In the surface, The Darkness' moody, aggressive world seems a perfect fit for 360 - guns, special effects and a gritty crime-packed universe should give a developer an endless source of inspiration. But it could so easily be a poisoned chalice: you've got the storyline mapped out in front of you, you've got the ever-demanding comic fans to appease, and with a film also in the pipeline (developed by Sin City producers Dimension Films), there are a lot of variables to consider. Might be easier, perhaps, to just create an anaemic X-Men: The Official Game hack-'n'-slasher. But that's not the Starbreeze we know. That's not the Starbreeze that systematically broke down and rebuilt the Riddick universe, eventually creating a title a trillion times better than the film. And, thankfully, that's not like The Darkness publishers Top Cow either.
Top Cow owner Matt Hawkins, who was kind enough to discuss with us the making of The Darkness, was at pains to point out that one of the key reasons that Starbreeze landed the licence, was because they had their own ideas about how the game would play out. "During the pitch, Starbreeze had prepared around two hours' worth of discussion material," he recalls. "They wanted to completely abolish the sci-fi green suit and re-design Jackie. They brought with them concept drawings, the lot. The discussion was over in seconds. We simply said yes."
Starbreeze's re-imagining of The Chronicles of Riddick, both in terms of storyline and art direction, has boosted the Swedish developer's reputation in ways you can't begin to imagine. When comic book alumni of the calibre of Marc Silvestri (the Darkness scriber who counts The Uncanny X-Men among his back catalogue) sing the praises of Starbreeze's artistic merit, you know you've got something potentially more than a little bit special on your hands. Now read on... Like many comics, The Darkness' influences and plot developments are many. The Uppsala, Sweden-based developers have opted to chronicle the rise of former mob member Jackie Estacudo, from disenfranchised mob schmo to the top of the Franchetti family. There are other, more sci-fi based elements to The Darkness canon, but Starbreeze have deliberately played them down or omitted them altogether to keep focus. Starbreeze tell us that the concept of The Darkness is already, "so far out there that we wanted to ensure that it was accessible to the casual fan... while retaining the essence of the comic". From what we've seen, Starbreeze have accomplished this with ease. It's a metamorphosis based on the same logic that saw Wolverine slash-up his yellow togs for the new X-Men movies - free from the green leotard and face-mask, Jackie Estacudo now appeals to a far wider audience, and although he's still a nasty piece of work, his strong moral code and his moody, cool exterior gives him an 'honour among thieves' appeal that instils a strange empathy in the player. The game's locations reflect the new down-to-earth style, taking place mostly in New York, seeing him visit such murky, downtrodden parts of the town as graveyards and the subway - although we were told rather cryptically to expect latter levels to take place in "another world". Intriguing.
A DARK HISTORY
While Top Cow might have approved these wholesale changes, with a film on the cards, surely they'd want a tight leash on this new direction? Not so. "We've had a hands-off approach to the title." explains Marc Silvestri. "The one thing that impressed us most about Starbreeze is that they 'got' what The Darkness is about. We didn't have to explain it to them. But they also had their own ideas. And there's a lot of goodwill surrounding (what they did with) Riddick, so we just let them get on with it. We trust them". Silvestri and Hawkins seemed genuinely impressed with what they saw of the game - and so were we. The Darkness is a videogame that draws intelligently from the source materials of the comic and uses them to compliment the game, rather than crow-barring references into the structure, no matter how tight the fit. And the source material Starbreeze has to work with?