game, it's "an evolved version of the Riddick engine," which is evident from the rich normal mapped environments and excellent use of lighting. "Of course, with the power of next-generation hardware we can do a lot of more open areas and stuff than we ever could in Riddick. We have also introduced light-field mapping, which is kind of similar technology as they have in Half-Life 2. So we have combined the two technologies, so we still have the dynamic lighting where you can take out all the lights around you but we can also do this sort of city light areas, with a more ambient style of lighting. So the best of both worlds."
Betrayed by the Mafia godfather and at war with your own family, Jackie begins to hear strange voices which signal the arrival of his Darkness powers. Played by Mike Patten of Faith No More, we didn't know whether to care a lot or not, but we're sure some of you doubtlessly will. Nevertheless, the general standard of the voice acting was excellent, capturing the cotton mouthed style perfectly.
And with that, the latest demo session was over, leaving us with a tantalising display of what to expect when the game hits the shelves in the early part of 2007. Check back in the coming months, when we hope to get a full hands-on with Starbreeze's exciting looking next generation first person shooter.
The Darkness is due out in early 2007 on PS3 and Xbox 360. Check out our interview with Jen Andersson.