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The Darkness II Review

The Darkness II Review

I’d like to preface this review with two disclaimers.

Firstly, I have not played the original game, nor am I at all familiar with The Darkness in comic book form. If you are in a similar situation, you won’t have to worry about being out of the loop: the game includes an optional “Previously on The Darkness” cutscene at the beginning to bring you up to speed on the most important plot developments of the first game. I won’t be able to relate to you how faithful this adaptation is to the source material, though I find people put too much weight on that question anyway.

Secondly, I went into The Darkness II with relatively low expectations. In recent years, the gaming landscape has become flooded with both first-person shooters and games featuring borderline excessive amounts of blood and gore, with many of them being mediocre-at-best games designed with a “me too” mentality. The fact that the violence was a large part of The Darkness II’s marketing campaign also raised a (bloody) red flag. A friend of mine with similar tastes assured me that it was actually a good game, but still I began playing as a skeptic. The result of this cynicism is that once I started playing, I was pleasantly surprised. Not blown away. Not giddily astonished. But pleasantly surprised.

You know he’s moody because he’s slouching in a chair.

Story and World

The Darkness II throws you into the shoes of Jackie Estacado, a man who initially seems archetypal of the gritty, violent “90’s Antiheroes” that plagued the Dark Age of Comic Books. (He has quite the affinity for flipping people off.) However, he has enough personality to remain interesting, and is a bit of a romantic on the inside, so I’m more tempted to call him a Byronic hero. Jackie also has a dark secret: he is possessed by actual tangible Darkness, a sentient, chaotic, quasi-parasitic force that has been passed down through his bloodline. Prior to the game’s outset, he had used his powers to carve a bloody path through the mafia until he became the head of the powerful Franchetti mob family, though he has been suppressing the Darkness since then.  Of course, it’s inevitable that the first level casts him into a situation best resolved by unleashing the Darkness; otherwise, there wouldn’t be much of a game. As such, the plot ping-pongs back and forth between mobster thriller and supernatural horror. This unique dynamic is interesting, and there are also bits of psychological drama and Deus Ex-style “conspiracy theories run amok” shenanigans (with an occult twist) tossed in, but for such a short game, four different genres may be a little much.

I’ve always despised how “comic book writing” is often used as a pejorative term. I loathe blanket statements in general, and many releases (most notably Watchmen) have proven that sequential art can have sophisticated and nuanced narratives. However, the overall plot of The Darkness II is pretty much what people picture when they think of a “comic book plot.” Death is cheap, bloody revenge is the order of the day, and it’s very easy to see all of the plot twists coming. There are some genuinely intriguing sequences, and the characters are actually easy to care about, but you’ll still find yourself playing through the game more out of a sense of gamer completionism than a desire to witness the next plot development.

With that said, I have a hard time holding The Darkness II’s lackluster narrative against it, because it doesn’t really impede the gameplay that much. Some games get so preoccupied with their stories that the fun part of the game starts to give way to lengthy sequences where the player has limited or no control of their character or areas with little action where the player’s appreciation of the gameplay depends largely on how invested they are in the plot. When the game in question is well-written, this can make for an enriching and immersive experience. If the writing sucks, then you get something like First Threecounter Assault Recon, where you spend way too much time wishing that you could just get back to shooting dudes already. Thankfully, The Darkness II does not give into these sorts of pretensions. There are some extended story sections, but the ability to briefly reveal a path to your next objective with the press of a button will allow you to quickly sprint through them if you don’t care to explore. In addition, if you absolutely hate the dialog (or if you’re playing through the game for a second time), most of the cutscenes and lengthy conversations can be skipped.

Another reason I don’t mind the writing in The Darkness II is that while the overall plot is banal and uninteresting, the minute-to-minute dialog and characterization are excellent, complemented by great voice acting. There are more than a few Italian mafia clichés, and the characters are about as three-dimensional as the pictures in the comics they hail from, but they are consistently entertaining. Many of the larger-than-life mob personalities are genuinely likeable, and Jackie’s (dead) girlfriend is written much more competently than most video game love interests. (It also helps that she is realistically proportioned, and actually wears clothes.) The dialog also has a minor post-modern slant to it, with characters frequently dropping pop culture references and occasionally making wry comments about cultural views of video games and comics. In summary, I expected to simply blast through the game without paying much heed to the characters, but instead I spent a surprising amount of time willfully engaged in optional conversations.

And sometimes, an NPC may engage in conversation with himself.

Gameplay and Design

(Note: The following paragraphs are written from the point of view of someone who played the Xbox 360 version of the game. PS3 and PC controls may be slightly different.)

