With the recent string of high profile games flooding the stores (and emptying gamers’ wallets) nearly complete, it is almost time to begin to look forward towards some of the biggest games due out in the early part of next year — and there are a bunch.
One of the most intriguing, however, is the sequel to the 2007 game, The Darkness. The property has remained a priority for publisher 2K Games, even as the sequel changed developers from Starbreeze to Digital Extremes. With that shift come a handful of changes, a much-hyped new quad-wielding weapon system and a whole new look, dubbed “graphic noir.”
We sat down with 2K Games producer Seth Olshfski and talked about the game, the switch in studios and the joy found in ripping into people with demon arms.
How long has The Darkness II been in development?
Over two years now, actually we are approaching three. It’s been with Digital Extremes the whole time.
That’s ancient ancient code at this point. One of the blessings of this game is that we were very clear about what we were making from very, very early on, and didn’t really encounter anything that would cause us to want to change course. When your vision is clear, a lot of other things fall into place.
What you saw at GDC was the same type of thing, but it is significantly more polished and looks a lot better.
The original Darkness began at Starbreeze before the sequel moved over to Digital Extremes. Has that changed how you approach the development cycle?
We always look to the first game as the core inspiration for the second, and anytime you are working on a sequel, that is sort of how you should feel, I think. Everybody at Digital Extremes really likes the first game. They’ve all played it, and they really respect it. They want to just kind of keep the integrity of the story and the characters. The guys really did love the first game so much that they felt kind of intimidated, I guess at first, about how they could live up to that.
Over time we kind of figured out what the story is we’re trying to tell, how we should tell that story, how the gameplay should fit into that, and then it felt like a natural kind of growth from the first game to the second.
Whether it is the same developer or a different developer, there is always that first game when you are making a sequel that you kind of have to keep in your sights, out of respect for everybody that bought the first one, and all the people who were working on it that loved the first one.
How closely have you been working with Top Cow (publishers of The Darkness comic)?
The thing we were strictest in maintain continuity was with the first game, and Paul [Jenkins] was immensely helpful with that, because he wrote the first game and wrote a bunch of the comic books. The first game was the strict narrative. We absolutely don’t want to retcon any of that, and that is what we are maintaining really strongly.
For the rest of the Top Cow comics and the rest of the Top Cow universe, we’re not trying to recreate, reinvent or re-envision anything from the Top Cow universe. The inspiration was definitely more the first game.
The first game was the jumping off point from the comics, where some of the things got a little more or less emphasis.
What were the things from the first game that you wanted to expand or change?
I think the thing we needed to maintain from the first game was the narrative. The story was excellent. That bar was high, and we needed to keep that bar high, so that’s why we brought Paul back, and we’ve also got world-class voice talent. Digital Extremes needed to be excellent to tell the story that Paul is creating, so that was kind of the bar we needed to maintain.
As far as what Digital Extremes wanted to do to put themselves into this game, they are really excellent at action moment-to-moment gameplay, and that is one of the thigns we wanted to expand from Darkness 1. In The Darkness 1 you start as Jackie before the darkness manifests, so Jackie is just a thug. He has a gun and he’s normal “human powered.” And by the end of the game, the Darkness has arrived and he’s figured out how to wield all these crazy powers, and he’s become really awesome. And so for the second game, that was our starting point — Jackie’s incredibly powerful and becomes even more powerful as the game goes on, and that kind of makes for different gameplay.
So that is why we pushed more for the up-close and personal combat that Digital Extremes is so good at delivering — like quad-wielding, with the amazing and uniquely useable, controlled demon arms and the two guns at the same time. So I think if we’re pushing anything, we’re pushing the combat based mostly on how Jackie is just more powerful in this game, so the combat has to reflect that.
You guys are using your proprietary engine, the Evolution Engine. What are the highlights of the engine?
One of the more subtle, but awesome highlights, is light. The game is called “The Darkness,” meaning dark and light have to be something that you sell really well in the game, something that you can visualize really well in the game. We’ve got such incredible dynamic lighting in this engine that we’re doing stuff that you don’t see much. The lighting is something that the art people use to make the world look beautiful, but it’s also gameplay, so it is not only something that has to be visually awesome, but also something that is very precise.
We’ve got enemies with shoulder-mounted light cannons chasing after Jackie, shining the light on him, which bottles up the Darkness, which makes the demon arms go away and prevent regeneration. It makes him just a dude with a gun, which is terrible. But when you look around in the engine, you see that all of the little objects that are getting light shined on them — and it’s a horizontal light — there’s really long shadows, and it looks like light in the world, which is not something you see much of in games. It’s really processor intensive, but with the Evolution Engine, the low-level engine work for making dynamic lights was step one. They have really made an amazing engine for making dynamic lighting interesting.
Is there a multiplayer aspect to the game?
What are you personally most excited for fans to see in The Darkness II?
I am personally most excited for day one when people get their hands on the controls and quad-wield for the first time. The independently powerful demon arms — the slashing demon arm, the grabbing demon arm, the two guns — sounds kind of intimidating, but we have made using four weapons at the same time so intuitive. At shows — we’ve been to Comic-Con and PAX — people pick up a controller and get it pretty much immediately, and everyone leaves those shows thinking “that was just fun to play.”
