The Darkness II Review
Game: The Darkness II
Developer: Digital Extremes
Publisher: 2K Games
Available on: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Windows PC (Reviewed on Xbox 360)
It has been almost five years since we last stepped into the shoes of Jackie Estacado in videogame form. When Starbreeze brought us The Darkness in 2007, the game was unheralded, yet turned out to be an incredibly inventive and creative title, that became a cult hit. As far as first-person shooters went, the game allowed for a lot of features that you don’t see in your everyday FPS. Darkness powers, deadly tentacles, Darkling helpers and more were a part of your arsenal, and the game played differently from most shooters of the time. Since then, Starbreeze have moved on to work on the Syndicate reboot, and Digital Extremes have taken over the reins for the sequel. they have introduced a raft of new ideas to try and make the franchise their own; so follow me and let the Darkness take over.
STORY: Picking up directly where the first game left off, a short introduction brings players up-to-date with the events in The Darkness. Jackie and the men of his family have been cursed to be possessed by an age-old being known as the Darkness. The Darkness wants to spread death and destruction, and whilst its host can control its actions to an extent, the more the powers are used, the more that the Darkness will take over for good. Jackie has struggled greatly to keep the Darkness under control for years, and that is where we re-join the story. We are straight away placed into a situation where Jackie is the head of his crime family, taking in a fine meal. As you would expect, things don’t go smoothly, and it comes to light that there is a secret society known as The Brotherhood who wish to take the Darkness powers from Jackie and use them to help themselves to take over the world (typical bad-guy fare then?). The game revolves around Jackie trying to discover more of the secrets of this society, and to take them out before they destroy everything he cares about.
The first title was notable for its very strong focus on story and character development, with the relationship between Jackie and his life-long girlfriend Jenny Romano. The sequel is no different, with the title remaining very cinematic and focused on making you care about what is happening to our protagonist throughout. The story is still strong, and has a good balance of drama and action, with strong pacing from stage to stage. Between missions the game is centred on a hub location, that is actually the penthouse hideout of your Mafia gang. In these sections the player can freely explore the area in order to talk to both major and incidental characters, and to fill in the gaps in their knowledge about events in the game. This is optional, and players who just want to get into the action can quickly head on to the next mission, but it is nice to have the option to delve a little deeper into the story. This is very satisfying and will keep you playing, just to find out how the tale all comes together.
GRAPHICS: The sequel skews off in a different graphical direction than the first title, although both remain faithful to the comics. The Darkness was a grim and grimy affair, all shadows and run-down New York areas, modelled in a fairly realistic style. This suited the title as the light and dark dramatic is a major part of the franchise. However, for the sequel, the developers have adopted an almost cel-shaded design, which mirrors the sketchy hand-drawn style of the source material. Characters, objects and even background textures feature bold ink-like outlines, and when you look closely, you can see additional “sketched” brush strokes that accentuate the drawn aesthetic. Whilst perhaps the game doesn’t create the same foreboding atmosphere as the original, the graphic novel roots of the franchise come across clearly and help to make the ultra-violent executions and attacks a little less grotesque.
The animations of both the player’s character and NPC’s are very smooth and detailed, and the game as a whole looks great in action. The only small niggle I would relate is the lack in variety in character design. Whilst your own gang has had quite a lot of attention paid to it, with a lot of character put into the faces of your friends and family, the same can’t very well be said for your enemies. They are all drawn and animated well, but the game suffers from the problem of being packed with (in the early levels) faceless Mafia goons, and (in the later levels) faceless Brotherhood members. The same enemies are repeated again and again, and unfortunately even some of the bosses just look too similar to the run-of-the-mill rent-a-goons. This isn’t a massive issue, and many games suffer this fate, but it is a slight annoyance.
SOUND: Sound design remains an important part of the series, as licensed music is mixed with specially composed soundtracks to good effect, and the game is fully-voiced by a cast of able voice actors. Although the actor who plays Jackie has changed, the voice is close enough to that in the original that you don’t really notice, but it is the work of Mike Patton (former Faith No More frontman), who returns to voice the Darkness once again, that stands out. He adds just the right mix of creepiness and insanity to the character, as it tries to take over the mind of our hero Jackie. And how can we forget your ever-present helper, the Darkling, (a goblin-like creature, conjured from the mind of Jackie). As he leads the way and helps the player in fights, his mockney accent and deranged squealings add a modicum of comedy to a very violent and mostly-serious title. The rest of the sound design all rounds out quite nicely, with suitably visceral rips and squelches as people are torn apart, and impressive ambient sounds during those quieter moments. This all adds to the cinematic atmosphere that the story aims for.
GAMEPLAY: The main point that 2K Games have stressed in the marketing for the title is its new Quad-Wielding system. In practice, this is the ability to not only hold and fire a smaller gun in each hand at once, but to also have independent control over the two Darkness tentacles that are at your disposal. Guns are controlled with the two should triggers, whilst the two bumpers control the tentacles, the left of which is used for grabbing, ripping and throwing, whilst the right one hacks, slashes and maims. Learn to combine the various attacks and actions and you will be able to unleash some truly horrific attacks on your enemies. As in the first game, eating the hearts of downed enemies with the tentacles will help top up your health and make you harder to kill.
These basic attacks are complimented by a series of Darkness skills, which are either learned as you go along or earned as you upgrade. Everything you kill earns you Darkness Essence (more is earned for more violent actions), which can then be used to upgrade your weapons, tentacles and extra skills. These include adding Darkness power to your guns, so when in the dark they may have infinite ammo or do more damage, or being able to increase your reload speed. The skills are extra actions that can be dispatched at certain times. For instance, unlock the Black Hole skill and occasionally the hearts of those you kill will turn into mini Black Holes, which when launched will suck in and kill all enemies within a certain radius. There is also the Swarm, which surrounds nearby enemies with a bee-like swarm which makes them unable to attack, and therefore susceptible to an easy execution.