The Darkness II is primarily a rigidly linear first-person shooter. There are a few story sequences relatively devoid of action, and you’ll occasionally take control of your Darkling buddy for a stealth segment, but you’ll spend a majority of your time looking down the barrel of a gun. The game uses the standard “iron sights” formula: right trigger will fire your weapon, and left trigger will let you look down the gun’s sights to increase accuracy at the expense of movement speed. Thankfully, firing from the hip is not as ludicrously inaccurate as it is in some games, though you’ll still want to use the sights for precision shooting from a distance. You are allowed to carry one two-handed weapon (assault rifles, shotguns) and up to two side arms (pistols, submachine guns). You can dual-wield side arms, though you won’t be able to look down the sights while doing so. The selection of firearms is somewhat limited, and you won’t find any guns that aren’t in countless other shooters, but the arsenal is serviceable. Enemy AI is rather poor, with thugs often taking cover behind things that are way too small and henchmen being hilariously imperceptive during stealth sections, but in an empowerment fantasy such as this, bad AI isn’t always a bad thing.

The shooting is all well and good, but after the wave of samey FPSes that flooded the market in the wake of Call of Duty 4, I am always on the lookout for shooters that distinguish themselves in some way. That brings us to the eponymous Darkness. The most visible manifestation of the Darkness is a pair of feral Demon Arms above your shoulders. The right Arm (I’m gonna call him Raphael), controlled with right bumper, is your basic melee attack, with right stick allowing you to control the direction of the slash. The left Arm (let’s call him Leonardo), controlled with left bumper, is a bit more versatile. Leonardo can grab glowing objects and throw them. (This includes people, both living and dead, and those familiar with my love of BioShock know how fond I am of corpsethrowing.) Flat objects like fan blades can easily cut standard enemies in half, the ubiquitous exploding canisters do what they’ve always done, and long, thin objects like pipes and pool cues serve as this game’s “Hey look! We have a cool physics engine so you can pin people to walls!” ammunition. Leonardo can also grab sturdy flat objects like car doors to act as makeshift riot shields. In addition to that, you’ve got a Darkling (a crass Cockney imp) following you around most of the time wreaking havoc, and you can even throw him at enemies.

In short, there is a lot of variety in the ways you can kill enemies, and most of the time, the game lets you choose how you want to go about massacring the hordes of baddies you encounter. At first, this can be a little overwhelming – especially since you aren’t just dual-wielding; you are effectively quad-wielding. However, the controls are mapped in an incredibly intuitive manner, aiding the learning process. And once you finally get the hang of fighting with four limbs at once, damn, is it satisfying.

Meet Raphael and Leonardo.

But wait, there’s more. If an enemy is stunned or otherwise distracted, Leonardo can grab them, at which point you can either throw them or tap a button to perform a gruesome and brutal execution. Towards the beginning of the game, my favorite one was Wishbone, in which Raphael and Leonardo would each grab one of the enemy’s legs and do pretty much what you would expect given the name. However, you’ll soon find that there are only a handful of execution animations, all of which prevent you from moving, and the shock value from the extreme violence soon gives way to tedium as you watch the same animation for the umpteenth time. Wishbone is still my favorite execution, but only because it’s the quickest one. Also, you are completely invulnerable during executions. Not getting killed when you briefly lose control of the character is always nice, but it also means that executions are very easily exploitable, an issue that I’m not sure the developers anticipated.

Another way that the Darkness manifests itself in Jackie is through restorative properties. While this has occasional plot significance, it’s mostly used as a justification for the health system. The health meter is divided into four sections. If you avoid taking damage for a few seconds, your health will regenerate Halo-style, but any completely empty sections will not be refilled. (For example, if an attack leaves your health at 60%, you will only regenerate up to 75% health.) To refill empty segments of the meter, you will have to eat the hearts of defeated enemies. There has been much debate as to whether the regenerating health system or the “Medpack health” system is better for a game, and this compromise works really well. It offers most of the benefits from both arrangements, with very few of the negative aspects of either.

That guy’s going to need a lot of Medpacks.

Since many studios feel that no modern game is complete without RPG elements, killing enemies will reward you with “dark essence” (i.e. experience points), with special kills offering bigger numbers, much like in Bulletstorm. You can use essence to unlock various abilities in four separate tech trees. Executions usually give you the most essence, though executed enemies don’t leave behind hearts, establishing a great risk/reward system. (At least it’s great until you buy the upgrade that causes executions to restore health as well.) Other upgrades range from explosive bullets to a swarm that can stun enemies to the ability to throw black holes around, and learning to use them all during combat will soon have you feeling like a god. Some similar games run into the problem where all challenge is lost as you gain more powers, but the difficulty curve of The Darkness II is fairly consistent right up to the conclusion.

Of course, since the Darkness is… well… dark, light is one of your natural enemies. Stepping into the light will prevent you from regenerating any health or using Raphael and Leonardo, so it’s best to avoid or destroy light sources. This could have been a really cool aspect of the game. However, being illuminated will also muffle the sound (nearly to the point of muting it) and turn your screen almost entirely white, making it incredibly difficult to determine the source of the light. When enemies start carrying flashlights, this can get infuriating, especially since other enemies can whip the gun right out of your hands, leaving you completely defenseless. This frustration is compounded by the fact that the game doesn’t really make it clear what counts as a light source. At one point while wandering along a street, I found myself blinded. At first, I thought the large, bright movie theater marquis was the culprit, only to discover that the source of my annoyance was a single, dimly lit light bulb on the wall next to it. Also, fire apparently doesn’t count as a light source.

