Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Darkness: Initial Experience

Finally back into console game world. I fired up The Darkness and am about an hour or so into the game. I really enjoyed the demo and it was recommended highly by a friend whose opinion I trust -- though I can't remember whether he recommended the game or some specific element.

So far it's pretty decent. I'm a little nervous that I'm going to get really tired of the "shoot out every single light bulb in the city" game so that I can use my cool powers. But, I'm willing to give it another hour or two to see whether the combat patterns are deeper than "pistol -> light bulb; pistol -> light bulb; sick snake-arm-thing on guy around the corner".

Here are some thoughts on the initial experience.

The opening game shell flow was a little jarring and dated:

  • As soon as I pressed start, I was presented with a visual quality adjustment screen. Basically there were two sliders: Quality and Gamma. Quality cycled through various looks that ranged both in terms of aesthetic look and darkness. I assumed that I should just pick something I liked. Gamma (which means nothing to anyone other than a hardcore PC gamer) really just means "brightness". Unfortunately there was no way for me to assess whether I should change this or not. Thankfully the game told me I could readjust this at any time during game play. And, a really cool feature (for the advanced player who wants to adjust brightness) is that it applies the adjustments to the current paused game view so you can actually set the level most appropriate to your needs.
  • Next I was allowed to select difficulty: Easy, Medium, or Hard. Medium was the default selection. No attempt to attract the "Casual" gamer here -- the difficulty levels are definitely old school.
Opening game play:
  • The screen went black, and then a blurry image appeared. An on screen prompt had a picture of a thumb stick (not sure which one) and presented text telling me to look around. I figured out that it was the right stick and jammed it left and right. My camera view seemed to slowly change a bit. Then I noticed that it looked like I was staring at my legs. I guessed that it wanted me to look up (to trap my y-axis preferences). I pulled back on the stick and as soon as my head was level the game saved and I went into a partially interactive cut scene.
  • The opening sequence was a credits movie where I could interact a bit. Generally speaking, I could turn my head. Eventually I got a shotgun and could fire (futilely) at targets as they sped by (I was in a car). After the car crashed the main learn-as-you-play component started.
  • As I woke up I was prompted to "Press Back button to view tutorial help". I couldn't do anything else (no skipping) and when I pressed the back button I got a big billboard of text. I immediately skipped it, hoping it wasn't very important.
  • There were various standard situational prompts (Y to jump up; click thumbstick to crouch; triggers to fire weapons).
Core game play:
  • The core game play is reasonably fun so far. The pistol shooting bits weren't the greatest, but it started to get more fun when I obtained my darkness powers.
  • The ammo & reloading mechanics are rather confusing.
    • I can't see ammo on the ground near corpses. It seems like sometimes I pick some up, sometimes not.
    • I initially had no idea how the reload model works. I was left to shoot until I was empty and auto reload. I eventually learned that B reloaded both of my hand guns at the same time (you start the game with guns akimbo). It would have been much clearer if I got *some* feedback when I hit B when my guns were fully loaded that let me know that B did something. The problem was that I'd hit B when the guns were fully loaded and nothing would happen, so I gave up on the B button.
    • I'm also not sure I fully understand the ammo UI. It seems to switch weapon graphics sometimes -- almost like I'm switching between kinds of gun. It's a total mystery to me.
  • I also didn't learn how to holster my weapons before shooting an NPC out of frustration. The NPC wouldn't talk to me while my guns were raised, but I had no idea how to put them away. So I shot him. Later I learned that you could do this by pressing the d-pad.
  • The level design can be a little confusing. I'm guessing that the designers wanted the city to feel like an open world where you could have all kinds of open quests to be solved in the order that you see fit. However, at the beginning of the game when I'm still learning things, I'm expecting to be on rails for a bit. Why, then, was I started in a train station and told to go to the platform for a phone call -- but NOT supposed to get on the train? If you lead a person to a train station, you should probably assume that he thinks "I should take the train". Wrong. I took the train the wrong way, then finally figured out I needed to exit the train station without boarding the train. Weird.
  • The phone dial minigame is kind of fun. Collectables give me phone numbers to call. They provide some world flavoring and bonus content. Sadly, the free dial function didn't seem to work right. I typed in one number from a poster and it worked fine. I kept trying to type in a different number and it autodialed after 4 digits and never let me dial the number I wanted to.
  • I basically finished the first stage (meeting up with my girlfriend) after a bunch of wandering. I could hear her shouting "Jackie, I'm up here" but there were no visual cues directing me to where "up here" was. Eventually I saw a couple of pixels moving on the corner of my screen and finally moved close enough to see her waving out of a 5th floor window. There were no visual cues/level design hints to help me find her.
  • The save game system seems to work well (you don't seem to lose a lot of progress when you die; it seems to point you in the right direction when you resurrect). Dying is also built into the fiction of the game in the form of movies that play as the level reloads. You have to watch the first 10-15 seconds, but can skip the rest if you want to and jump back into game play.
I left the game at a battle sequence that it looked like it might take a few tries to complete. I think I'm about an hour or so away from figuring out whether I'll like it a lot or whether it will just be kind of so-so.

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