Executions can be performed whenever an enemy is not actively attacking you. For instance if you sneak up on them, or stun them with a melee attack first, you could grab them with your left tentacle and finish them off. Some executions will reward players with extra health, others with extra ammo, this depends on how you upgrade your skills. Making good use of these different kill methods will help you stay alive as long as you can, or stop you running out of bullets. But if you are short on ammo, you can use the scenery to your advantage. Boxes and bins can be hurled at your foes to stun them or kick them down, fan blades will fly through the air and slice people in two, or poles can even be chucked as javelins, which will impale and skewer bad guys into walls; sometimes several with one spear!
In the first title you could call on the aid of a variety of Darkling helpers to come and fight on your side. They each had different abilities and needed to be deployed at the suitable moment. In this sequel however, there is one Darkling who follows you all of the time. He will lead the way when you are lost, point out useful items and pick-ups when you might have otherwise missed them, and help you in battles by mauling enemies. You can even make use of your hurling skills and throw him directly at the enemy, whereupon he will latch on and slice them to death; albeit a little against his will.
The flip side of all of these killer skills is the light-dark mechanic. Whilst not as immediately obvious and central to the game as in the first title, you are still unable to use your Darkness powers at all when in the light. This means you will have to either pick the location where you will spring your attacks from, or you can shoot, slash and hurl objects at lighting in order to destroy and extinguish it. There isn’t the sort of tactical play that was sometimes needed in the first game, and it feels more or a tacked-on element than before, but it is still something you must consider during battles. Especially when your enemies start to deploy flashbangs.
There is a variety of difficulties at which you can play, but down to the fact that the game gives you so much power and so many ways in which to dispatch your foes, you will often feel over-powered and the game seems somewhat one-sided. It isn’t that enemy A.I. is stupid, but it doesn’t really improve throughout the game, so whilst Jackie levels up and gets stronger, the people you kill don’t really do the same. This does make the game seem a bit of a breeze at times, which doesn’t help when the length of the game is actually fairly short.
MULTIPLAYER: Digital Extremes have made the somewhat bold decision to eschew competitive multiplayer in order to ride on the current wave of co-operative play. In the Vendettas online mode, up to four players can team up to play as four new and unique characters who possess Darkness powers. Jackie’s right-hand man Vinnie has hired you all to help find out more about the Brotherhood, and to aid in bringing them down. The events in this mode link in directly with the main story, and run concurrently, with many of the characters met in the main game making an appearance. This does make the motivation behind the mode stronger, and adds a little more interest to the experience.
Each of the four characters has unique weapons, such as a Kitana, or a Shaman’s mystical staff, and can perform their own unique Darkness skill (one of the many that Jackie can learn as he levels up in the main game). The levels are all quite straight-forward, and usually involve killing a marked target and retrieving a Darkness artefact that the Brotherhood have found. The issue is that all of these levels are very similar, and they are very linear in the sense that you shoot some enemies as you progress, then you shoot the boss. The levels are also very short, and the whole mode can be completed in less than a couple of hours. There is the Hit List, which lets player re-play the missions when they like, and also access extra hits to carry out, but these all feel very alike, and the levels get quickly boring. This is unfortunate, as the way the mode is tied to the story is a good idea, and working as a team to make the most of your combined Darkness powers had potential but when the whole mode can be rushed through with simple shooting, it all feels a bit light.
LONGEVITY: The shortness of both the co-op mode and the main story mode as a whole is the main negative point in the title. The whole experience could only last you around six or seven hours, and in that time you could have met most of the Achievements/Trophies and tried out everything the game has to offer. There is a new game plus mode to try after completion of the game, but this is simply re-playing the same game, but keeping all the upgrades you earned in your first play-through. This is fun to begin with, being super-powered from the get-go, but this novelty soon wanes. The fact that, unlike the first title, there are no side missions to complete any more makes the title very linear. There was an element of free-roaming in the first game, where you could access subway stations to explore and find NPC’s who would give you secret missions, and this sort of thing is lacking entirely in The Darkness II, which is a real shame. More so because these missions helped round out the story and fill in some gaps in the first title, so a little more to do would have been much appreciated here. As it stands, the many plus points of the game are let down quite a lot by its brevity.
VERDICT: Had the game been a few hours longer, or possessed the sort of player-determined pacing that we saw in the first game in the series, The Darkness II would be a great example of how first-person shooters should be done. The strength of the storyline and characters adds weight to an often lightweight genre where action can often be the be-all and end-all. New features such as the ability to quad-wield also make the game a very fun experience, which really does make the player feel like an all-powerful being. Alright, this does make the game feel a little too easy at times, but as an example of how to make gamers feel like a super-being, the game succeeds greatly.
The story plays into the action of the title as well, with some great set-pieces being created by the situations that the characters find themselves in. Your visit back to the Carnival where Jackie spent his youth with Jenny is suitably creepy and sad in equal measures, whilst the storming of your apartment building in order to reclaim your under-threat Penthouse really creates a movie-like suspense and excitement. Like the first title did so well, The Darkness II feels instantly cinematic, but lets you control the action. Maybe if the game was longer, the tight pacing and strong character arcs would be diluted, but it is a testament to the game that we would want to play it for longer, and wish the title could have had more levels. Maybe this time we won’t have to wait another five years for a sequel?