Few games begin as daringly as The Darkness. The opening car chase sequence in Starbreeze's Xbox 360 and PS3 shooter is right up there with the most intense and visceral the industry has seen, and will likely leave you sat gawping at the screen. While almost completely unlike the rest of the game, it serves to set the brutal mafia tone and establish Jackie as the protagonist. The good news is that this rollercoaster ride is simply a taster for the thrilling events that are to come.
Based on the graphic novel of the same name, but altered substantially to make for a more engaging and entertaining video game, The Darkness follows the aforementioned Jackie. A hitman working for his Mob boss uncle Paulie, he seeks revenge after being set up and left for dead. A gun-touting bad-ass in his own right, things become even more extreme when the game's titular power manifests in him. This 'darkness' comes in the shape of tentacles, capable of picking up objects, ripping people apart, protecting Jackie from bullets and seeing in the dark.
The change from everyday hitman to tentacle-wielding monster is a gradual one, with more powers being bestowed upon Jackie as you progress through the game's main story, which is mainly set in a seedy New York - complete with functioning subway system. Without wanting to give away too much of the story, it's safe to say that Jackie soon becomes even more hell bent on revenge than he was at the start of the game, meaning you'll be in for 10+ hours of bloodthirsty FPS violence.
The powers Jackie possesses go beyond simply partially protecting from gun-fire and seeing in the dark. The two snake-like headed tentacles that are visible on screen love to gorge themselves on human hearts, and these replenish your 'Darkness' meter (shown through glowing patches on the heads of the snakes) and increase the power's overall strength - enabling you to use the abilities for longer. Replenishing can also be done by taking out all the lights in an area, as the tentacles thrive on darkness - as the name suggests.
Key abilities are gained by eating the hearts of the most evil characters, so before too long you'll have the two most basic tentacle powers. The first is 'Creeping Dark' which lets you control a single snake and move it through the environment, taking out enemies and lights as you go. It can also be used to interact with various things in the environment, such as locked doors that were stopping Jackie's progress. The second is a lethal tentacle arm that can move objects, take out lights and impale enemies. As always, these can only be used while your darkness meter is full of juice, so it pays to try and work in darkness wherever possible.
To help you out at various points you can call on the help of darklings - small minions with murderous tendencies. As with your powers, these aren't all available at the start, but a few hours in you'll have the ability to summon berserker, gunner, kamikaze and lighting darklings, all specialising in a certain area that their names suggest. These guys can be directed with a point and click of a button and also interact with the environment to give Jackie access to new areas. They're chirpy minions too, often ranting about something as they wait for their next command.
At moments during my time with the preview build it was hard not to sit there in awe at what was going on. It's perhaps the most consistently violent game I've ever played, but it feels so good. With two guns equipped and your tentacle arm ready to take out any lights that cross your path, it's easy to become a killing machine. There'll be a moment where you first realise that you can quickly take out the lights and then go on a killing spree of hardened superhero proportions. The highlighted silhouettes of enemies run around screaming, but you're out for revenge and they've got it coming to them.
A side story of sorts focuses on the evil power's struggle to gain control of Jackie. As it points out in various brilliantly voiced sections, you are merely its puppet, and it demonstrates this whenever possible. Much of second story is played in some kind of alternate World War 1 setting, where the undead walk. German soldiers are eyeless freaks, whereas the English resistance appear to have been ripped apart and sewn back together. These levels feel completely different to the game's New York setting but are just as entertaining and as full of gore.
Although still going through the final polishing stage of development, The Darkness is a truly gorgeous game to look at. While not as showy and flawless as the likes of Gears of War, the dark, gritty locations and moody lighting never fail to impress, and the motion blur on movement gives the game a suitably next-gen feel. The change in lighting when you summon the darkness is subtle but impressive, giving objects a soft glowing outline to enable you to navigate in the dark, and character models are often scarily life-like in appearance.
Presentation throughout seems to be near flawless, with superb use of in-game audio and an effective musical score. Voice acting and in-engine cutscenes simply add to the game's impressive feel, with some superb monologue sections by Jackie being the only time you'll be taken away from the game world - and these cleverly disguise loading.
With a stunning single-player story, impeccable presentation and a multiplayer mode that's yet to be explored, it seems that Starbreeze and 2K Games have a monster hit on their hands. Thankfully we won't have to wait too long to see if it stands up as a true classic, as The Darkness is due for release in Europe on June 29.