Review: The Darkness II

TheDarkness2

It has been five years since Starbreeze Studio’s well-regarded video game adaptation of a comic book known as The Darkness came out.  The world of fake New York City was a rich one which looked good at the time.  It is a game that is worth going back to even today if one can tolerate character and area interaction within the broader context of a first-person shooter.  It and The Chronicles of Riddick, another Starbreeze game, created an interesting blend of stealth, action and adventure.  Sadly, the first game’s multiplayer was a poorly executed, laggy, tacked-on afterthought.  The sequel, the subject of this review, was developed by Digital Extremes and clearly takes its story beats from the first game, but is played differently.  The first game dealt with the player’s origin with the Darkness entity, its abilities, and eventually getting rid of the inky thing–or at least suppressing it.  But a life of crime will inevitably lead to a life of dark deeds, and things can reawaken that should have been left asleep.

Two years ago, as detailed in the first game, the main character discovered the Darkness and used its power to take down his rivals and opponents in the criminal underworld of New York.  Jackie Estacado, hitman turned mob boss, is the newest of his lineage to claim his birthright, the Darkness.  He and his forbears have been hosts to this dark being for some time and according to lore found early in the game, it is a being that has existed since before recorded time.  The exact nature of the creature is ambiguous, but it would appear that it can only interact in the real world through hosts, through which it tries to corrupt others and consume more power.  It is a power and a curse that Estacado explains through a series of monologues that interplay in between each level, temptation and violence being a common subject.  He will relate some episode of nastiness or despair in his past and refer to how he either gave into the Darkness or instead did a nice thing for his dead childhood friend turned longtime girlfriend, Jenny.  Jenny died in the last game, and Jackie hasn’t gotten over the loss by the start of this game for reasons that will become clearer as the game progresses. 

According to explanations given by the mafia’s expert in all things creepy, the Darkness itself in the fiction is sort of a proto-religious devil figure that has been behind all of the mystical bad things of the occult.  As a fictional device, the being of shadows is an exceedingly basic and sloppy metaphor for the mankind’s baser nature.  While playing the game it did not slap me in the face with the message of, “Violence bad but necessary!  You no do too much!” because I was looking forward to doing some more violence.  Preferably, a lot of it.  When looking back, the whole “giving into the Darkness” thing is a little hammy.  It’s based off a brother publication to Witchblade, don’t expect Kafka.

Keeping in mind that it is a comic book game, The Darkness II’s developer made a product where all of the characters look a little cel-shaded, but not full-on anime.  Here players can see how far things have come since Ubisoft’s XIII as the faces of the gangsters and cultists are all detailed and distinct, yet stylized and colorful enough that they go nowhere near the dreaded uncanny valley of human representation.  The environments are evocative and clear, yet not as bright or clear as other cel-shaded games as the majority of the gameplay takes place in the dark (or soon to be dark as the lights are shot out one by one).  The voice acting is serviceable with the Darkness itself being a highlight.  It manages to sound seductive, angry and on the edge of hysteria at all times, just like one would expect a million-year-old demon-thing to sound.  The only downside is that it is not possible to turn off the subtitles for what it says, ruining whatever cinematic aspect of the game that might otherwise exist.

While it has been a while since I played the first Darkness game (it was released in 2007), I have a memory of there being a large stealth component where it was not a good idea to take on multiple opponents, particularly not in the light.  In part this approach was a result due to the nature of the abilities the Darkness confers on its Mafioso host.  As one could guess, given the name, the Darkness will only come out in the dark.  Should any bright light be shined on Jackie or should he be foolish enough to walk beneath an exposed light, the earthly manifestations of the demonic entity will evaporate from our plane of existence, leaving behind a very easily killed human being.  I also remember the first game having several well-lit areas which Jackie could explore, watch television in, and perform various tasks for NPCs that were unrelated to the main storyline.  While not an RPG, the structure was more varied than running and gunning from level to level and there was a touch of world depth added by some basic character interaction.  Except for the “Light bad, Dark good!” aspect of the game design, the Darkness II is not at all like the first game.

