Review: The Darkness II

Beneath its macabre shell The Darkness proved to be a surprisingly softhearted shooter. Take how it handled the relationship between Jackie and his girlfriend Jenny, for example; famously letting you watch To Kill a Mockingbird in full alongside her. The couple swapped affectionate remarks as Robert Mulligan’s classic played out, but it was the serenity of the situation, juxtaposing the overt violence leading up to the scene, that steeped it in power.

Later came the payoff – a series of heinous acts that justified all the savagery that followed. The Darkness wasn’t just another first person shooter with a gimmick buckled to the side. No sir. It had heart. It had soul. It even had a bit of brains.

The sequel isn’t nearly as poignant but it makes up for it elsewhere.

Since the original game franchise quasi-hero Jackie, now head of a Mafia family and haunted by apparitions of his late girlfriend, has tempered The Darkness’ influence over his life. Of course, in the interest of pew that lasts roughly three minutes and The Darkness marks it return a more savage and twisted otherworldly power than before.

While the first game allowed its story to spread its roots during a ponderous first act, the sequel is more concerned with the raw thrill of controlling the Darkness (it wouldn’t dare ask you to phone Jenny in the throes of a mission or listen in on a radio broadcast). In its defence, controlling the demon force is pretty spectacular.

Still two snake-like appendages sprouting from Jackie’s shoulders, the Darkness has been modified to better suit the lightning pace of the sequel. One of the demonic arms now slashes while the other bites and together they’re capable of executing goons in a show of rib-tickling barbarity. Digital Extremes have taken a leaf out of Bulletstorm’s book and you can now string together diabolical kills with names like “Throat Plunge” and “Spinal Tap”. You’re rewarded XP for experimenting with these executions and they only get more ridiculous as you tap into Jackie’s deep well of upgrades.

The former game bogged its USP down beneath rough controls and a set of powers that often favoured a stealthy approach over all out violence and at times it suffered for it. The Darkness 2 has no such problem. There’s little in either game that can match the immediate satisfaction of decapitating an enemy with a car door or shredding another into a squall of body parts with a few choice button presses. Enemies come apart like they’re made from wet tissue power and this is clearly a game designed from the ground up to be as pugnacious as possible.

About the only thing stymying things is a light/dark mechanic that never evolves far beyond its fundamentals. The Darkness is ineffective in bright light, but all this means is you either stick to the bountiful shadows or shoot out the heavy-duty lights before entering a room. Occasionally you’ll chance upon bulletproof lights, but you power through or simply avoid them. Likewise, later enemies come equipped with industrial torches but they’re a pretty large target. While the Darkness reels and Jackie takes more damage in light, the shotguns and assault rifles aren’t affected and the combat is meaty enough that it serves to ignore the Darkness every now and again anyway.

The sequel has been streamlined to make sure the offhand brutality is never anything less than grossly intoxicating but as a result it’s been robbed of the grim undercurrent swirling away beneath the previous game. Digital Extremes attempt to rekindle a few of the narrative-tricks Starbreeze put to such powerful use last time out but the sequel is undeniably less absorbing on a narrative level.

That’s partly due to the story itself. While there’s a perpetual sense that not everything is as it seems (scenes in a psychiatric hospital that sniff of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest aid that greatly), the core stuff revolving around a sect trying to syphon The Darkness from Jackie is less interesting. Jackie’s delusions and mental health prove the more captivating branches, but they’re a mile apart from the whiz-bang gameplay.

The second problem is the lack of a hub world. The tangle of New York streets and subways sustained a downbeat vibe reminiscent of Max Payne’s New York but The Darkness II is strictly linear. You’re periodically returned to Jackie’s flush mansion home but there’s no reason to hang around.

Ultimately it feels more like a set of videogame levels than a breathing, brooding universe. The cell-shading is dazzling but you knew from the off that The Darkness wasn’t going to be a happy tale and it clawed you in through all the minutia. Here, there’s barely a civilian to be seen, no news broadcasts or radio announcements to flesh out the world, very few moments of hush.

Still, it’s easy to forget all that as you pull off another Throat Plunge. Mike Patton reprises his role as the malevolent force and he’s even better than before with whispers of Ledger’s Joker more than outperforming the limp Estacado.

But what makes the single player pur is precisely what hampers a multiplayer component consisting of two mini co-op campaigns running adjacent to the story. The Vendetta and Hit List campaigns (both of which play out on the same maps) chart the escapades of four nonentities as they perform menial tasks loosely connected to the events of the main game. This cadre of chumps reel off cheesy one-liners while gunning through uninspiring environments that fail time and again to offer decent reason to play with three other players.

Worse, their Darkness powers are no fun at all – a direct violation of the game’s core tenet. Inugami’s sword, for example, lets you execute enemies in one swipe but clumsy controls make it easier to slice your own esophagus in half. Another character has a Darkness infused shotgun, but they’re all a far cry from the unencumbered ferocity of The Darkness proper. It’s unsatisfying where The Darkness is so gratifying through its immediacy and brutality.

The dismal truth is the multiplayer has probably been included to add replay value and lasting appeal but it’s the core game that could have done with those added two hours. Bucking contemporary trend, The Darkness 2 doesn’t outstay its welcome. Its fancy riff on stale first person shooter mechanics remain strong as the credits roll and a two-hour long hobbling co-op mode isn’t about to stop anyone trading this in for the latest release.

Disappointing multiplayer aside, this is a terse, taut and rewarding game, if not through its narrative then certainly its moment-to-moment antics. While it flaunts none of The Darkness’ narrative swagger, it trumps it and just about every other first person shooter in recent memory thanks to the handywork of its ludicrously savage anti-hero.

8/10

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