Review: The Darkness II

February 29, 2012, Author: Trent Pyro

When I bought my first Xbox 360, I had just enough cash to grab a few bargain games to play on it. These ended up being the massively popular Gears of War, the Xbox hit Fable and a little-known-to-me shooter called The Darkness. I had no idea that it would end up being one of the most original and enjoyable FPS games I’d ever played.

Based on the successful Top Cow comic series of the same name, it followed mobster hit man Jackie Estecado as he discovered an ancient secret that had cursed his family for generations. Manifesting as a malevolent voice and deadly, snake-like tentacles in equal parts, The Darkness was hell-bent on taking full control of Jackie and using his body to exact its grim will on the Earth. The game translated this very well, with players controlling Jackie as he discovered his dark family past and fought with The Darkness, as well as his mob-boss uncle Paulie.

While the last game was popular it didn’t break any records and its palpable, noir atmosphere and visceral shooter/melee combo combat was lost on many. It seems it did well enough to warrant a sequel, however, so let’s see if it was the right choice to make one.

Dark places
The story picks up a couple of years after the events of the first game. Still mourning his childhood sweetheart, Jenny, and into the swing of running the Franchetti crime family, Jackie has managed to keep the Darkness at bay in the pursuit of living as normal a life as possible. All that changes when an everyday dinner turns into an explosive attempt on his life, opening the game with bags of style.

Throughout the course of the game Jackie uncovers a plot by ancient order, The Brotherhood, to use a device called the Siphon to steal the Darkness and transplant it to a host who will allow it to take control. This would obviously be bad for Jackie, so hunting down their leader, Victor, is his main goal.

There’s also an overarching plot device involving a serious question about Jackie’s sanity and possibly the reality of the entire series. These sections, while not as bleak and involving as the WW1 scenes from the first game, serve to break up the brutal action and add some much-needed variation to the game’s focused plot. I can’t really say much without giving it away, except maybe two words; Shutter Island.

It’s clear from the first hour or so that new developer Digital Extremes have taken a much more action-based approach to the plot rather than the sedate, exploratory style of the previous game. The subway station travelling, the dangerous and exciting walks through the night-streets of NYC, the random pedestrians who are powerless against your almighty tentacles; all gone. The Darkness II is a much more linear experience and while it only occasionally suffers for it, I can see it being a turn-off for some fans of the series.

You see, when a game garners some cult success, a cabal of fanatical fans are usually formed. Very different from the gaggle of gamers that crowd around the brilliant light of the big franchises, these troopers huddle around the warm embers of the underdogs. Often they can get upset when someone new wants to come along and stoke the flames, and that’s certainly what Digital Extremes have done here.

While the plot is exciting and enthralling and its heavy hand throwing you from one location to another doesn’t feel too strong, I have to admit I’m with the ember-lovers on this one. What set The Darkness apart from its peers wasn’t its mechanics or its graphics, but its atmosphere. Despite the occasionally ropey tentacle control and the simplicity of the enemy A.I., there was something about it that set it apart from the crowd.

Deep down, despite his defiant look, he knows he's fucked...

The terror and madness that laced some of the first game’s location has been replaced with bombast and fireworks in most places too. While The Darkness II has its wacky moments, there’s nothing like the aforementioned trips back to The Great War and it can seem like the only fear on offer is being felt by the game’s many enemies.

As the game draws to a close, the storytelling picks up the pace. With numerous unexpected twists and some breathtaking set-pieces, The Darkness II gets more and more tangled before coming to a crushing conclusion that pretty much confirms that there will be a Darkness 3!

Despite its enjoyable and exciting nature, the story is depressingly short, clocking in at just 5-6 hours with ease. While this has come to be expected from titles with huge multiplayer elements (you all know what I’m talking about), it’s disappointing to see such a story-driven series present such a fleeting campaign.

Four times the carnage
The key gameplay mechanic at the heart of The Darkness II is the much-touted Quad-Wielding. Shedding the sometimes awkward tentacle control of the first game, it simplifies it to the point of ease and it works brilliantly. While the triggers fire guns in each hand (or iron sights and firing when you’ve only got one), the bumpers are split between grabbing and slashing with the ‘Demon Arms’.

The left is used for the grabbing, which can be applied to enemies as well as many of the objects littering the world. Car doors and road signs can be used as shields before being flung at enemies for tasty dismemberment. Propane tanks can be thrown to cause explosive carnage and bits of scaffolding can be used as makeshift spears. Everything that can be grabbed shimmers with a blue light, so targeting your grabs is simple and effective.

