The Darkness 2 Review (360)
I loved The Darkness. I loved it despite its flaws. I didn’t care that the multilayer mode was awful. I didn’t care that the auto aiming was sloppy and as a result the combat was slow and deliberate. I didn’t care that the characters were caricatures and that the whole experience had a horribly dated, mid 90’s, grungy atmosphere of teenage angst. I didn’t care that Jackie Estacado was too Emo, or that the games cast of heroes and villains were made up of spaghetti chomping Italian gangster stereotypes. All I cared about was a strong story driven experience filled with gratuitous comic book violence that told a tale of violent and supernatural retribution brought on by an undead, demon possessed, heart-eating avatar of death.
When the Darkness 2 moved from being a Starbreeze game to Digital Extremes, I was skeptical. While not exactly a small studio, there was a worry that Starbreeze was a far better choice for first person shooters with “darkness” as both a theme and a gameplay element. With both the Chronicles of Riddick and the original Darkness game they had shown how to tell an exciting genre story from a first person perspective, and in both titles had crafted engrossing single player campaigns that revelled in seedy characters, enthusiastic B-movie violence and predatory protagonists lurking in the shadows. The question was, could Digital Extremes maintain this momentum, or would their stewardship of the franchise derail the whole thing.
Well the good news is that The Darkness 2 does not ruin the series at all, but it is a very different game from the original. The first and most obvious change is the dialling up of the pace and violence in this game. While the combat in the original was brutal, its nothing compared to the sheer amount of enemies you will carve a bloody swathe through in The Darkness 2. This is a game of blood and gore, where every death will result in enemies spurting crimson streams all over their fellow gang members as you rip off their arms, tear out their hearts or split them down the middle in what is titled a “wishbone” execution. This is not a game of subtlety, there are moments here that make Shadows of the Damned look like a subdued tour bus ride through St Albans.
The game is a good deal more arcade-y than the original too, with scores popping up for each kill and creative kills racking up more points. Its very similar in nature to Bulletstorm, and while it doesn’t go to the same extremes of creativity when it come to dispatching your enemies, it encourages the player to experiment with their attacks and use high scoring executions to maximise the experience they gain. While this does detract somewhat from the atmosphere of the game – and move it further away from the near-featureless HUD of the Riddick games – it makes the combat more visually rewarding.
The visuals of The Darkness 2 are generally impressive. Adopting a comic-book, almost cell shaded approach, the stylisation helps iron out some of the creases from what can occasionally be a ropey looking game. Facial animation looks strange and off-putting and there are visuals glitches throughout. When talking to one of the main characters in a dialogue scene I was utterly hypnotised by a series of body spasms that seemed to cause him to twitch and shake as if he was being electrocuted. Meanwhile, enemies would often force their arms or legs through the level geometry in a comical or unintentionally terrifying way. The glitches weren’t purely graphical either, a few times I encountered a bug that would make all game dialogue become muted and wouldn’t return to normal until the game was restarted.
These minor complaints won’t weight too heavily on your mind while playing The Darkness 2 though, you’ll be too busy dementedly tearing your enemies apart in creative ways. From the spectacular opening moments you are set down the path of violent and bloody retribution. You are never short of good excuses to tear your enemies apart. In truth the antagonists of the game aren’t great characters, but they are ass-holes from start to end, never failing to say how little a threat you are too them right up until the moment you twist their heads off their shoulders with a satisfying pop.
You start with a good variety of Darkness powers. For those unfamiliar with the story, Jackie Estacado was a young hitman/gangster working for the mob who has since risen to the ranks of Don following the events of the first game. Partially possessed by the demon known as The Darkness, he has repressed his powers and blood lust for two years when the game opens. It takes an assault from a bunch of mysterious assassins while Jackie is enjoying a meal in the most stereotypical Italian restaurant in New York for the demon to resurface. Jackie’s powers are diverse. At the most basic level he can simply tear enemies apart with the snake-like demons that sprout from his back, but more esoteric attacks include the ability to shred enemies with black holes or imbue his dual weapons with infinite darkness ammo. The satisfaction gained from using these powers in combination is immense. The one thing that so many games don’t get right is making the player feel powerful. In The Darkness 2 you feel like a dark God of death, and the variety of animations and executions available to you means you never get tired of the ways you can kill enemies.
The real reason that the combat is so much fun though is the reactions of the enemies. They run in fear while shooting over their shoulders. They react to each bullet wound, tripping and stumbling as they dive for cover. When you grab them by the foot and you’re Darkness tentacle holds them up in the air, they continue to try and shoot you even as you hang them upside down. Its the variety of animations and the way they integrate seamlessly into combat that makes the game such a spectacle. For all that the game lacks in creative environments, it more than makes up for in the characters who exist in those environments. An empty warehouse can look dull, but when its full of dismembered bodies, mobsters being thrown through the air and hitmen being sucked into black holes it begins to look a lot more impressive.
