Well readers, this is officially a first for me. Having recently celebrated a belated Valentine’s evening with my girlfriend, she surprised me by passing me a small, silver bag from my local games shop. Said bag contained one copy of The Darkness 2, which initially struck me as being quite a strange Valentine’s–present but offered me the potential once in a lifetime chance to write about a present my girlfriend bought me on YTR. Fun times! I had never played the original and all I really knew about this one was that Mike Patton from brilliant 90s rock band Faith No More does the voice for the titular evil possessive creature and that it’s really, really, really violent. He does, and it is. But perhaps even more remarkable is that underneath the blood and viscera lurked probably the best narrative-led game I’ve played since Portal 2. Really! Hit the jump and I’ll explain.
First off, the game did an excellent job of bringing me up to speed with all the story I’d missed from the original, with a short cinematic before starting the game proper. Developers: Please do this more often. It’s great. Jackie Estacado, a mob hitman, had risen up the ranks in the Mafia thanks to the help of a demonic force called the Darkness that had lain dormant in him until his 21st birthday. Jackie used the Darkness to take vengeance upon an opposing mob family for murdering his girlfriend and is now living the high life as the boss. The game opens with Jackie being escorted through a restaurant to a table with two blonde women. Sadly, what looks as though it could have been an interesting night for Jackie gets interrupted by a car smashing through the window, killing numerous bystanders and seriously damaging his leg. This leads to an entertaining shooting gallery sequence where you pick off the enemies piling into the restaurant whilst being dragged to safety, all the while taunted by the darkness to release it. Left with a choice of either dying or succumbing to the demon’s wishes, he unleashes the Darkness.
Oh boy. Frankly, I felt sorry for the gangsters up against Jackie. They didn’t stand a chance. He’s one of the most immediately powerful protagonists since Prototype’s Alex Mercer, who also had similarly gruesome powers, right from the start of the game. The Darkness powers are represented by two tentacles which hover at either side of the screen, each controlled by a corresponding bumper- the right can be swiped in any direction to slash at stuff, whilst the left can be used for grabbing handy things in the environment like extractor fan blades to lob at the poor, poor mobsters. He’s a tough cookie too, being able to devour the hearts of enemies to refill his health meter, allowing him to ignore cover in most places and just run around like a psychopath, dual wielding uzis in his hands whilst his tentacles slash enemies to pieces. I can’t even begin to explain how refreshing it is for a shooter not to rely upon pop-up cover and just allow you to run around blasting the merry hell out of everything you see. Perhaps the closest modern comparison is Bulletstorm, from which the Darkness also lifts the idea for various kills being used to accrue points for inventive power upgrades (via some ridiculously gruesome execution moves which bestow various moment to moment combat benefits).
Indeed, the game seems to skirt the issue of extreme violence through its appealing graphical style, a combination of thick, black outline cell-shading and detailed realism. The caricatur-ish characters look fantastic; and whilst the enviroments are fairly typical videogame tropes (like an abandoned amusement park and a rain drenched graveyard), the bold and interesting colour schemes add a lot of flavour to the proceedings. As a game based on a graphic novel, it really helps to sell the comic atmosphere, as does the surprisingly engaging plot. The downtime between missions is filled with various character-related asides, such as short anecdotal monologues from Jackie during loading screens or a relaxing break from the slaughter to wander around Jackie’s mansion and talk to his family and friends. Jackie’s dead girlfriend starts popping up in unexpected places too, making this one of the most unlikely romantic stories that I have ever played.
Sadly, whilst the game does much extremely well, there are some inherent faults which keep the game from greatness. Firstly, it’s altogether too short, being easily beatable within about 7-8 hours. This is par for course for first person shooters nowadays, but many games get around this through multiplayer. Whilst there is an additional (admittedly very good) co-op multiplayer mode, blasting through everything available won’t take you more than about 12 hours tops. New Game + is available, but sadly the draw of seeing the game through is mostly through the urge of seeing what happens next in the twisty narrative. Complete it, and the thrill’s gone.
Jackie’s power is also problematic over the long term. As things progress, he finds himself up against The Brotherhood, a shadowy organisation wise to his weakness to direct light. As a result, they fight him by using blinding light grenades and high-power shoulder torches. Get hit by these guys and you can’t use your powers, your health stops regenerating, and your vision turns into a white smear. Naturally, Jackie needs to have some sort of weakness; but having your vision taken away and being left unable to destroy the source of your weakness is inherently frustrating.
Though I generally loved the gratuitous violence, the game seemed to be trying a little too hard to be ‘adult’ at times for my tastes. I can completely understand the gory, violent nature of The Darkness. I’m quite keen on it in fact. What I like less is a particularly nasty and crass section in a brothel where you see some pretty nasty things done to prostitutes. I also dislike the lazy crutch of using copious swearing to emphasise the point that these are gangsters. It’s a trend seen all too often in gaming storytelling, which is often just superfluous and slightly awkward instead of atmospheric.
Still, despite all of that, The Darkness 2 was a great late valentines present for me. The surprisingly touching romance that underpins the experience and refreshingly old-school run and gun gameplay are an absolute blast for the first run-through. It’s an absolute success at capturing the tone and feel of a graphic novel while empowering the player throughout. Okay, so it doesn’t have Portal 2’s wit or refinement–but it makes up for it with sheer bloody exuberance and a brutally compelling narrative. It’s a true guilty pleasure–and a memorable one at that, highly recommended for a spare weekend.