The Right Bumper is used for slashing attacks. Simply tapping it executes a quick horizontal slash, but holding it and using the Right Stick allows you to slash in any direction. This ability is mainly useful for cutting wires or smashing ceiling lights but can be exploited for some butchery fun at the expense of the Brotherhood soldiers that dog your every step.

Combining the two bumpers usually yields the most satisfying results, and overall the system is a triumph over the stiffness of old. Brutal executions can be performed on grabbed enemies and each type results in a different power up. It’s incredibly useful to be able to choose between health, ammo, Darkness energy and crafting a neat shield, as it allows you to tailor your bonus to the current situation. The other Darkness powers are also readily available, with old favourite Gun Channelling and new ability Swarm mapped to the face buttons. The Black Hole has been relegated to an occasionally triggered power upgrade and this is where the new skill system comes into play.

Every enemy you slay gives you Dark Essence and, at special floating stone things littered around the world, you can spend this Essence on new powers and upgrades. There are four skill trees, roughly dividing the upgrades into Demon Arms, Health, Guns and Powers, although there is some overlap. Upgrades range from basic improvements to new powers and useful additions.

Thrown objects become explosive missiles, clips become larger and the Demon Arms become even more deadly. By the endgame, Jackie is a fucking beast, complete with Darkness armour, bladed Demon Arms and the destructive power of a small hurricane. While that makes it sound like it’s easy-going, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

The biggest issue I found with The Darkness II was the difficulty. While starting a new game presents you with a descriptive difficulty select screen, I found the ‘Give me a challenge’ setting to be frustratingly hard. Enemies take an age to go down, bosses spam you with brutal attacks and Jackie is about as tough as a paper cup. I went down so many times in the first boss battle I had to switch down to ‘Tell me a story’; the easiest setting. I usually manage on the default difficulty when it comes to shooters, so it’s clear that The Darkness II is intended as a challenging and tough experience.

Even then you’re repeatedly mobbed by ferocious and devious soldiers replete with shields, flash grenades and weapon-stealing whips. Staying in the dark is an absolute paramount and all too often you’ll find yourself hit by multiple light-grenades and rushed by enemy squads. Often the only way to survive is to turn tail and run back to some shadows which can sometimes make Jackie feel weak and suck the fun from an otherwise enjoyable game.

I suppose it makes sense story-wise. The Brotherhood have been after the Darkness for centuries and so have developed very effective ways of subduing its host. The variation in enemy tactics make for a breathless gameplay experience and forces you to use all your abilities to stay on top. What really sets The Darkness II apart is once again its uniqueness. With so many military shooters on the market it’s refreshing to see a dark, moody and visceral FPS displaying the quality and finesse of a big-budget title with none of the Hollywood bullshit that usually accompanies it.

It’s pretty dark in here…
Visually the game stuns with a semi-cell shaded glory. Ditching the questionable textures of the original and switching to more of a comic-book look was met with raised eyebrows from fans and journos alike, but in practice it fits like a glove. The detail is exemplary and everything looks hand-drawn to perfection. The rare moments set in Jackie’s enormous Mafia mansion allow a gorgeous vista-view of the city and it only makes you wish you could explore it a little more.

Every fight has its quirks courtesy of the game’s graphics. Dismemberment is shocking and brutal, dumping diced limbs and butchered torsos and covering everything in juicy claret. Gunfights explode with cartoon-style muzzle flashes and bullets destroy everything in their path, quickly turning the area into a builders nightmare.

I think you're coming a bit late to the party there, Jackie...

More superficial gamers might be turned off by the change in art direction and I’m certain some of the cult crowd will be displeased, but I think it fits brilliantly.

Jackie himself is drawn as a more mature and stylish individual, shedding the depressed Goth look and donning a snappy shirt/waistcoat/trenchcoat combo that immediately says ‘Mafia boss’ and ‘murderous host of the Darkness’. The other characters usually slot into the ‘mob goon’ category but many are returning favourites in Jackie’s life and there are some exceptions.

Lunatic Darkness expert Johnny Powell is brilliantly realised, complete with milky eye and nervous twitch. Brotherhood ringleader Victor is both repulsive and intriguing with his disfigured face and bracket-clad legs. It’s an eclectic cast, and while most of the bosses are uninspiring the variety of regular enemies stops it from becoming a boorish duck shoot.