Throughout the game you level up your Darkness powers based on experience. You use little upgrade portals, and you’ll quickly start to improve your powers. Despite this, by the end I wasn’t close to upgrading everything, but the New Game+ mode allows you to carry all your powers forward if you start again. I found the upgrade to your ammo stock especially useful as you burn through this quickly, especially if you use dual weapons a lot, and you WILL want to use dual weapons. Its hugely satisfying to use either two pistols or two SMG’s, especially with the weapon channelling which auto-aims and allows you to fire continuously without reloading for a period.
The original Darkness had some strange levels where you left the “real” world to battle your way through a fantastical World War 1 inspired underworld. Full of Hellish imagery and undead enemies, I enjoyed these sections but many others found them off-putting. In The Darkness 2, the change of pace goes the opposite way, and instead of a fantasy world where there is more action, you are transported to a much more “realistic” world where the pace slows. These scene are amongst the finest moments in the game. They very directly reference One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and to say any more would be to spoil the story completely. Suffice it to say that these sections are brilliantly handled. During these sections you feel like you are experiencing something genuinely original and maybe even great, but as the story twists and turns one time too many it becomes clear that the writers fail to deliver on this promise. Its a real shame, there were moments here that I thought they could have been on the edge of something wonderful.
Jackie often ended up back at his Aunt Sara’s house during the events of The Darkness, but in the sequel he has moved up in the world and lives in a mansion. This serves as a reprieve between levels and you can interact with a number of characters here, killing time till you are ready to go on the next bloody rampage. These sections help greatly with the pace of the game, and its never scared to slow things down between big set pieces. Many remember the iconic scene in the first game where you simply watched television with your girlfriend Jenny, and their are similar scenes here which can be tender, and even at times heart-breaking. The sentimentality never becomes cloying, just when Jackie’s self pity runs the risk of becoming irritating other characters pop up to liven proceedings up. Whilst most of these are stereotypical Italian gangsters types, the voice work is exemplary, especially in the case of the Johnny Powell who seems to channel a paranoid Woody Allen. Initially irritating, this character quickly became one of my favourites of recent years.
Although the campaign is short, the game includes a mode called “Vendetta’s”. This mode is most similar to Left 4 Dead, and sees four hitmen take on side missions that compliment the story. These missions take place at the same time as the events of the campaign and help fill in many gaps in the story, but they never cross over and you never meet or see Jackie. Vendetta’s is a campaign in itself, and tells an interesting story. It can be played alone or with up to three other players online, and it is unexpectedly brilliant. The four characters are well developed and have their own abilities and special skills. While no individual is as powerful as Jackie, each one is great fun to play and working together you can really carve your way through literally thousands of enemies very efficiently. I played as Inugami, and I enjoyed playing as him almost as much as with Jackie. The story of his blade – which was used to kill a thousand innocents and must now kill a thousand evildoers – was brilliant. Taking a year from his lifespan for every day he fails to take a life is a great motivation for an anti-hero, and the mechanics of using the sword in game was as satisfying as any of the darkness powers Jackie possessed.
In truth I’m not sure how long people will be playing Vendetta’s into the future though. I loved every minute of it, but I don’t feel the need to play again. The characters also don’t seem well balanced to me. I loved Inugami, but the woman from Mossad was dull the Voodoo guy felt weak and the Scottish guy wearing tartan trousers, a Celtic top and swinging an axe while shouting about how much he hated the English made me profoundly depressed about how the world sees my home country.
One thing that you won’t be disappointed with when playing this game is the audio. I already mentioned the high quality of the voice work, but the soundtrack is exemplary too. There are a few missteps, but generally the mix of licensed tracks together with Danny Elfman-influenced original tunes works brilliantly. Its dark when it needs to be dark, and gives energy when the game picks up pace and there’s even some Matrix influenced dance tracks that allude to “Clubbed to Death”, but somehow aren’t awful or derivative.
I played The Darkness 2 over a somewhat low key weekend while after a tough week. The themes of loss and redemption maybe appealed to me more than they would normally, and the catharsis of tearing apart “bad guys” helped cheer me up a great deal. One particular moment of loss of Jackie struck a chord with me that could have put me off the game, but in fact it sucked me in further. Its hard to discuss without spoilers, but there are moments in Jackie’s story where you genuinely empathise with him. Its a shame that the games finale descends into complete madness and incomprehensibility. If you want to make sure you enjoy the end of the game, don’t watch the post credits scene which tries its best to ruin the whole game.
Its doesn’t succeed though. The rest of the game is too good to be ruined by this single misstep. The Darkness 2 is my favourite game of the year so far. By a distance. Its story is frequently clichéd, thoroughly B-Movie and occasionally incomprehensible. It is also touching, exciting and utterly engrossing. Combine this with some of the best over the top action in a first person shooter in years and you have a wonderful game. I may have played better games, but none have held my attention so fully over a concentrated weekend of play. I envy anyone who hasn’t played The Darkness 2 yet. You have so much to experience. Go on an adventure with Jackie Estacado right now. You won’t regret it.
9 hearts, in the mouth of demons, out of 10