The Darkness II sees the moody franchise handed a new developer and a new secret weapon. The developer is Digital Extremes, an outfit that takes over from the gloriously under-appreciated Starbreeze Studios, and the secret weapon is colour.
Colour, eh? Cliché that it is to comment on the fact, it's all too often MIA in contemporary shooters. Once it's back, you realise how much you've missed it. Digital Extremes has interpreted The Darkness' funny book origins as an excuse to paint its levels with pools of rich blues, greens, and reds. Look closely and you'll see a touch of cel-shading on top. Look closer still and you'll see traces of Borderlands' lovely cross-hatching, too. It's hard to see the game in motion and not want to try it out. That's colour for you.
In the single-player, the other big ideas include quad-wielding (it was inevitable really) and Nolan North (ditto). All of that's for another day, though, sadly. Today we're only talking about multiplayer.
Specifically, we're talking about Vendetta, a separate four-player co-op campaign that runs parallel to Jackie Estacado's adventure in the main storyline. Vendetta's short, shooty missions may not let you quad-wield, but at least you get to pick from a roster of four different classes - they're ranged, melee, healer, and tank at heart - and try out four different special weapons, all of which have been infused with the power of the Darkness. That's a phrase I don't get to use in my normal life half as much as I would like.
The classes are cunningly disguised as a selection of ludicrously broad stereotypes. Jimmy Wilson's the Scot and the tank, and, axe aside, he looks like he should be playing darts somewhere, or at least shoving a dart up somebody's nose. Shoshanna's an Israeli Special Forces lady who brandishes a shotgun so powerful she's decided to give it a name. Get help, Shoshanna, or at least leave that bit off your OK Cupid profile. Inugami is a Samurai, obviously and has a sweet katana to slice folk up with, and that just leaves JP Dumond, a beautifully-voiced African-American whose characterisation has been handled with rare subtlety. Okay, maybe it hasn't: he appears to be a master of voodoo. Yikes.
Well-meaning insensitivity aside, all of the classes have something going for them. Each character has the ability to either mess around with a selection of standard guns on their own, leaving the left trigger free for iron-sights, or choose to sacrifice accuracy in favour of dual-wielding a mini Uzi - not as cute as it sounds - along with their special piece of kit. Jimmy Wilson's dark axe is the immediate stand-out favourite, as you throw it with one squeeze of the trigger and then call it back with another. It means that if you miss your target first time around, you have a chance to catch them on the rebound, dealing damage and yanking them into range of your fire-arms.
Inugami's sword isn't bad, either, with a jab and a slice move available, both of which offer a queasy sense of connection, and generally end with a little light dismemberment. Dumond's voodoo nightstick looks like a huge skull-faced lollipop and yanks foes from cover and leaves them dangling in the air - perfect for a co-op partner to blast into pieces - while Shoshanna's shotgun, the Arm of the Night, sends assailants tumbling across the sidewalk in a sooty blast of demonic nastiness.
Each character has their own talent tree you can spend your way through by cashing in the Darkness Essence you collect with each kill - the talents themselves are a pleasantly familiar blend of perks and buffs, by the looks of it - and this mysterious essence also powers each class's special Darkness move. Dumond can drag baddies into a vortex, and Inugami can send out a swarm of Darkness mites - I'm making this term up - to incapacitate foes while he moves in for some stabbing. Shoshanna gets a lovely berserker burst on the ol' shotgun that means she doesn't have to reload for a while, and Little Jimmy Wilson can summon a Darkling to give anybody nearby a hard time. It's almost as much fun as the phonetics that have been employed to translate his accent into sub-titles, the likes of which haven't been seen since Kingsley Amis died.
Essence provides a familiar XP system that's in place to encourage you to murder people as viciously as possible, rewarding more of the stuff for a headshot that a standard kill, for example, and piling on the points for a close-up execution. It incentivises risk-taking, and it smartly gets around one of the game's potential problems: that the guns are so much fun to fire on their own - so full of juddering feedback and spangly muzzle flash - that you could be forgiven for forgetting all about your demonic powers and just playing through the whole thing as if it was a regular shooter. That would probably make someone over at Digital Extremes cry.
Missions are short and nasty, generally moving you through a range of arena-type spaces - a junkyard, a printing works, a multi-storey car park - before piling on the enemies and only allowing you to unlock the next environment once everybody's dead. You can play alone, but you'll really need to work with friends on harder difficulties once the early mobsters and grunts give way to Darkness-riddled monsters, one of whom has a leash that can snatch your guns away.
You'll need to tread carefully, too, as pools of electric lightning mess with your inner demons and can blind you momentarily. Occasionally, there's an objective thrown in - power up a machine using several switches, defend it when it's then doing its thing - and there's a storyline slung through the whole thing too, but for your first few playthroughs, it's all going to be about messing around with your friends and chewing through waves of baddies.
It's Horde mode when you really strip away all the clutter, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. The Darkness 2 may not be redefining your idea of co-op play, then, but it appears to deliver the goods when it comes to grim demonic combat and lightly tactical teamwork. Oh, and there's all that lovely colour, too.