Upon the Darkness coming back into his life, Jackie will go on a dozen or so levels of running and gunning in an attempt to at first avenge a failed attempt to whack him, and then to preserve the Darkness from a Brotherhood of cultists determined to steal the foul entity’s power for themselves.  Except for a few non-violent portions of one or two levels that involve pressing a button to talk to people, most of the environmental interaction is killing and blowing things up.  In addition to using the standard assault rifles, shotguns and dual-wieldable pistols and SMGs, Jackie can control various manifestations of the Darkness.  The evil being can allow Jackie to shoot through walls, throw objects around, grab ammo boxes from far away, and even toss the omnipresent wisecracking goblin-like Darkling helper at the bad[der] guys.  The two dark, snake-headed tentacles will also perform execution moves on enemies thrown off balance if commanded to do so.  These are extremely gruesome and are very shocking at first.  Perhaps as a way to lighten the mood, the various executions have cute little nicknames (i.e. Clean Break, Stomach Whip) that pop up when they are performed.  As one can imagine, while gross and very disturbing the first time around, after a digital foe is literally ripped in half skull to groin–with fully modeled innards spilling out–in front of one’s eyes for the tenth time, it gets less and less shocking and becomes more of a means to get points.

To diversify and improve the core shooting, Jackie can upgrade his foul powers and discover new ones by using Darkness Essence points at various altary-looking black holes that appear once or twice in every level, typically before a big encounter or near the stage’s beginning.  Essence is gained by finding a few hidden relics in the levels, performing signature kills, using the various Darkness powers to end the lives of people and eating the hearts of enemies.  The demon-snake-arms eat a lot of hearts in this game, hundreds of them in fact; it is like the buffet of Daenerys Targaryen’s nightmares.  Sadly, it is actually a little boring after a big gun fight to wander around the battlefield eating all of the hearts of the dead enemies for their sweet points.  This should have been streamlined; it is not fun to pick up these little, individual piles of devil gold, just like it wasn’t fun to pick up individual piles of gold in Diablo 2.

Even though they only do a limited number of things each, it is an interesting experience to play a game where the main character has four “hands” that are controllable.  It is difficult to say how long the internet will last, or how far into the future it may be until men cybernetically graft on or biologically engineer a second set of arms, but in 2012 you can’t sustain four separate, simultaneous physical activities without taking off your shoes.  There are a lot of games that allow one to shoot dudes with a gun and throw things or do melee attacks, but with tons of Dark Essence upgrades players can now do all of these things at the same time. 

As an example, say typical super hero gun-guy action game star has a rifle and happens upon two riflemen behind sandbags, one sniper in a tower and however many melee baddies running at him, right next to some exploding barrels.  Each one of these threats would have to be taken in turn: wait until the melee guys get near the barrels, shoot them to blow everything up, run towards the riflemen while shooting and then take cover to deal with the sniper.  Jackie Estacado, in this newer game, can take care of all three at once.  If properly upgraded, one arm could grab the exploding barrel and throw it at the riflemen, taking care of both with the explosion. The other arm could smack up the melee guys while the guns held by his human arms shoot the sniper. 

When I had first heard the term “quad-wield” I thought it was ridiculous and a very silly marketing buzzword for someone to have written down.  But now having played the game, I can say that the ability to use ectoplasmic demon arms while at the same time shooting regular people guns like always is as much a step forward as shooting two separate guns in Halo 2 was in 2004.  Unfortunately, because of the fantastical requirements of quad wielding it’s not going to catch on like dual wielding since any regular action guy only has two hands to shoot.  Four would be rarer.  Maybe someone will play this and make a really bitching General Grievous game.  Maybe.

Rather than try to mimic reality, the developer chose to go with a look that is closer to the original source material.  In the Top Cow comic book Jackie Estacado looks like a guy in an alien bug costume–which can be unlocked in this game–who deals with and murders mobsters and cultists dedicated to the Dark[ness] Arts.  This game obviously takes the comic book character a little less seriously than its immediate predecessor and still manages to serve up a satisfying and engrossing experience with plenty of death, gore and explosions. 

Sadly, it is not a very long one.  If all the talking parts were skipped through, the game could probably be completed in six hours or less.  Including the plot, it is around ten to twelve.  To add some more content there is a New Game+ mode as well as a sub campaign called “Vendettas” whose events happen parallel to the main game.  This is not as fun as the main game as the hitmen starring in these Vendetta missions do not have access to the full range of Darkness powers granted to the host, but it does have online co-op so players can at least have not as much fun together. If a price to gameplay ratio is a factor for you, this should be taken heavily into account before making a purchase. But, although on the short side and very straightforward, The Darkness II is a stylish game to blast through.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Manages to pull off Quad Wielding
+ Nasty looking executions

Cons:
– Short and not much replay potential
– Linear approach to level design

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox 360, also available for PC, Mac and PS3
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Digital Extremes
Release Date: 2/7/2012
Genre: FPS
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-4
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.