The moment to moment combat and gameplay are fun. It’s joyous violence. The feel is very good. So I’m most excited about people on day one picking up a controller and having the proof that ‘quad-wielding is awesome’ happen immediately. I play a lot of other games, and I’ll be in another shooter, and I’ll think ‘Man, I miss demon arms. I wish I could slash this guy, but I have to back up and switch to a shotgun for close range, but I really wish I could pick him up and throw him.’
It’s just this part of gameplay that you get really acclimated to. It’s really fun and really powerful. So I can’t wait for people to get their hands on that and never want to go back.
What games are you playing in your free time?
I don’t have a lot of free time at this moment, but this fall is such a crazy time, with hit after hit after hit. So it’s really cool seeing all of the excellent AAA shooters coming out, the excellent adventure games, a bunch of other stuff based on comics. In my household, I’m not the one that gets the controller first, so I spend a lot of time watching other games be played, but very shortly I expect to be in front of all the awesome hits coming this fall.
The next big one is Skyrim…
Oh God. That’s where my life is going to go for a month.
Yeah! There goes 100 hours.
Seriously. I am going to freebase that game, I’m sure of it.
The original Darkness was very dark in terms of the story (no pun intended). Will the sequel follow suit and have a mature storyline?
Oh yeah. Just look at the source material and you have mafia themes, and then you have ancient demonic forces of chaos themes, so it doesn’t lend itself to a very happy story. Jackie is a not a perfect, upstanding citizen. He’s got his faults, he’s got his dark past, and now he’s built on that dark past and become the Don of the mafia at 23, so he’s the same brooding type of guy, except with significantly more power than the last game. It’s going to get dark.
At the same time, to make a story that is very serious and hits very serious themes and is emotionally impactful, you also need to have some humor. If you don’t let a player laugh every once in a while, the seriousness of any narrative can get overwhelming. That’s part of the reason we have the Darkling, which is a great source of twisted, dark humor: running around, pissing on corpses after you’ve killed them, jumping on someone’s head and poking their eyes out saying “pain is funny.” It’s sort of a gallows humor, but it’s a great way to keep the player engaged in a story that is very serious and very dark and very powerful.
One of the things that Jackie figured out in the two years between the games is how “Dark Essence” works. Dark Essence is something that is in the world, it is the effect of a dark action. If Jackie kills an attacking mobster, there’s some Dark Essence as an effect of that action. In between the first game and second, Jackie learned how to harness that in order to make the Darkness more powerful.
So as you kill throughout the game, you earn more and more Dark Essence, then you can go to the talent tree of 40-ish talents that you can purchase upgrades for. For instance you can use some of the power of the Darkness to increase the number of bullets in your gun. So you may have a six-shooter, but it will shoot nine before you have to reload, and the last three bullets are powered by the Darkness. That’s cool for someone that is a gunner.
There’s four main talent trees: an Active power talent tree with swarm and gun channeling, a hitman talent tree which upgrades the guns and makes them better, an execution talent tree where you can upgrade executions to have different gameplay effects, and a demon arm talent tree. So lots of different ways you can go.
In the demon tree, there’s one called “demonic lift” which gives you full control over the direction of the slash of the demon arm, so you can slash them up in the air and they will float there helplessly for a second. As soon as you get into combat, immobilizing someone for a sec, then slashing off their arm, or shooting them across the room, or kneecaping them with another slash, it is very satisfying. Then you can upgrade one more from that and get “ground pound” which is when you slash downward on anything airborne, it causes that enemy to explode, and the explosion does damage to all the enemies around them. Great for people — like me — that run into the middle of combat. When you can run into the middle of a crowd and eat their hearts to get your health back there’s no reason to hold back. I’m just talking about my style — with quad-wielding there are so many different types of play styles that we do support.
Anything else about The Darkness II that you are personally excited about?
The one thing hasn’t really been talked about much that I’m really excited about is the art style. It looks really distinct, and that’s one of the things that’s kind of different from the first game to the second. We’re excited about it at 2K, we’re excited about it at Digital Extremes, Marc Silvestri, the creator of The Darkness, absolutely loves it. We went back to the source material — we went back to Marc’s drawings in the original Darkness comics and said “Yep, let’s make it look like this.”
We’re calling the style graphic-noir. It’s got a little essence of a comic illustrator, a little essence of a comic pen artist with hash marks as a shading technique; it’s got really dark blacks with bright pops of saturated color. It really feels like you are playing a graphic novel. In screenshots you can always tell it is The Darkness II, but it really comes alive when it moves. Even our most skeptical skeptics — and I’ve seen this at shows when people are like “I liked it more when it was more like real life,” then you put the controller in their hands and they say “that was awesome.” It feels right. We changed to this graphical style to support the game and the story we are trying to tell, and that’s and that’s another one that I’m really excited about on day one — how much players will love the visuals of this game because of the way it integrates with the story.
The Darkness II hits PC, Ps3 and Xbox 360 on February 7, 2012.