All of the Lights
The Darkness II is a sequel to an overlooked game based on a comic published in the mid-90s that few read.
And that's a damn shame.
For the uninitiated, The Darkness weaves the tale of lowly mafia hitman Jackie Estacado. On the eve of his twenty first birthday, Jackie is instilled with his birthright; partial possession by a demonic deity only known as The Darkness. At first the diabolical powers and paranormal strength is seductive to young Jackie but quicker than you can say "This is going to be bad" , things go sour. As his life crumbled around him and his new found devious puppet-master, Jackie revealed concern for his fleeting humanity and guilt regarding his girlfriend's tragic end that really helped flush out the character and deliver so much remembered emotional wallop.
It's been two years since the events of the first Darkness game and Jackie is no low rent hitman anymore. Now the Don of a sprawling crime syndicate, Jackie seems to have everything going his way. Big mobster mansion, dates with a pair of twin strippers and dozens of hardened thugs doing his bidding across the city are all daily occurrences in Jackie's life. But, most importantly, Jackie has the Darkness pacified and is shouldering a ton of guilty over the events of the last game. Inevitably, Jackie must awakening the sleeping demon inside him in order to survive an attack from an ancient cult who wants to repossess The Darkness from Jackie. The Darkness will not stand for a new (presumably less accommodating) host and threatens Jackie with the one thing that can eat away at his soul; his deceased love, Jenny.
The quality of the game's writing cannot be praised enough. Like the original game, The Darkness II bends the genres of Mafioso and horror to a mind-boggling success. Never once does retracting demon tentacles seem out of place with the gangland violence depicted in both titles. The sequel adds a layer of guilty to the hefty symbolism of The Darkness itself- which can be read as anything and everything from addiction to egotism or any other self destructive behavior. Longtime comic book scribe Paul Jenkins should be accredited with much of the success in story telling that The Darkness II achieves. The narrative is paced well and features alternating moments of brutal empowerment throughout the bloody gameplay, mystery regarding the reality of what Jackie has or has not been accomplishing in the game and emotional gravitas of flashbacks with his love Jenny. The gears change so often and quickly that it is impossible to be bored with the tale that The Darkness II spins. I will avoid spoilers but the sheer amount of excellent set pieces and outstanding plot reveals could fill another two paragraphs easily. It might seem a bit early (not to mention foolish considering heavy hitters like Mass Effect 3 and Max Payne 3 on the horizon) but The Darkness 2 might be the best story told in the medium all year.
I'll stop gushing over the story of a minute to report that the gameplay in The Darkness II also received some tweaks at the hands of new developer Digital Extremes. The original Starbreeze game was a little weak in the gun play department with mush loose aiming. This demerit is removed tidily in the sequel. The core gameplay is also much much faster. This leads to a visceral joy as chunks of foes never stop raining over Jackie as you breathlessly shoot and claw your way through the games discrete levels. The game features a generous auto-targeting for environmental projectiles that The Darkness tentacles can toss at enemies, which prevents the otherwise inevitable frustration of trying to aim The Darkness' throw in addition to your traditional firearm. In game "executions" now exist when the player grabs a stunned enemy with The Darkness. These executions are bloody eye candy but also serve a mechanical purpose--either granting the player additional health, ammunition, temporary shield or accelerating the speed of recharge on the two optional Darkness powers acquired through the game's skill tree. Ammo can be sparse, so it is definitely wise to utilize the execution mechanics fairly often...even if they do slow down gameplay and become repetitive after a while.
All of the awesome power from The Darkness comes with one caveat (other than the whole destruction of everyone and everything you love thing); Jackie must stay in the shadows. Light is an enemy in The Darkness II and prolonged exposure to it will prevent Jackie from regenerating health or using any supernatural powers. The game uses this to great effect latter in the story when wiser enemies will toss flashbangs to create offensive openings. The light/dark dichotomy is in full effect throughout.
The Darkness II forgoes the barren open world aspect of the first title for a more metered and paced experience. While players are free to explore Jackie's sprawling mansion, which doubles as the hub world between missions, most of the game is divided in levels with load times. Some may find this disheartening, but there is little doubt that the experience in the Darkness II is leaner and more ferocious because of this decision.
The few boss battles featured within The Darkness II are low points for sure. Often times they require Jackie to take cheap hits in exchange for a clear and viable shot. This can be a bit frustrating, even though the game usually throws dozens of fodder enemies out for easy harvesting. In fact, the entirity of The Darkness II is pretty easy. Played on the "Hitman" difficulty (one above the game's default) , I rarely died.
Another issue some players may take issue with is the single player campaign's length. Though the game lasts a mere six hours, the quality of writing and the New Game Plus feature-which permits all addition skill tree purchases to carry over from the start of the new play-through-warrant more time investment than the partly length would suggest.
The Darkness II also features a four player co-operative multiplayer entitled "Vendetta". Each player (or player in the optional single player version of the game mode) picks one of four assassins hired by Jackie Estacado and embark on non-sequitur missions with the goal of killing a named target. Far from bad or shallow in depth (each of these four characters have individualized skill trees to buff), the Vendetta mode feels inconsequential in the grand scheme of things and exists as an almost prerequisite to curb used game sales than an actual fully flushed feature. I never felt the same draw to the bite size missions as I did the actual campaign nor did I feel very accomplished at the conclusion of each section. The main targets in this mode are buffed and barely re-skinned enemies found in the core game, which lends credence to the notion that Vendetta was a pure afterthought. If you have three willing buddies to tag along, there are worse ways to spend two or three hours completing this mode...but Left4Dead this is not.
PC gamers might be a little peeved at the default key bindings in The Darkness II. Choices like hitting the far out of WASD reach "Backspace" to pull up objectives, pressing "M" and "N" to navigate skill trees instead of simple mouse input and the plain moronic decision to put the vital Demon Arm slash on mouse wheel click while still having mouse wheel toggle weapons are all signs of console minded development. These nuisances are very present throughout the game, but hardly break the experience. It should be noted that during my time with the game, I never once experienced a frame-rate drop or a crash to desktop. This is a well optimized title.
The Darkness II definitely has style. Crafted to emulate the panels of a comic book, The Darkness II is a cell shaded looker through and through. Observant players can even see minute details such as cross hatching shadowing throughout the game. Shadows, which are a large part of this games aesthetic as well as mechanics in game, have a distinct and menacing inky-ness to them. Little dings like repetitious enemy design and the occasional character clipping through a wall or floor can not stop The Darkness II from looking great.
The game features a sizable amount of voice work with the majority of it being great. Faith No More lead singer/avid videogamer Mike Patton is back as the hissing voice of The Darkness which is definitely a plus. Some of the banter from nameless enemies can be redundant and overly conscious in profanity.
The sense of power that comes from shredding a screaming mobster or blasting a hellspawn into two definitely is addictive and a large reason you should experience The Darkness. While the thrills may not last forever, The Darkness II is none-the-less worthy of your time and money. Game narratives and bloody gameplay do not get much better than this.