Starbreeze Studios' The Darkness went down almost without a fight. Critics loved it, heaping praise upon its slithery head, yet relatively few people actually bothered to play it. Instead of the massive sales figures it deserved, the dark and atmospheric shooter slipped into the shadows to mingle with all the other could-have-beens, and that's where most assumed it would stay. Credit to 2K Games then for seeing beyond the disappointing sales of the original and resurrecting the IP some five years later with a sequel - a brutal, abrasive yet stylish shooter which dances a wicked dance right on the boundary of gratuitous ultra-violence and bad taste.
The story starts off with many loose ends which won't make much sense to those who missed the original, but much of it is tied up soon enough thanks to a quick "Previously on The Darkness" video and the almost flawless storytelling throughout this sequel. Set a few years after the curtain closed on the original, The Darkness 2 puts us once again in the dusty trench coat of mob man Jackie Estacado, now the head of the Franchetti family, a man wrought with inner turmoil.
Having struggled for some measure of control over the Darkness - a parasitic elemental force which rages within him - and won, Jackie starts out as a man on the up and up. But when the ominous (if unoriginally titled) Brotherhood show up with intentions to extract the Darkness for their own nefarious reasons, Jackie finds his cushy, opulent life as a crime boss ripped to shreds. An attempted hit on our brooding hero puts Jackie in a life or death situation: unleash the Darkness, or die. An easy choice, since Jackie is burned and torn up to within an inch of his life. With the Darkness back in control, so begins Jackie's search for those responsible for the attempted hit - a search which takes us on an occasionally disturbing but always exciting ride through madness, violence, and excessive bloodshed. There are heavy religious overtones too, while Jackie's inability to let go of his lost love, Jenny, who was brutally murdered in the original Darkness, is a constant thread running the length of this black adventure.
Even though the narrative is strictly linear, it all moves at such a pace that there is no time for it to feel restrictive. There is no aimless wandering, no padding which feels irrelevant to the core story - the side quests from the original are nowhere to be seen, replaced by a narrative flow which is tighter, more focused, and completely absorbing. Penned by comic veteran Paul Jenkins, an old hand at The Darkness comic series, the atmosphere is as disconcerting as it is enthralling. I'm hardly a comic book connoisseur, but the quality of the writing here stands out even to my untrained mind.
The dark, ominous ambiance sets the tone superbly, and the aggressive, almost relentless gameplay follows suit. Right from the outset, things are intense - The Darkness 2 is clearly out to dazzle with a blast of violence and explosive action. With a meaty arsenal of hand guns, shotguns, automatic rifles and more, the gun play is savage, each weapon having a solid feel and powerful kick to it. Don't expect much in the way of combat strategy or carefully considered tactics though - when it comes to the bullet-slinging aspect of The Darkness 2, it's pure run 'n' gun from start to finish.
It's when the Darkness itself kicks in that things become officially unhinged. A tentacled beast of a thing, this demonic force is more than just a gimmick here; it opens up an entirely unique play style. I was relieved that the Darkness feels like a deadly tool of ruthless aggression right from the start - dodging the trend where developers like to neuter their fancy game mechanics at first, to give gamers a sense of progression as the story unfolds. There is a sizable tech tree of upgrades to unlock along the way, but from the moment Jackie unfurls his tendrils of mass destruction, a whirlwind of violence, decapitations, and blind fury is unleashed. Digital Extremes must be commended for figuring out a way to control both of the Darkness's horrid, razor-toothed tentacles and Jackie's hands without things falling apart every time an enemy steps into view. Being able to fire a different gun in each hand, slice a thug in half with one tentacle, and impale a distant enemy with a javelin-tossed iron rod with the other, then quickly switch to devour the heart of a still warm corpse and rip a door off of a car to use as a shield, this is a sequence of events which demands some clever control system planning. That it works at all is a bit of a miracle, so the fact that it works well is awe inspiring.