Noises in the dark
Sound-wise The Darkness II does little to surprise but a lot to impress. Guns are satisfyingly beefy, with even the simple pistols booming with a snarling urgency. Slicing through bad guys feels even more brilliant when accompanied by the unmistakable sound of ripping, tearing flesh and the scream of your disemboweled  victim.

Where it really shines through is in the dialogue. Every character, no matter how small, is acted with precision and skill. Jackie, Johnny, Victor and all the returning cast are written and performed with aplomb, really adding to the overall atmosphere and experience. Jackie and Johnny are stand-outs for me,

Jackie finally throwing off the miserable self-indulgence and embracing his ice-cold mobster persona; Johnny a spitting ball of nervous energy, reeling off paragraphs in seconds and stuttering through his myriad of sequences. It can be very difficult to portray madness and the voice actor who plays Johnny does it fantastically with complete believability. Of course, famous-face Mike Patton reprises his role as the titular Darkness and once again brings delightful menace and sick horror to the character.

Unfortunately the music doesn’t quite live up to the voice acting. While it’s good, it doesn’t stand out, and as I sit here writing this I can’t recall a single refrain or melody from the score. When compared with the epic scales of Skyrim and Gears of War 3 (two recent examples), it fails to impress.

Not quite alone in the dark
While the first game’s offering of a stunted deathmatch mode went down about as well as Jackie at a kids birthday party, a new developer means a new approach to multiplayer this time round. Taking the smart ticket and dodging the tricky and almost impossible task of going toe-to-toe with the Big Two (CoD and Battlefield of course), Digital Extremes have instead limited The Darkness II’s multiplayer to a three-man-one-woman co-op romp.

Taking an alternative angle on the events of the main story, Vendettas casts you and three mates (or strangers) as a bunch of assassins touched by the Darkness and eager to do Jackie’s bidding. Each character has their own Darkness power, mêlée weapon and innate ability, which means they all play slightly differently. Of course, the main order of the day is still shooting everything that moves and therein lies the issue.

While I’ve already established that the combat in The Darkness II is excellent, when stripped down it’s only decent. Lacking the ever-fun Demon Arms and limited to only one power, all the characters feel underwhelming when compared to Don Estecado. I suppose the idea is that you all work together to combine powers and complete the few missions on offer but unsurprisingly that’s not quite how it works.

I began playing the multiplayer section about a week after the game’s release and already I encountered players who rushed ahead, obviously completing the level for the millionth time. People have already clocked their favourite character’s exploitable moves and relish in stealing kills and leaving team-mates to die. Levels become a storming rush to snatch a few points rather than fun and exciting group efforts. It’s a problem that unfortunately plagues most co-op experiences these days, especially FPS ones, but nonetheless makes The Darkness II’s offering more difficult to enjoy.

If you actually manage to get a few murders in, each character has their own cut-down version of Jackie’s upgrade tree, allowing you to customise their powers somewhat. While it serves more to upgrade than to expand the experience in this case, it’s nice to see there’s some progression involved.

Unfortunately, even with these little trees, I can’t see many people replaying the few short stages on offer more than a few times. They lack the immediacy and playability of Left 4 Dead’s classic campaigns and the finesse and variety of (I can’t believe I’m saying this) Modern Warfare 3’s Spec Ops missions.

Out of the darkness?
A triumph of fun and violence, The Darkness II succeeds in its primary goal; to be a great sequel to the first game and bring its trademark combat up to date. The plot is enthralling and while it does feel like a true follow-on, newcomers can pick it up quickly. Combat is thoroughly enjoyable and each stage brings new challenges.

My only fear is that it occupies a unique vacuum which many will opt not to enter. Newcomers to the series may be torn between the recently released Kingdoms of Amalur and the up-coming behemoths of Mass Effect 3 and Max Payne 3. Money is tight for everyone and many can’t afford to spend on anything but the biggest titles with more established and popular backgrounds. Fans of the first game could very well be disappointed by the more linear approach and simplified combat and I’m certain the aforementioned ember-crowd will have a few words to say about the myriad of changes.

If you can, I urge you to give The Darkness II a try. While the single-player is short-lived and the multiplayer is already claiming its share of arseholes, it’s a unique and enjoyable shooter experience that everyone should give a chance.

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