Embrace The Darkness…
Amongst the chaos, spine tearing gore and unwavering violence that was Top Cow’s cult comic book series The Darkness, there was a love story; a small glimmer of light that seemed all the more pertinent because of the blood spattered surroundings it was buried under. 2K’s game adaptation took that idea behind The Darkness comics and moulded a unique, interesting first-person shooter that was ultimately overlooked by many gamers back in 2007. Now 5 years later they’re back with a different developer in the form of Digital Extremes with an attempt to pick up the blood-lusting where it left off. So join us now as we whip up some demon arms, devour some hearts and find out if daisy popping really is as cute as it sounds.
Game: The Darkness II
Developer: Digital Extremes
Publisher: 2K Games
The Darkness II reunites the player with Jackie Estacado, a mobster who was possessed by a demonic force on his 21st birthday and as a result, granted supernatural powers. Two years on from the events of the first game and Jackie has not only risen to become head of his New York crime family, but has managed to repress The Darkness and resist any urge to unleash his demonic abilities on any unsuspecting lamp posts or mafia-types. Unfortunately, during the opening scenes of the game a restaurant he’s attending is attacked and thrown into chaos, forcing a near-death Jackie to release his inner beast to save himself. The action packed opening serves as premeditation to lots of shooting and limb tearing as you set off to find out who was behind the attack and for what reason.
Although Jackie’s spiritual burden and his quest for liberation from it does provide the pivotal plot twists, deep at the heart of the story is his inner torture of having to deal with the loss of his soulmate Jenny – a loss he was forced to witness by The Darkness in the previous game. But underlying tones of love, loss and impending carnage aside (especially in a time where fast paced story telling and hollow action seems to be all the rage), The Darkness II feels completely refreshing in the way it presents itself.
Scenes that see a despondent Jackie offering regretful monologues and the visions he has of his lost love Jenny that occur sporadically throughout the game give depth to its characters, something that so many other games of the genre have struggled to do well in recent times. Sections of the game will even remove you from the shooting all-together for the sake of fleshing out its cast, sometimes even at the serious risk of losing the player’s interest. Thankfully, these moments are produced well enough to further deepen your investment in the story and without giving too much away, there’s moments that will have you genuinely questioning which part of the game is Jackie’s imagination and which part is actually reality.
Moving away from the more gritty realistic visual style of the first game, The Darkness II arrives in all its colourful, cel-shaded glory, mimicking its comic book origins to great effect. Whilst some may be put off by the new look, it should be said that it does fantastically well at complimenting the gameplay; pools of blood drawn from your latest victim, half ripped limbs and the slick ink-outlined art style are all amplified on the game’s bright canvas, and somehow enhance its intended shock factor rather than negate it.
It’s quite surprising, given the level of cliché hovering around The Darkness II’s idea of the Italian-American mob family, that the dialogue and voice acting manages to hold up so well. It is as you’d expect – an audio collaboration of every period gangster film you’ve ever seen, however, in a game of contrasts it seems oddly well placed. Take Jackie’s mafia associates for instance, the unity felt in their dialogue with each other isn’t anything Oscar worthy but certainly makes Jackie’s somber dialogue more poignant, especially in bitter sweet scenes between him and his visions of Jenny that are voiced well enough to have you feeling sorry for them.
Then there’s the sweeping soundtrack that comprises of your more traditional orchestral scores, all of which are good without being anything to write home about. There are some highlights though, including some subtle piano scoring during downtime parts of the game that go a long way to providing a dark and foreboding atmosphere. These tracks, along with some decent sound design means that your ears won’t be as offended as your eyes will be come the more gruesome moments of the game.
Starbreeze forged what could have been described as an open world action-adventure shooter with 2007’s The Darkness. The Darkness II isn’t anything of the sort, leaning more towards being an arcade shooter with some minor RPG elements. Digital Extremes have trimmed away a lot of excess from the first game, making it shorter, infinitely more linear and ultimately less frustrating.
The actual shooting itself isn’t something for purists of the genre however. Whilst it is an entertaining, mostly smooth experience, enemies won’t be that smart or that difficult to take down. You’ll find bullet spread isn’t particularly realistic either, as it’s more than possible to pick off head shots at some distance with duel wielded weapons even with the semi-automatic variety equipped. The idea of it being an arcade experience is then further fueled with score pop-ups and the absence of typical modern shooter staples, such as stealth or the need for any sort of tactical approach. It’s all about using your brutality and power to plough down your enemies through The Darkness II’s linear styled levels, that are all based on typical gaming locations such as subways, warehouses and fairgrounds.