One could probably blast through much of the campaign without using the Darkness at all, besides the specifically scripted sections where something needs to be grabbed from a distance, for instance, but that would be missing out on what gives this game its black, bitter soul. The Darkness is more than just a new attack system to help you out, it's a character all on its own, and its presence adds a lot to the story too. Impeccably voiced by Faith No More's Mike Patton, its death metal growls and unsettling screeches guide Jackie deeper and deeper into this twisted world, and there's a real sense of struggle for control here - the Darkness is slowly consuming its host, with Jackie slipping into moments of delusion, bouts of complete black out, sometimes losing his grip on this force inside him. It's all brilliantly portrayed by the excellent voice acting, immersive visual style and bewitching narrative, leaving you genuinely unsure of what is real and what is part of some wicked nightmare.
The game world itself is a stunningly authentic rendition of a The Darkness comic book come to life. Powered by Digital Extreme's proprietary Evolution engine, environments and characters feel solid and convincing, a vibrant cell shaded world that moves between the opulent and the macabre depending on the setting. The rich colors and bold lighting of the Estacado mansion or the disturbing mental institution contrast brilliantly with filthy, decaying city environments, rain-drenched graveyards and a truly unpleasant brothel setting. Going for a stylized, almost hand-drawn look instantly distinguishes The Darkness 2 from the masses of super-realistic military combat shooters, and while this one might not match their level of graphical fidelity, it definitely has a unique sense of style which demands attention.
Adding to the immersive game world, it's the endless torrent of vulgar language, explicit sexual imagery, unforgiving violence and religious taunting which work together to build an experience which can prove hard-wearing on the gamer. There is hardly a moments respite from the dark atmosphere, very little in the way of comic relief, making it a rough ride for some. But the gameplay itself, while almost always a full speed bloodbath, does lean towards the predictable - there is a very old fashioned vibe to the linear levels and game structure, yet it never feels outdated, more like a welcome trip back to simpler times.
Less welcome is the multiplayer offering - purely co-operative action - which sees up to four players signed up to do the dirty work for Jackie and his family. It's story-based, supposedly a timeline running parallel to the single-player plot line, but it feels disjointed and shallow compared to the riveting narrative of Jackie's campaign. A lack of continuity or flow to the missions makes the Vendetta missions feel like throw-away leftovers that should have been left on the editor's cutting room floor. I would have said that Digital Extremes could have skipped the whole multiplayer aspect completely, but sadly the core story isn't really long enough to offer much in the line of longevity. I'm also not sure that the single-player campaign is worth replaying either, simply because much of its evil charm lies in the surprises and twists which rear their heads - take that away, and it loses some of its sting.
As a first-time play through though, there is very little of real importance to fault here. The trigger points which allow you to talk to NPCs are a bit imprecise - I often found myself moving back and forth near an AI character trying to find that damn "sweet spot" which would bring up the "press X to talk" prompt. A similar issue comes in when trying to pick up weapons and ammo from fallen victims, leaving you occasionally frustrated mid-battle when Jackie keeps picking up the wrong gun, or eating a dead gangster's rotting heart instead of scooping up those extra bullets. But those are minor gripes. The majority of this game is filled with nightmarish moments of sheer terror and gaming bliss. The Darkness 2 is palpably fizzing with determination not to slip under the radar like its predecessor did, and pulls out all the stops to make its intentions known.
In the wrong hands, The Darkness 2's combination of gore and unsettling yet almost corny storytelling could have slumped off into clumsy shlock-horror, and it very nearly does. But it's the way that the development team deftly balances shock tactics with refined storytelling and utterly absorbing action which makes this ferocious shooter an essential play. It's not for everyone though, and those who are easily offended would do well to give it a miss. For the rest of you sickos, put this gory mess on your shopping list right away. The Darkness 2 deserves to be played, not just praised from afar.
- Immersive and brilliantly delivered narrative
- Unique visual style
- Quad wielding combat is wicked, bloody good fun
- Multiplayer component is lacking
- Campaign is quite short