In recent years the prevailing wisdom in the games industry appears to have been that delivering a product without online multiplayer is somehow market suicide.
Why that is has fuelled more Internet shouting matches than could be read in a lifetime. Perhaps it’s digital rights management, or a form of it. No doubt the exaggerated spectre of piracy loudly rattles its chains in publishing boardrooms around the world – possibly as much a go-to excuse for poorly performing products as it is a real threat to the market.
Or it could be in response to the videogame aftermarket: online passes and downloadable content have in recent years become an intrinsic part of a game’s production; frankly, transcribing the various whims, hysterias and paranoias that curiously help to inform “best practices” at games publishers could constitute a small book.
Suffice to say, even the most cursory glance over any collection of recent games will reveal a number of titles that include unnecessary multiplayer modes, games with empty servers that now pay testament to little more than squandered development costs.
Digital Extremes knows the dangers of redundant multiplayer development better than many: the studio was responsible for the multiplayer component of BioShock 2. While serviceable, the developer’s online interpretation of Rapture failed to capture the imagination of the gaming public, offering competitive interactions that were very much at odds with the tone of the series.
It’s a hard lesson that appears to have been thoroughly taken to heart. Digital Extremes is now at the helm of The Darkness II. Based on the graphic novel series by Paul Jenkins, The Darkness relays the story of a young mob hitman named Jackie Estacado who plays host to a kind of demonic possession that he can manipulate to his own ends, but one that he must constantly battle for outward control. The studio invited the media to New York last week to unveil the game’s multiplayer mode, called Vendettas.
“When we started work on the game we asked ourselves what our key pillar was,” begins Digital Extremes’ creative director Sheldon Carter. “That key pillar was ‘service to story.’” He continued, “If everything is in service to story then the multiplayer has to be as well. Thus started the path down to Vendettas.”
Ostensibly, Vendettas is a multiplayer cooperative mode for up to four players, but Digital Extremes’ multiplayer here differentiates itself from the crowd in several important ways. Throughout the Jackie-centric singleplayer experience there will be background events that are touched upon but not directly relayed. A black comedy starring four larger-than-life caricatures, Vendettas allows us to play through such moments.
“The part you’ve played starts off with Vinnie, who is Jackie’s right-hand man, saying, ‘I need you guys to go find Johnny Powell and rescue him,’” explains Carter to Gameplanet shortly after the attendant press have finished an extensive hands-on session with Vendettas. “Flash over to the singleplayer campaign: right after he’s released The Darkness, he approaches Vinnie and says, ‘I need somebody to help me with The Darkness. I need you to find Johnny Powell – that f--king nut-job helped me suppress The Darkness two years ago. Go find him and bring him to me – you don’t have to be nice to him.’” By playing through Vendettas, “you see that it was these guys that went and rescued him; this is where he was. So you find out more about both sides of the story by playing through these Vendetta campaigns.”
Those characters are Inugami, the bearer of a cursed Katana that shaves one year off his life for every day he fails to kill an evil man; Johnny Wilson, a tartan pants-endowed cliché of a Scot who wields an axe; Shoshanna, a shotgun-toting former member of the Israeli secret service; JP Dumond, a quiet-spoken witchdoctor whose voodoo is channelled through a skull-topped staff.
“We looked at the characters [from the] Top Cow universe and asked ourselves who the [existing] characters are that we could potentially bring in and use” for Vendettas, says Carter. “What we realised, when considering the tone we’re doing, is that none of the existing Top Cow characters really fit strongly with what we want to do.
“So we decided to build new characters from the ground up, characters that are really fully realised. When you look at Ingami, he was really built from the Kusanagi sword,” he continues. “We went into a huge back-story on that, the origin of the sword: It came from a dynasty centuries ago. It was lost in the sea until a fisherman pulled it up and actually changed his whole family into a family of assassins, and so on and so on.