Why have two arms when you can have four? That’s the methodology behind the game’s ‘quad wielding’ mechanic, the source of Jackie’s awesome power. Instead of just the usual two guns to flaunt simultaneously, there’s also two protruding snake-like demon arms that can perform all those mundane daily tasks for you – like scratching your back or doing the dishes. Of course, they’re also particularly adept at ripping people’s spine out and whipping the heads off of passers by, which is incidentally, what you’ll be using them for. The two triggers will be doing all your demonic deeds with each one controlling its corresponding demon arm to slash, impale and perform a number of other contextual tasks. The way the quad mechanics have been refined since The Darkness work really well and on top of feeling totally empowering, they’re an absolute blast to use.
Despite the linearity in level design, there is some semblance of variety to be found in The Darkness II, even if it is only in the way you maim and kill. This all starts once you’ve been reunited with your two demonic compadres and been given the ability to start earning essence – the game’s term for experience points. By grabbing, killing, devouring and collecting you’ll earn more essence to spend upgrading your abilities that unlock more bonuses and new powers. Performing executions will reap even more rewards and come with their own names in true finishing move style. The Head Whip and Wishbone are pretty self-explanatory but the Anaconda that sees your demon arms grab the enemy, roll them up and drive through their chest, and the aforementioned Daisy Pop that literally just plucks off their heads (I chuckled), are all great entertainment value that give the player a number of different grisly ways to experiment throughout the game.
Alas, with Jackie being the personified weapon of death, challenge is hard to come by early on. It’s not until later on in the game when you’re introduced to the real bad guys who have a much better understanding of your abilities (and weaknesses), that things get a little trickier. Predictably, if there’s one thing that a spiritual being with the titular name suggests, it’s that it probably isn’t too fond of light. Enemies begin using that weakness to their advantage by carrying lights and shields and do manage to make life a little more difficult. Staying out of bright areas or destroying the source of light quickly make traversing the game not only easier, but possible. Especially as bright places render your abilities useless and puts Jackie into a daze like state, consequently upsetting your possessor somewhat.
You’ll find The Darkness is always there lurking in the background, echoing around in your head with a harrowing tone, making demands that urge Jackie to stay out of the light and feed its craving for violence and destruction. You won’t be worrying too much about that though, because you’ll be too busy gleefully throwing your darkling companion around. The small cockney imp-like creature – who looks like he’s just had a fight with Geri Halliwell’s wardrobe – aids you on your quest for vengeance by giving directions, distracting hapless enemies, then urinating on them for good measure. Yup, he’s a keeper.
There’s no missions or chapters as such but The Darkness II does play host to some bosses at the end of locations, none of which are particularly memorable or even that difficult. You’ll basically be repeating a simple task like throwing exploding canisters and fending off mobs while you wear your opponent down, often with the help of your darkling who seems to have all the good ideas and knows exactly when to carry them out. Without any notable set pieces, these moments don’t stand out a great deal and you’ll find yourself anxious to get the job done and progress the story.
Once you’ve conquered everything the single player portion of The Darkness II has to offer there’s still the Vendettas co-op multi-player mode to run through. The mode, that can also be played solo, sees you take the role of one of four darkness wielding protagonists and has you playing out missions that coincide with the main story line, thus increasing its narrative. There’s also some missions not related to the story, but all are a welcome addition that prolong the enjoyable experience the game offers. It might not be as gripping as your typical online competitive shooter, but in a story driven game, makes complete sense and will have you and your friends whipping up a demonic frenzy in no time at all.
It’s a shame that The Darkness II can be polished off in around 6 hours, maybe less for the more experienced gamers of the genre. With that in mind though, it’s hard to argue that a lengthier game would have been more preferable when you take into account the story and plot have been paced just about perfectly. The problem lies in the game having very little replay value. Yes, you will have the opportunity to restart the game with levelled abilities intact, but asides from the briefly entertaining Vendettas mode and trying to gather all the Relics (the games hidden collectibles), you won’t feel that compelled to revisit Jackie’s tale any time soon.
Linear shooters are the bane of my existence, it’s true. However, what The Darkness II manages to do is give you plenty of diverse and interesting ways to walk down that corridor. Quad wielding, the use of light/dark gameplay elements, the awesome executions and intriguing story are only slightly let down by a game that’s rendered more simplistic compared to its predecessor than it perhaps needed to be.
The Darkness II is also a game that will split opinion. Whether it be the breaks in mindless killing the game allows itself for plot building or the departure from the first game’s open ended gameplay and its visual design – there’s a lot that will remain subjective to the person who’s holding the pad. What can be said about The Darkness II however, is that there’s plenty of fun to be had in its very purest form, regardless of any faults you might find. This means that for fans of Top Cow’s gruesome tale this game is a must, and for everyone else it’s merely a hearty recommendation.