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You should have played….The Darkness

Following on from the excellent Chronicles of Riddick game, Starbreeze studios scoured the world of middling-quality nineties comic books to secure the right to The Darkness. Despite the relative lack of promise in the source material, the result was a clever, cinematic FPS that outperformed its rivals at the time.

The Darkness came along at a strange point in console FPS history. Halo 3 loomed large over the competition and the holiday season of 2007 was ripe with exciting new releases. Developers were beginning to produce games that met the requisite level of quality to warrant the “next gen” label they wore and more risks were being taken with original IP like Rock Band, Kane and Lynch and Assassins Creed. The move from last gen titles with up-scaled textures and bloom to fully fledged HD games was great for gamers and offered up opportunities for Publishers to establish new brands that would last the length of the consoles lifetimes. Into this period of creative innovation came The Darkness, a horror and comic book inspired FPS with a strong storyline, gritty, seedy heroes and villains and uniquely satisfying game mechanics.

In this pre-Modern Warfare environment, on rails set pieces and in-engine cut scenes interspersed with gameplay sections were rare and The Darkness used them beautifully. From the stunning opening scene taking place during a botched getaway and the ensuing car chase, The Darkness blurs the line between cut scene and gameplay, allowing you to look around and sometimes fire your weapons during scenes which seem too visually impressive to be interactive. The first ten minutes of the game are so engaging that they warrant repeated play, I didn’t mind that a specific achievement required me to play the introductory shooting gallery car chase multiple times.

The game sets the tone well. You play as Italian-American Jackie Estacado, a young hitman under the employ of his “Uncle” Paulie, a local crime boss and the games main antagonist. The voice actors are fair, but Estacado is a weak link and his look is a problem; the not-even-cool-in-the-nineties coat and hair mark the time period as a distinct fashion blind spot.

The mood of the game is enhanced by the setting: New York streets and subway by night. Like the Max Payne games, the action mostly seems to take place over the course of a few crazy nights. This sets the tone and buffers your suspension of disbelief. It’s easier to forgive the empty New York streets and deserted alleyways when you’re exploring the world at 3AM.

The night setting also fits in to the games primary mechanic: the use of Darkness as a power up. While Halo has a recharging shield as a mechanic for health regeneration, Jackie Esctacado regenerates health in the absence of light. This makes the player lean towards a stealthy approach, skulking in shadows to make you more powerful and surprising enemies who can’t see you. The advantages of the dark areas go beyond healing Jackie, they also power up his special abilities and enhance his vision.

The powers granted to Jackie early on in the game level up as he consumes his victims hearts and become more effective than regular firearms by the end of the game. Releasing controllable tentacle-snake-creatures which climb walls and bite off enemy faces is the kind of B-movie delight unseen in other FPS games. The powers that you acquire later vortex and car-lifting spiked tentacle powers are even more destructive and satisfying. Using these powers in combination results in great fights with the games terrified antagonists, but sometimes they also show off the games rather ropey physics. Nonetheless there’s a real feel of justified vengeance being carried out in the game. An early story event sets Jackie on a path to revenge that you feel strongly invested in as a player, and as much of your time is spent terrifying and brutalising the enemies who have wronged you as putting them out of their misery. I would often find myself lifting and holding a dead enemy aloft with the spiked tail attack to scare his fellow henchmen into running off, before sending out my demon-minions to hunt them down in their hiding places.

I’ve avoided talking about the story, the character known as The Darkness and the major events that influence the plot in this article. I honestly don’t want to ruin your experience of these moments. I knew nothing about this game when I picked it up, and the twists and turns surprised and delighted me. I really hope you pick this game up. If you missed it first time you will be able to get it now for pennies. The multiplayer is embarrassingly bad, the voice acting is b-movie and the aiming is a little sticky. Despite all that, The Darkness has a great, twisting story and a dark but engaging atmosphere. Its best played over a dark, rainy weekend, possibly during the run up to a certain ghost-and-demon themed holiday.

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