I’m totally shrouded in darkness right now.

However, the game’s biggest shortcoming is its length. Even if you take the time to explore and talk to all your mafia friends, The Darkness II can easily be beaten in a day or two. Granted, given the small number of enemy types and the somewhat repetitive level design, a longer game would likely become tedious. Multiple difficulty levels, a handful of hidden items, a New Game Plus mode, and a co-operative multiplayer mode with several disconnected missions can extend your playtime somewhat, but I would definitely recommend renting this one instead of buying it. (Unfortunately the co-op mode is online only, so if you’d like to play it with a friend couch-style, you’re out of luck.)

Now, I would like to take a moment to discuss the PC version of the game, particularly regarding field of view. If you are not a PC gamer, feel free to skip the rest of this paragraph. Field of view (or FoV) refers to how much you can see at any given moment, specifically the angle that your vision covers. With both eyes, the average human has an FoV of about 160 degrees. The FoV of a typical console shooter is 60 degrees, which is fine, since you usually sit at least a few feet way from the TV. However, our eyes tend to be much closer to the monitor when playing a computer game, and a narrow FoV makes some PC gamers physically uncomfortable. Because of this, many first-person shooters on PC, such as Battlefield and Serious Sam, allow you to widen the FoV. At the time of writing, The Darkness II does not have this option. The game’s publisher, 2K Games, has issued a statement claiming that the FoV cannot be expanded due to issues with the Demon Arms. Experimentation has revealed that this is simply not the case. FoV is sometimes locked to make sure no players gain an unfair advantage over others, but since The Darkness II does not have competitive multiplayer, this explanation is implausible as well. The most likely reason that The Darkness II doesn’t include the option to adjust FoV is that they just didn’t put it in. The developer, Digital Extremes (who worked on the Unreal games with Epic, and should therefore be familiar with PC gaming) has since promised a patch to add the functionality to the game.

Visuals and Audio

From a technical standpoint, The Darkness II is middling at best, with minor glitches not being uncommon, but the artistic design really makes up for that. To emphasize the story’s comic book roots, the game employs a cel-shaded art style similar to Borderlands. Many things have black outlines around them, and some of the textures look as though they were hand-painted. The color palette is expectedly dark, and there usually isn’t much contrast between the colors, but at least everything isn’t grey. And every once in a while, you may stumble across a sight that is surprisingly beautiful.

Bloody, but beautiful.

The sound effects are great, though not transcendent – guns go bang, gory dismemberments are appropriately squishy, and black holes make a cool whoosh sound. The music is fitting enough to not distract from the mood, but it’s also so utterly generic that you won’t remember any of it once you’re done playing. Well… you might remember the Jane’s Addiction or Tone Lōc songs.

Easily the greatest part of the audio suite is the voice acting. There are a lot of cheesy Italian mobster accents, but each one is tackled with such conviction and earnestness that The Darkness II could have easily been an excellent crime game in the vein of Mafia II if it weren’t for the whole supernatural thing. The villains are also voiced with a spectacular level of depravity that establishes their character well despite them having very little backstory. Finally, Faith No More frontman/eccentric genius Mike Patton returns from the original game to give the titular Darkness a voice of its own. A twisted, inhuman, amazing voice.

We Care a Lot about voice acting here at Gaming Symmetry.

Conclusion

If you can look past a few sizeable flaws, you’ll find that The Darkness II is an incredibly fun and engaging shooter with some interesting mechanics and great dialog. With so little content, I can’t in good conscience recommend a purchase, but if you don’t mind some extreme violence and you’re a fan of story-based first-person shooters, it’s definitely worth a rental, especially given the dearth of games being released in Q1 of 2012.

Score Rundown

(All scores are out of 10. The Overall score is not an average.)

Plot – 5: The story is largely uninteresting, with brief moments of intrigue. Thankfully, the narrative is not intrusive.

Dialog/Characters – 9: Conversations are much more interesting than in most first-person shooters. Or most other games for that matter.

Gameplay – 8: There are a few minor issues with the controls, but they are easily overlooked. Quad-wielding is incredible.

Design – 6: There are several major flaws in the design, but the game succeeds more often than it fails.

Replay Value – 4: You’ll only get a couple of days out of this one, unless you’re a fan of online co-op.

Graphics (Technical) – 5: The graphics aren’t pushing any envelopes, but the art design more than makes up for it.

Art Design – 9: The art style is beautiful, especially if you like graphic novels or film noir.

Sound – 8: The sound effects and score are fitting but forgettable, though the licensed tracks are decent. The voice acting is excellent.

Overall – 7: I enjoyed playing it, and I would recommend fans of the genre to rent it.

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