The original The Darkness easily ranks as one of my favourite games of all time. In addition to its place as Starbreeze studios first follow up to their critically acclaimed Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, The Darkness, adapted from an adult comic series, had all the hallmarks of a classic: a great story, an unusually play style and a gripping atmosphere. I’m in two minds on the value of a sequel. Digital Extremes have taken the baton for The Darkness 2 and had a reasonable crack at a follow up, and while they’ve turned out something decent they don’t quite capture the magic from the first game.
Your face, it's what's for breakfast
The source material, The Darkness comic, was characterised by over the top sex and violence and it’s sinfully rogueish anti-hero Jackie Estacado, who was big fan or perpetrating both vices. The character was all about indulging himself rather than seeking a noble path and the addition of the Darkness, played in the comic like an evil Green Lantern power, makes his battles with temptations even more difficult. One of the earlier challenges for Jackie, that’s mostly played for jokes, is that he can’t have sex as if he impregnates a woman and passes on the Darkness power he immediately dies. Quite a problem for a lady killer like Jackie.
The Jackie Estacado of the game world is a different character, angst ridden and conflicted. He’s just doing his best to try and be a good guy, while being the Don of a major mafia family, to honour the memory of Jenny, the girlfriend he got killed in the first game. This is made a great deal more difficult when Jackie is attacked by a group with intimate knowledge of the Darkness power, forcing Jackie to unleash the power he’s struggled to avoid using for years.
Children, small animals and wussies may want to look away about now
Overall the plot isn’t half bad, but the organic nature of the previous titles emotional moments is replaced with a more spoon fed plot approach as the game world is now linear instead of free roam. It attempts to ape plot points of the first game which feels like lazy attempts to please fans, but it also introduces some new and interesting ideas and expands the Darkness mythos. Just don’t expect moments as gripping as Jenny’s murder in the first game, or the bizarre and brilliant World War I level, the sequel toys with similar ideas but doesn’t quite manage anything as impressive. The plot does make a legitimate attempt to throw you a curve ball and try and convince you the character of Jackie is just a garden variety lunatic, but the illusion is only briefly utilised to any real effect.
It’s the linearity of the Darkness 2 that really casts it in a poor light next to its predecessor. The last game was a typical Starbreeze game and much like Riddick featured hub areas and a closed free roam sensibility to the game environment. The Darkness 2 is a straight line from mission to mission and when the final curtain closes the story doesn’t feel as long as it should have been. This is padded out by the cooperative multiplayer missions that add a decent chunk of playtime to The Darkness 2, but many players might have preferred more time in the real game than the trade off.
Coop has some reasonable legs, as long as you get a full set of eight legs in the game with you
Digital Extremes have been in the game business for almost two decades, almost exclusively doing work for hire with other developers like Epic to assist in polishing series like Unreal Tournament and working up multiplayer components for games like Bioshock 2 and Homefront. The Darkness is one of their first major releases but their experience in game development is definitely on the screen. The game looks great and runs smooth. The grim and gritty visuals of the first game have been discarded for a cell shaded graphic style as a call back to the games comic book roots. Personally I would have preferred sticking with the realistic visuals Starbreeze used, but I can’t deny the game looks and sounds great.
Light grenades are a real pain now that bright light causes you actual damage
The action and the gameplay are gloriously violent. You have three skill trees related to Darkness powers and weapons that you level up as you play and when you’re fully maxed out you become a real force of unholy nature. Enemies fire at you from all directions as you tear them limb from limb and rip apart scenery to toss at them. The focus on ‘quad wielding’ combing your supernatural powers with gun fights is a big part of the game and it’s a heck of a lot of fun to just tear into enemies. Admittedly the never ending stream of rooms full of guys with guns soon to be bloody chunks gameplay becomes repetitive and the new addition of light sources not just retracting your Darkness power as they did in the last game, but now also weakening and blinding you, is more annoyance than challenge.
Okay, the game might be quite a bit gratuitous actually (sorry mum)
You’re Darkness powers let you unleash such graphic and terrible violence on your enemies that it’s absolutely baffling the OFLC let this game pass. Make no mistake, when you take into account the swearing, violence, and sexual depictions (some of the most overt I’ve ever seen in a retail game) The Darkness II is easily the most offensive game you’ll play this year. The adult elements aren’t gratuitous though (maybe a teeny bit), it always serves the story. It’s the story of a mafia boss with demonic powers after all; you shouldn’t be surprised to see scenes comparable to the average Scorsese or Evil Dead movie.
When you're powers are fully Darknessed up every kill gets about as crazy as this
Many people forget that The Darkness had a woeful and forgettable multiplayer mode added at the last minute. The Darkness II instead has Vendetta Mode, a multiplayer coop game mode that fares much better. You can choose from four characters, each with an element of Darkness power, who complete missions and objectives in the background of the main plot. The characters themselves, a voodoo priest, Jewish markswoman, sword wielding Yakuza and drunk Scot are all rich characters with their own dialogues and animations. The multiplayer is plenty of fun with a good team of friends as using your powers and buff abilities cooperatively is the key to success. Unfortunately it’s also shorter than it should be, easily being knocked off in a couple of hours. Still it really feels like Digital Extremes put in the effort to make The Darkness a franchise worthy title with a character focused multiplayer.
Your single Darkling is a poor step down from your army of wee b'stards from the last game, but he's super effective
The Darkness II is a pretty damned decent title, not nearly as good as its predecessor or comparable plot driven FPS games like Bioshock or Half Life 2, but it does a lot of things okay and a few things really, really well. It also feels criminally (he he) short for a full priced retail game. All up it’s almost the definition of a weekend hire title, something good to play, enjoy and forget when you’re just after something new; unfortunately not the kindest thing to say about a sequel to a game like The Darkness. It’s the type of title you’ll play on a whim and never play again, putting it in the company of games like last year’s FEAR 3 and Singularity. I’m far less excited for another sequel now than I was before this sequel, as a fan I’d be happier to let the series cap here, but I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to see a Darkness 3 on shelves early next year, especially if this one turns out all right sales. At the very least Digital Extremes have shown they have some impressive development skills, producing a game with gorgeous visuals and engaging gameplay. They’re definitely a studio to look out for in the future, their next game could be something really special.