One thing that's obvious from the outset is that The Darkness is not a game that's aimed at kids. Whether it's the gloriously bump-mapped trailer depicting a trenchcoated hitman laying waste to a room full of criminals, or the potty mouths of the game's protagonists (it's all motherclucking this, motherfugging that - and wall to wall fecking assholes), this game is being aimed squarely at a mature audience.
The game is being developed by Starbreeze, the studio behind The Chronicles of Riddick, and it's based on the Top Cow comic of the same name. The comic of the same name tells the story of The Darkness, a mysterious power, passed down from father to son - the son, in this case, being Jackie Estacado, a Mafia hitman who acquires his mysterious powers on his 21st birthday. An original Paul Jenkins story has been adapted for the game but seems to sit slightly outside the continuity of the comics, featuring a similar but not identical cast of characters and the same underlying premise.
It's essentially a first-person shooter with a smattering of superheroic powers and the latest presentation of the game, after wowing Eurogamer at E3 and Leipzig, was recently held at the Windsor offices of its publisher, 2K Games. It kicked off with a quick look at the aforementioned death-dealing trailer, which is also notable for close-ups that provide an opportunity to see the rain trickling down Jackie's skin and allow an intimate examination of his pores.
Then it's off to the start of the game, and to the Half-Life-style rolling opening that was first aired back at Leipzig. As the game's producer Denby Grace reminds us, it also provides a good preview of Starbreeze's Vocap technology - apparently a superior version of motion capture that allows them to depict in-game interactions that are more believable than ever before. The game opens with Jackie sat in the back of a speeding car, listening to two of his colleagues discussing their day job with the sort of smart-alecky indifference that you've seen in countless gangster movies. But the pace quickly picks up, and a hectic police chase provides the pretext for Jackie's first taste of combat, before the action moves on to a construction site where Jackie's job is to whack the foreman.
Grace reveals a few interesting snippets along the way, showing off the journal screen and revealing that players will navigate through the game via subway, and discussing the game's emphasis on dual-wielding weapons: the left trigger fires whatever's in the left arm while the right trigger fires whatever's in the right arm. Simple. He also runs through the unlockable extras, which range from making-of videos, comics, concept art and 20-30 side missions. And an early glimpse of an in-game TV reminds us that (on Blu-ray at least) there'll be some 3-400 hours of old film and TV shows running on the tellies in the game, all fully licensed and complete, from classic cartoons and adverts to old TV serials and black and white films.
A cinematic cast will include voice actors from The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and even the lead singer of Faith No More, who voices The Darkness and insisted that his demonic rantings and raspings underwent no special effects ('you are my puppet' he snarls; 'through you I am born' he grates, and so on). Visually, it's all very reminiscent of all the other next-gen shooters since Half-Life 2 - technically similar to Prey, and atmospherically similar to Condemned, with neat tricks like bullet trails, smoking gun barrels and motion blur that kicks in when Jackie turns his head quickly.
One thing that's pretty cool is the way the game's loading sequences are used to offer a bit of plot exposition by having Jackie turn to face the camera and chat. One early example of this sees him explaining his anti-drugs attitude and his own particular code of honour - which provides insight into why, a few moments later, he ends up getting blown up by his dope-dealing Uncle Paulie.
And then it's time for Jackie to transform as the powers of The Darkness take hold, which demonstrates another pretty cool thing, which is the absence of any sort of visually intrusive HUD. Instead, the newly transmogrified Jackie possesses two demonic tentacles, with markings on the gaping maws at the end of each to show the player what power is selected, and how much ammo is left.
Jackie continues to discover new Darkness powers over the course of the game, which include a shield, the ability to look round corners, nightvision, an aggressive demon arm attack, and even the capacity to open up super massive black holes. The catch is that these powers will only be available in the dark: in the light, Jackie will have to fall back on his dual-wielding weapon skills. One major ability, in the dark, is that Jackie can control darklings - little imp-like creatures that spawn from the darkened souls of really nasty dead people. Different darklings have different abilities, from the suicide-bombing destruction of a recently-departed kamikaze pilot to scripted sequences where they unlock doors (such as an early event which sees Jackie rip out the blackened heart of a recently-expired enemy to create a darkling who can unlock some cemetery gates).
And yes, that did say kamikaze pilot. Because for reasons that are too spoilerific for 2K to explain, about a third of the game takes place in the Otherworld, a hellish dimension that resembles a perpetual World War One battlefield - apart from the fact that the never-dying combatants come complete with stitched up faces from their endless reanimation. And, another reminder that it's probably not a game for kids: the sequence starts with Jackie regaining consciousness while a casual officer routinely executes kneeling prisoners with a shot to the head.
Finally, it's time for a bit of hands-on with the multiplayer mode. Except the multiplayer mode is blatantly not very finished, so it's difficult to get a handle on how the currently twitchy aiming system will end up in the finished game. What it is possible to get a handle on is the game's Aliens vs Predator-style asymmetric multiplayer modes, which look like they'll work well, owing to the fact that they some or all of them provide players with the choice of transforming into a darkling and scaling walls and ceilings and generally scurrying about.
There are four game modes in total: there's Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch, which can either be played as humans or with the ability to transform into darklings. There's Capture the Flag, which also has an asymmetrical darklings versus humans mode. There's Survivor, in which everyone but one player starts as humans. It's that one person's job to infect the rest of the players to make them transform into darklings. And finally there's Last Human, in which the aim is to become a human by killing the single human player, and then trying to stay human for as long as possible.
And then it's the journey home, in which your correspondent's lack of demon hellspawn tentacles allowed First Great Western's Revenue Protection Officer, Glenn Saville, to exact a fine of Ł20 for travelling (accidentally) without the correct ticket. Which is exactly the sort of thing that reminds us all how much fun it would be to be a transmogrifyingly violent hitman.