Also on: Xbox 360
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Digital Extremes
Medium: Blu-ray Disc
Players: 1 – 4
Online: 2 – 4 Co-op
The original The Darkness game, based on the popular Top Cow Productions comic book series, was a dark and gritty change of pace from the typical real-world first person shooters that were available at that time. The FPS landscape hasn't actually changed all that much since 2007, so the above statement is also very much true for the sequel, The Darkness II. While the developers have changed (Digital Extremes in place of Starbreeze Studios) along with the engine, the style and gameplay found in the sequel finds a way to stay true to the source material and improves on the original game as well.
When 2K Games announced a sequel would finally be available after a 4 year hiatus, there were surely a few gamers who were excited. The most popular FPS titles these days are based on current or future events, and are still having no problems burning up the charts. For those who like the gameplay, but are getting bored of the subject matter, there aren't all that many "alternative" FPS titles. So The Darkness II I feel is a well timed release by 2K Games, even after the bit of delay that it suffered.
The plot in The Darkness II, which is sort of a mash-up of mafia and supernatural/horror storylines, is a pretty interesting one and is inspired by the Top Cow comic series of the same name. It is a direct follow-up to the original title with the game's anti-hero, Jackie Estacado, shouldering the responsibility of running a New York crime family, and keeping his supernatural gift (or curse), the darkness, bottled up. While Jackie is still haunted by the murder of his girlfriend Jenny, his life was at least stable and relatively free of drama. Of course, until one day, he is attacked unprovoked by a mysterious group of individuals who are apparently after his powers. At the same time, the newly reawakened darkness, which is now totally pissed, attempts to manipulate and take control of Jackie's body. The game's themes are suitably dark and sometimes bizarre, and there are more than a handful of twists and turns.
It's easy to call The Darkness II a first person shooter, but with the powers provided to Jackie by the darkness, the gameplay is quite a bit different and more diverse than most other FPS games out there. As for the more standard abilities, Jackie can move, run, jump, crouch and wield/dual wield a variety of fairly straight-forward weapons, ranging from pistols and Uzis, to light SMGs and a shotgun. There are no exotic weapons to be found here, and there's obviously a reason for that. Jackie's "gift" gives him the ability to have 2 super-powered tentacles that can pick up objects, such as poles, car doors, fan blades, explosive canisters, etc. and use them either as long-range weapons or occasionally defensively as shields. The tentacles are also utilized to strike or grab enemies from afar, and even rip them to shreds, which will usually yield some sort of bonus in the form of health, ammo or perks. Additionally Jackie can use his powers to snatch up weapons and ammunition, and rip down certain doors and walls, or break through locks.
The darkness also gives Jackie some help in the form of a darkling, which is a troll-like, Cockney English accented wise-cracking creature who serves as a sidekick of sorts. This darkling can take out enemies, offer tips, and also help Jackie to reach otherwise inaccessible areas. Even though he sometimes comes off as more of a figment of Jackie's darkness-infused psyche, there are a small number of instances where you can actually control the darkling as well.
There is a catch to using the darkness though. All of Jackie's supernatural powers, the Darkling included, can only be utilized in the dark, so it is in his best interest to stay out of the light and destroy any light sources that may get in his way. The light doesn't kill or harm Jackie directly, but it does limit the amount of healing and abilities he has in order to survive enemy encounters. So there's a fair bit of strategy that comes into play.
The actual controls and gameplay in The Darkness II are well thought out and feel solid and responsive. Digital Extremes did an excellent job working in all the darkness abilities along with the standard FPS controls, so even if Jackie is "quad-wielding" (as the game puts it) you feel in control of the character. Attacks, either with regular weapons or the tentacles, have a nice amount of impact and "oomph" behind them, making every execution or chance to dispatch an enemy satisfying.
Digital Extremes found a way to work some light RPG elements into The Darkness II in the form of a simple character upgrade tree. Nearly every action that Jackie does earns him dark essence, which can then be spent on unlocking abilities from 4 categories in the upgrade tree. These abilities range from simply earning more health and ammo when performing executions, to unlocking completely new ways to utilize your tentacles. Brand new abilities can also be unlocked such as letting loose a swarm of essence that immobilizes all enemies within a certain range and the ability to super-charge your weapon's shots and ammo temporarily. RPG elements, even simple ones, are always nice to include in a game if possible, and what I like about the implementation in The Darkness II is that it doesn't take long to actually earn enough points to get some significant upgrades.
The Darkness II is actually a great looking game with a consistently smooth framerate throughout (even in the PS3 version which this review is based on). The heavy inked, graphic-noire style works well considering the theme, and there's quite a lot of blood and gore. The environments are on the small side, though not what I would consider claustrophobic, and almost entirely linear. The Darkness II is very story driven, so there's nothing unexpected about the game's structure, but I just wanted to make sure to mention it.
Developers are under a lot of pressure to work in some sort of online elements into nearly every game they create, and there are a number of times when the decision is just not a good one. In the case of The Darkness II, the developer opted for a multiplayer co-op campaign and challenges that they dubbed "Vendettas", and it actually works well in a number of ways. These Vendettas focus on four totally different characters, each which exhibit some unique darkness abilities. These characters, including a female Mossad agent, a modern-day Japanese gangster, an alcoholic Scotsman and a New Orleans witch doctor are brought together in a storyline that runs parallel with Jackie's, and provides for a different look at the events that occur during the single player campaign. They aren't as powerful as Jackie and their abilities are in the form of darkness-infused weapons instead of super-powered tentacles, but they are enjoyable to play as and each can also be upgraded with dark essence. Many of the Vendettas can actually be played as a single player in addition to online co-op, with the exception of a few missions which require more than one player. In order to play through everything that Vendettas has to offer, you'll have to jump online and team up at least a couple of times. There is an actual campaign in addition to a Hit List mode that gives you the chance to just hunt and eliminate certain characters.
The audio impresses as well, with a lot of voiceovers, some satisfying effects and a few memorable music tracks here and there. The voice work I would consider to be above average, and Jackie's tough but vulnerable mafia boss persona is captured well, along with the darkness itself and the darkling. Some of the supporting cast can come off as rejects from the Soprano's, though generally the talent does a nice job.
The game controls great and has a lot of unique things going for it, and there’s actually not much negative to say about The Darkness II. The single player campaign is on the short side, clocking in at under 8 hours at the default difficulty, but on the positive side, the game does offer a New Game+ mode that allows you to keep all of your abilities and also select chapters in order to hunt down the last of the relics or to maximize your abilities. Additionally, the Vendettas mode adds much more to the game, especially if you party up and spend time online.
Going into The Darkness II, I wasn't really sure what to expect, especially considering the change of developers and the fact that the last game was released nearly 4 years ago. I'm glad to say that Digital Extremes has done a really nice job modernizing the series and following up where Starbreeze left off. So if you’re looking for something a little different from your typical modern combat or science fiction-themed first person shooters, The Darkness II is a great alternative.