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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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The Darkness

I believe in a thing called next-gen.

The Darkness isn't a game you'll have heard that much about. You might know that it's by Starbreeze, the guys that put out the rather wonderful (but criminally ignored) The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. You might also know that it's based on 'The Darkness' comic book, by Top Cow. For bonus points, you might also recall that Majesco originally signed the game. But none of that matters. What matters is that out of all the games we saw at E3, The Darkness is easily one of the most promising.

Hidden in a behind-closed-doors section of the 2K Games stand, away from the heaving E3 throng, a trio of intriguingly hirsute Starbreeze staffers rattled through a quickfire demonstration of a couple of set-pieces that immediately re-energised our flagging E3 spirits. More of which in a moment.

But first some of the obligatory backstory stuff we have to trundle out at around this point while we trawl our increasingly frazzled memory bundles for what it was we actually saw. Starbreeze's Lars Johansson is quick to point out that although the game story is written in collaboration with the comic's 'acclaimed' author Paul Jenkins, it's only "sort of based on it - we changed a few things".

You're really growing on me

Get a hat, get a head. Umm.

Anyway, the central protagonist is definitely no ordinary 'grizzled hero' on some kind of boring revenge mission regarding some pathetically cackling nefarious megalomaniac. It's pretty twisted stuff, and the game seems to instantly reflect this fact. As comic fans will be aware, Jackie Estacado is a mafia hitman for the Franchetti crime family whose "awesome and terrible" Darkness powers awaken on his 21st birthday.

These awesome and terrible Darkness powers seem positively invented for next generation videogaming entertainment - a point obviously not lost on Starbreeze and its delicious use of physics to create scenes of routine brutality. The overarching idea is that Estacado has to learn to fully master the Darkness is order to wrestle back control of the Franchetti family (currently ruled by his uncle Paulie, apparently an "almost universally despised man").

Johansson chimes in that you're basically "at war with your own Mafia family as well as the corrupt police and yourself". Crumbs. "The horror twist is that you are the horror!" Crivens. "You kill yourself with your own FACE". Ok, we made the last bit up, but we'll probably find out that's actually true.

Escape from Butcher Bay

Darker than Silent Hill.

Before they actually got down to business to show us all this scary stuff, the first thing Starbreeze wanted to impress upon us was the technical prowess on show. Indeed, rather like a sharper, spruced up version of the normal-map-tastic Riddick engine, it's an intricately crafted world full of rich texture detail, intricate, stylish level design, and moody lighting. Johansson guides us through a level called simply 'Butcher', and you can almost feel the cold and smell the fat and flesh. Showing us a couple of foul-mouthed character models (one of them a bruiser of a guy sporting yellow rubber gloves), he talks of a technique Starbreeze calls 'Vo-cam'. "We captured the body and facial animation at the same time, and this way it reproduces the same gestures and body movements as they do when they speak." It's impressive technology; almost as convincing as it sounds, in fact.

But with limited time to show us the 'Butcher' level, we move quickly on to the lauded Darkness powers. "You get possessed by darkness," he says. "It protects you and allows you to use special powers and summon and control creatures of the darkness." To prove the point, the Starbreeze guy with the craziest beard of any E3 ever shoots out the lights to feed and replenish Jackie's Darkness powers (the absence of light does strange things in the world of comic characters...), but we're told that lurking in the shadows does the same job.

With the required amount of darkness the game suddenly goes from looking like a normal, dual pistol-wielding FPS to something slightly bizarre as two giant slavering black jaws with writhing tentacles appear at the top left and right of the screen. Although this is apparently only one of "varying manifestations" of the Darkness you will be able to "devour, impale or implode your enemies", but that's not all, if the brief demo was anything to go by.

SWAT away the FEAR

Which team are they supporting?

At this point, what appears to be a reversing SWAT van crashes through the front door, and out pours a whole gang of assault rifle-wielding armoured cops firing in your direction. Cue utter mayhem as the room fills with bullets and debris in a manner not a million miles away from FEAR, prompting much return fire and a sharp exit down an alleyway with a chopper in hot pursuit.

With several dumpsters (or skips if you prefer) to hand, we're shown how you can pick them up and lob them back at the said chopper, throw cars around and generally take advantage of some nifty physics techniques at work that has more than a whiff of Half-Life 2 about it (but in a good way). But your tentacles work just as well as little spy cameras, allowing you to sneak them down ventilation shafts and check out what's going on in another part of the environment before you go ahead and make your presence felt.

Just afterwards, we're also shown another Darkness power; the aforementioned black hole ability. With the right amount of power in reserve you can create them whenever you see fit, allowing you to suck everything in within a certain proximity, destroying them in the process. To show it of, Mr Beardy shows us a room with a pool table and activates the black hole to deal with the approaching enemy. Immediately, the screen distorts wildly, and the guy disappears like water down a particularly vicious plughole, dragging anything not nailed down towards it, including chairs and various other items of furniture.

TV times

No sign of your Darkness powers, but just you wait...

With that out of the way, Starbreeze had just enough time to show us a cut-scene playing through one of the ceiling-mounted TVs. In fact, it's the developers themselves talking about the cunning tech involved in spooling the footage, the wags. It instantly reminds you of those tongue-in-cheek TV interludes that Max Payne scattered around, but full motion and entirely watchable, and gives us a clue of exactly how they will deliver some of the cinematics to the player at different points of the game - maybe giving them an opportunity to give information to the player via breaking news bulletins and the like.

Regarding things that Starbreeze didn't tell us, but that we found out anyway, apparently you'll be able to "cannibalise the corpses of your slain victims and transform them into Darklings". Darklings? These are "impish and hilarious demonites that commit unspeakable acts". We can't even begin to imagine.

In terms of multiplayer, you'll actually play as Darklings online, and "face other players in traditional multiplayer modes as well as all-new innovative game modes". After Riddick's missing multiplayer mode, it's nice to see Starbreeze taking this side of the gameplay seriously.

And with that, we'll have to wait until closer to the busy end of 2006 before we get our first hands-on in the "dark and seedy underbelly of New York City" and "the ethereal realm of the Darkness". From what we've seen so far, it already looks like it will add to Starbreeze's growing reputation for taking first person gaming into a darker, more violent and more interesting direction.

The Darkness will be released on PS3 and Xbox 360 later in 2006 via 2K Games. A Darkness action movie is planned for release in 2007. Be sure to check out the trailer for the game on EGTV.