I’ve been playing video games for a long time and I’m pretty comfortable playing games from almost any era. While modern games tend to be my favorites (I think Breath of the Wild and God of War 2018 are my two favorite games of all time, in that order) I have no problem going back to older stuff. In the last couple years I’ve played through the entire God of War series, took a detour to play through Dante’s Inferno on the PS3, have played a number of remasters including Katamari Damacy, and have had fun with all of the above. Older graphics don’t tend to bother me, and I can adjust to older mechanics and controls once I start playing. I like revisiting prior eras of gaming, and especially filling in gaps of my gaming knowledge.
I started playing through The Darkness on Xbox 360 in 2015 when it was already 8 years old and the Xbox One and PS4 had been out for a couple years. It was a game I had always been intrigued by and while I don’t remember what specifically caused me to boot it up on my 360, I remember mostly liking it despite the quirks of its age. Then I got busy and the game fell by the wayside, but I always meant to get back to it someday. That intent was amplified when the game came to Xbox backwards compatibility, because it meant that jumping back in would be easy and convenient (I still have my 360 but it’s not hooked up) and I just generally enjoy playing things on backwards compatibility. It’s neat, and I prefer the XBONE controller to the 360 pad.
I’ve been messing around with a few random things while I wait for Outer Worlds to release and I wanted something Halloween themed, so I scrolled through the installed games on my Xbox One and came across The Darkness. I booted up my old save about 60% of the way through the game and over the last few days I chipped away at it until I rolled credits. I enjoyed the conclusion to the story (though I remember only the vague outlines of the first half) and it was very seasonally appropriate (especially that intense ending that really makes you feel like a monster) but overall I only had sporadic fun with it this time around. I liked it more in 2015 and I think that it’s because some of the mechanics that were old but not totally antiquated at that time are now showing their age to a much greater degree.
The Darkness was by Starbreeze Studios, and like most of their shooters it had some very interesting ideas, especially for 2007. The story comes from a comic book and is about a young mobster who is betrayed by his uncle, the Don, and merges with a malevolent entity called The Darkness, kind of a family curse, in order to take revenge. It’s a well-told tale with some really nice voice acting, and the game is very dark and atmospheric. The Darkness grants you a variety of powers, including summoning “darkling” little creatures to help you out in various ways, and being able to manipulate objects in the environment and also kill enemies in a few different ways other than with just your guns.
All of that is pretty standard, but the Darkness is also quasi-open world, with a bunch of maps that you can travel between stitched together (though there are also some levels that you go to that aren’t attached to the rest of the world.) It takes place in New York and there are two subway stations you can travel between, each with multiple exits. The subway is full of non-enemy NPCs, some of whom you can talk to and who give you sidequests. Other areas have a mix of enemies and non-violent NPCs, and the city of New York has a real sense of place and reality for a game from 2007. In addition, The Darkness is stronger in…the Darkness…so the game rewards you with additional power if you destroy various light sources. Neither is anything spectacular, but it is a nice throwback to the days when shooters were a little more experimental and trying to do different things (Titanfall 2 is an example of a modern game that does this very well, and whose campaign was extremely well received because of it.)
However The Darkness definitely shows its age in a few ways. The first is the shooting controls, which are…not great. You have a reticle and a very basic zoom feature, but no look down sights ability and or other way to fine tune your aim (though the reticle does autotarget if you get it close to an enemy.) It’s a system that works okay, but feels a little clunky. This interacts with the next issue, which is that The Darkness is tough in some bad ways. Your character, Jackie, does not have a lot of life and can go down very quickly. Enemies are aggressive, able to shoot accurately over long distances, and your own guns are mostly pretty inaccurate, with the exception of the M-16 style assault rifle. However because the ammo system is clip based, you can’t carry that many clips, and enemies often take multiple shots to kill, you need to rely on a number of different weapons, many of which are not really up to the task. In addition, the game has a very 2007 desaturated gray look that makes enemies kind of difficult to pick up from the backgrounds, and enemy placement is often pretty tricky, flanking you from blind alleys or behind boxes. This leads to a lot of quick cheap-feeling deaths where you start getting hit, don’t know from where, and go down very quick. Jackie also cannot run (though he can crouch) so if you’re caught in the open you’re going to get cut down.
Of course once you die from being ambushed you know where that enemy is (if you were lucky enough to see him) and can deal with him the next time, but that leads to the next issue, which is that checkpoints are not that close together, and often happen when you enter one of the mini-levels off the hub. This means that you might walk into a room, get shredded by a dude who came out of nowhere, and then go back to a checkpoint several minutes away, requiring you to not only walk all the way back through an empty level, but also re-collect any of the dozens of collectables you might have found along the way, many of which are a pain to collect because you have to use fiddly powers to get to them. There’s also a mechanic where you have to eat the hearts of your enemies to increase your power, and that is a kind of long animation, and something you have to do all over if you die.
The back half of the game had several areas where I had to take a dozen or so attempts to get through, and while this wasn’t so bad when the game checkpointed me right in front of the big gunfight, it was very frustrating when the checkpoint required a significant amount of backtracking to get to where I was supposed to go, only for the game to kill me again quickly. I ended up having to adopt a sort of turtle style of play, sending out lots of Darklings to clear away some enemies and funneling bad guys to me to kill. In game where you’re a superpowered mobster with demon guns that is…not the way I want to play it. The game also seems to want you to be more aggressive, with lots of powers that only work at close range and a variety of execution animations if you can get right next to an enemy, but while that worked in the first part when there are only a few enemies at a time, those mechanics were all pretty useless in the second half, when you would die very quickly in a hail of gunfire if you tried to charge an area without meticulously picking off enemies from behind cover.
I would have much rather it have been closer to something like Quantum Break, which rewards you for using your various powers and fighting out in the open, and is much more fun to play because of it. Even if that’s not the style it was going for, simply having better checkpointing, a bit more movement speed, and easier to stop enemies would have eliminated the frustration. Those are all things we see in modern games but in 2007 games were a little more stand-offish and willing to force the player to come to them. It made the back half of the game kind of a slog to finish. In 2015 I was much more willing to tolerate this stuff than I am 4 years later, and it really showed me that this generation has changed some things even if it has not felt revolutionary.
Despite these annoying mechanical issues I’m glad I went back and finished the Darkness, if only to get it off my backlog and because I’ve read that the sequel is much better and I want to play that. The game can also be pretty exciting when you’re not getting massacred. It has very good enemy damage animations with visible gunshot wounds (something I always love in games) and bad guys being sent flying by gunshots and sometimes going down without dying, writhing on the floor in agony. It gives the fights a lot more punch than they would otherwise have, and adds to the grimy brutal atmosphere.
The story is also decently told and kind of fun, so I’m glad I saw that. It’s certainly Halloween appropriate, with lots of blood and gore and horror elements, especially in a couple vivid segments where Jackie travels away from New York for a bit. The ending is especially brutal and really made me feel a sense of horror at what was happening, and even empathy for the enemies I was slaughtering.
But despite those merits I think The Darkness is a game whose time has passed. It’s old now, and it’s creaky and frustrating and showing its seams. I never tried the tacked on multiplayer either, but based on the achievement completion percentage not many people did, and I can’t imagine it was particularly fun. If you want a horror-themed shooter to play for Halloween you could certainly do worse. It’s not a terrible game. But there’s better stuff out there too. The Darkness can be safely left in the shadow of gaming history.