Balancing the Xbox 360 controller lightly between pinkies and thumbs, I twiddle four trigger fingers in occasionally rhythmic bursts. Each squeeze dispenses death in different, surprisingly creative ways. Bad guys die by gun blast, slashing tentacle, severing cab door, skewering light pole.
My thumbs, perched atop the controllers tiny joysticks, swivel in smooth movements, directing my view and direction on screen. I target and squeeze. Deciding in a moment whether to use either of the two guns my character wields or the demon arms that hover over his shoulders.
The Darkness II doesn't just embrace the complexity of modern day controllers, it revels in it, giving gamers the marvel of quad-wielding. With this complexity of control comes the ability to deal damage in one of four changing ways at any time with four different trigger pulls.
I'm not sure whether upcoming macabre shooter The Darkness II's quad-wielding is a byproduct of the perpetual need for shooters to out do one another, or some deeper design decisions, but I don't really care either. It's fun and intellectually stimulating in a way one doesn't expect it to be.
Earlier this week I was dropped into a demonstration of the game and it's satisfying quad-wielding mechanic. The demo was a sort of amalgam of experiences from the game set for release later this year on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.
In it I first watched Jackie Estacado, the Don of the Franchetti crime family, wielder of the darkness, and anti-hero from the first game, have his hands nailed to a crucifix. The second game's main antagonist wants Jackie's powers, but Jackie needs to give them up willingly. Jackie describes the goading bad guy as that "cripple fuck from the restaurant." The nameless enemy in leg braces has a buddy with him, a guy who traces his finger along Jackie's blood-spattered face and remarks "I like the way he feels. He feels sticky."
These cinematic, plot-setting moments are interspersed with playable action: Jackie being dragged through a burning restaurant as players pop off shots at swarming bad guys; the darkness reinvigorating a scorched and badly injured Jackie; grisly, body-eviscerating attacks that leave bloody, sub-divided enemies scattered across back alleys and subways of Manhattan.
The game's new look, a sort of combination of cel-shaded comic book, and traditional colorful gaming graphics, adds hand-painted textures, a creative veneer, to the game's over-the-top gore. While the look helps to reconnect the game with the comics, it pulls up short of the level of cel-shading seen in games like Ubisoft's XIII or Gearbox's Borderlands.
The most noticeable change coming to The Darkness II is the evolution of its controls and how it will inevitably ask players to play. I suppose a player could still grab the controller comfortably between their hands, using their thumbs to look and move and their trigger fingers to attack, quickly shifting between buttons, but the most comfortable, the most sensible way to play is with fingers resting gently on all four attack buttons simultaneously.
You'll use the right trigger and left trigger to fire the guns Jackie can dual wield in his two hands. You'll use the bumpers, located directly above those triggers, to control Jackie's demon arms.
The left bumper directs an arm to grab and throw things. You can, for instance, use that arm to tear a door from a cab, holding it in front of Jackie as he fires his two guns through the open window. When you're done you can tap that left bumper to Frisbee it toward an enemy. If you do it just right, you'll cut the henchman neatly in half.
The right bumper directs an arm to slash out, whipping into enemies and tossing them away from you, or scissoring through them like a razor. Holding in that bumper and using a thumbstick allows you complete control of the, eel-like deadly arm.
Used separately, controlled with those two trigger fingers moving up and down between buttons, Jackie can get the job done. But shifting your hand up slightly, resting middle and trigger fingers on all four buttons simultaneously allows Jackie to orchestrate the sorts of attacks that will tax your concentration as you fire off guns at different targets, grab another, whip yet another. Four enemies, four attacks, four bodies, many, many pieces.
Quad wielding is the game's show stopper, but it's not the only thing interesting about The Darkness II. Jackie will still have to be wary of the light in this sequel. Now when he walks into the light the game's sounds are drowned out with a rising ringing and the scene begins to blur. You can just avoid the light, but I found shooting the lights out a much simpler approach, especially when I have four methods of attack handy at any given moment.
All of those attacks and weapons helps The Darkness II amp up the gore. Enemies don't just die, they come apart in bloody pieces. Those demon arms don't just grab enemies. If used on an unsuspecting enemy, you can chose where and how to grab a bad guy. I noticed four softly glowing points when I played: The head, the chest, either leg. Depending on where I grabbed an enemy, I was able to dispense the struggling thug in different, grotesque manners.
Grabbing an enemy by the leg allowed me to tear him in half, like a wishbone, leaving me with two gory clumps of human flesh, organs and bone. A chest grab allows me to wrap the tentacle arm around the victim and then bursts from his chest. Finally, a head grab tears the head from shoulders.
The over-the-top finishing moves, reminiscent of some of those equally brutal finishing moves found in Aliens Vs Predator, don't add much to the game. They're shocking initially, some may delight in the intensity of the scenes, but eventually they become something that slows the flow of play.
The lasting new experience here is that quad wielding and the rising brutality of the story that hints at an enemy not out to kill you, but break you.