When one thinks of the greatest examples of online shooters released in the last half-decade, The Darkness isn't the first title that leaps to mind.
Released in 2007, Starbreeze's FPS certainly contained a multiplayer mode, but it wasn't highlighted by reviewers as a reason to pick it up. Most of the attention centred around the rather intriguing campaign, which saw gothic-tinged mobster Jackie Estacado become infested by a demonic spirit just as he declared war on his Mafioso family.
The multiplayer was reported as an afterthought; it was by turns as laggy, sparse and slightly interesting, but mostly it was an optional extra. In fact, Starbreeze could probably have gotten away with including no multiplayer at all, the first time around.
Oh, how times have changed! These days, online modes are practically the reason an FPS is developed to begin with. Shooters are now expected to ship with a short single-player campaign and a beefed-up multiplayer as the industry standard.
Unless a game's online mode is able to make inroads into the marketshare dominated by the Gears, the CODs, the Battlefields and the Halos of this world, the prevailing wisdom is that they shouldn't get into the ring to begin with. It's probably for this reason that Starbreeze has opted for a co-op rather than competitive experience for Vendettas - the Darkness II's online mode.
Vendettas offers players a choice between two experiences: Campaign and Hit List. The latter in this instance is reportedly a drop-in/drop-out mode in which players can play missions from the co-op Campaign, and a set of unlockable missions, some of which require two players to beat. We say 'reportedly' because at the preview event CVG attended, a technical mishap meant that the multiplayer experience was completely off the table, and we had to play everything solo.
While this means that we weren't able to find out what the Campaign mode was like when tackled with others, we can report that it seems perfectly serviceable as a solo experience. So that's good news, at least, for anyone out there who has absolutely no friends at all.
The co-op Campaign involves four colourful protagonists toting magical weapons, who have to track down artefacts containing the ethereal creature's essence. Players have a choice of Inugami, a Katana-wielding street samurai, Shoshanna, an ex-Mossad operative with a powerful sawn-off, J.P. Dumond, a former doctor turned Voodoo Priest, and Jimmy Wilson, a blunt Glaswegian with a very sharp axe.
Each of their main weapons is powered by The Darkness, which makes them suitably demonic in appearance and incredibly lethal when used as directed. Each member of the team also has a secondary power, which the player can activate by hitting the Y button once the meter on the screen is filled; Wilson can conjure up Darkling minions to attack foes, while Shoshanna has unlimited ammunition for brief periods of time.
As players shoot their way through each level, they earn points from combat moves such as headshots, Darkness-weapon kills and collecting hearts from fallen opponents. They can spend these at Darkness portals at certain points in the level, opening up abilities - like the power to see and shoot opponents through walls - which augment their secondary powers.
The co-op Campaign is a self-contained story that runs parallel to and occasionally intersects with the single-player adventure in The Darkness II. Once players select their character, a mobster with a face like a shovel informs them all that Jackie Estacado required their services and the bloodletting commences.
Inugami's sword slashes up opponents like sashimi, Shoshanna's sawn off blows cannonball-sized holes through enemies and Wilson uses his axe much in the same way as a sharp-edged boomerang. For his part, Dumond has a staff that he can use to levitate foes for brief periods, while he peppers them with bullets.
Aside from their Darkness-powered weapon, players can carry a two other firearms - one heavy and one light - and can switch between the three of them on the D-pad, with an option to dual-wield their Darkness weapon and light weapon. Dual-wielded weapons, obviously, dole out more damage, but occasionally players will be required to make the odd precision shot, and they can only use iron sights if they're holding one weapon.
A lot of the action in the levels we played, though, took place in close quarters where we were able to use execution kills to finish off opponents quickly. If the player pumps a couple of rounds into an enemy, they'll notice their heart will glow briefly. At this point, if they move in close, a prompt to hit the left bumper will flash up for the execution kill. If the player is holding a normal weapon, they simply beat their foe to death with the butt of it. If, however, they have The Darkness weapon selected, all hell breaks loose.
Each character has a nasty cinematic associated with their Darkness weapon. Inugami and Wilson dismember their enemies thoroughly, while Dumond uses his staff to lift an enemy into the air and twist the top half of their body off. Shoshanna's is probably the most graphic of the bunch; she kneecaps her opponent, shoves her sawn-off in their mouth, and then blows their head clean off their body.
It's hard to over-emphasise how graphic the violence is in these instances, although the game's new cel-shaded graphics takes the edge off the proceedings a little.
However, while the ability to unleash carnage is both fun to use and stomach churning to behold, the player isn't invulnerable. First off, due to their Darkness powers, all four characters lose health if they're exposed to any strong light source. While most of the action takes place at night, flood lights, street lights and interior lights are dotted around all the environments, so players will find themselves either clinging to the shadows, or hunting for generators to knock out power sources.
The characters aren't impervious to damage either; the player's health meter needs to be replenished occasionally by snatching up the odd human heart, so it's worth rummaging through corpses after firefights have concluded.
It's hard to get a sense of The Darkness 2 as a co-op - not least because CVG was forced to play it solo during the preview - but the pieces seem in to be in place for an enjoyably brutal romp. On the evidence presented, it's unlikely it'll topple the likes of Left 4 Dead from the top of the co-op podium, but if The Darkness 2 is set to rely on its single-player mode to bring in the punters in as much as its predecessor did, Vendettas could prove a tasty dessert.