The Darkness II Xbox 360 Review
It's been roughly four and a half years since the exploits of the hitman with supernatural powers Jackie Estacado first ravaged their way onto what were then deemed “next-gen” consoles. Dark subject material, some fine visual flourishes and a couple of interesting twists on the first person shooter genre was enough to pique the interest of many. However, the rough edges and similarities in style, tone and narrative between the title and publisher 2K's previous FPS outing, Prey, made it less than distinct in a market that, particularly on the Xbox 360, was quickly becoming crowded.
So, with developing duties handed over to a new studio – Digital Extremes – have they polished Starbreeze's formula for this sequel?
It would be hard to condense the plot of the first game in pellet format for newcomers, such was the convoluted sub-Sopranos double crossing of those surrounding our Italian American protagonist. Luckily there's an optional “previously” cut-scene to get everyone up to speed. Suffice it to say, lots of people got killed and many by your hand. In a fairly shocking scene, involving the death of a loved one, Starbreeze managed to give the gamer a genuine reason to go on a hate-fuelled vendetta. Recreating that same impetus to hunt through the shadows eager to exact revenge was always going to be tricky for a sequel. The writing is something that's been touted, with duties falling to Paul Jenkins, a man who should know the core material having worked on the tie-in comic book to the first game and whose horror noir credentials stretch to a run on the illustrious Hellblazer graphic novel series.
In narrative terms it's been two years since the events of the original game, and Jackie has risen to become don of the crime family. He still has the supernatural powers, the titular “Darkness” but has reined their influence. After an attack by a rival gang, Jackie must once again let the Darkness take over in order to survive and the insanity, quite literally, begins once again.
The core mechanics were always fairly tight in the original title and gave gamers an interesting taste of horror/stealth that isn't usually associated with the FPS genre. Stalking through the shadows, the game pressed hard to embolden the player in their lurking rather than push them into the softly softly approach. The term “darkness” not only referring to the demons plaguing Jackie but also the areas in which they can be used. Step into a brightly lit environment and they can no longer be summoned, leaving you to rely on good old fashioned guns to turn your enemies into Swiss cheese.
The range of dark powers has been supplemented for the sequel with an ability called “quad wielding”, a nifty combination that allows Jackie to utilise both darkness tendrils (a set of demonic arms with heads, used for slashing and grabbing) and a pair of traditional weapons at the same time. It's a slightly odd move, considering the previous boundaries placed between the two worlds of the mundane weaponry of Messrs Smith and Wesson et al and the netherworld powers at your behest, the stylistic differences and the gameplay choices it would force the player to make. All are now lessened by the inclusion of a “fill your boots” attitude to unleashing havoc, but as sequels so often follow the mantra of “bigger is better”, what greater way to dispense a pesky mobster in horrific fashion than to pepper him with buckshot whilst sending a twisted Mephistophelean tendril through his torso?
The artistic style is tweaked from the first game, with a quasi cel-shaded approach being preferred. This fits in nicely with the graphic novel style interludes. The approach, as explained by the developers, was to make the story fit in with the artistic direction of the comics, a sort of tie-in to a tie-in if you will. Somehow it feels brighter in the light and the transition to the more shadowy environments is easier to handle, but the problem of not knowing exactly what light is deemed bright enough to harm your powers persists.
The sound mix is surprisingly good for pulp fare, you can pick out conversations left right and centre, noise can not only be pinpointed (hardly a major achievement) but more importantly ebbs away at the right speed rather than cutting out entirely as you turn your head or suddenly increasing in volume notably.
You can now also use your Darkness powers in public places, being only limited by areas of bright light. This frees you up to play as you wish but also seems to take away from the split in gameplay that nicely punctuated the original. The upside – well if you were bored when forced to use guns, the freedom to send a demonic tendril ripping through the flesh of a goon is still pretty exhilarating. The blood and physics engine will be what likely first captures gamers’ attentions. The opening tutorial level shows you just what happens when you use the basic moves to throw projectiles or, for something more gruesome, slice an enemy in half. The spray of claret, in semi cel-shaded cartoonish gooeyness is just bloodthirsty enough to be punchy but not so tethered to the ideal of realism as to make the experience anything other than a pulp-horror pleasure. The slightly light gravity enabling a toybox feel for you to toss sinewy bodies about like serial killer confetti.
The gunplay is reasonably tight, the standard widening cross-hair reticule when moving or after recoil is in place, but you don’t really need to pick your shots. For all the John Woo fans, dual wielding is here, and remains a flashy, cinematic way to spread the lead around. The only problems arising from “quad wielding” is that the screen can feel cramped. The developers have done their level best to minimise this by pushing the tendrils to the sides a bit and making sure the guns aren't greatly raised into the screen, but still there is a sense that your peripheral vision has been hampered slightly.
The plot this time around struggles to be much more than a continuation with a twist, pushing a shady figure into view and teasing with a few Max Payne-esque madness scenarios designed no doubt to unsettle the player. Slightly disappointingly the cut-scenes stick you to the spot and don’t allow real head movement, meaning what would have been a dynamic scenario, say you’re being tortured and want to take in the full horror of your murky dungeon surroundings, becomes more of a traditional punctuation that distances the gamer to some degree.
You could see this as a very traditional game in many respects, but there are a few twists, most prominently is the inclusion of experience points. Off someone in a particularly stylish manner (throw a pool cue through their noggin for example) and you’ll gain more points, or “dark essence” than a standard slug kill. Here’s where the tactics and toybox feel get introduced. You can redeem your “dark essence” points at shrines to gain more powers. A talent tree shows all those selectable, and they range from gun-based and armour to bonuses for executions. It's hardly the height of RPG depth, but the paths chosen will certainly affect where you concentrate your energies with regards killing techniques.
You'll no doubt find ones that suit your style of play or maybe a particular method of despatch that carries with it a cruelly satisfying animation, but beyond that it's a case of kill or be killed for the most part. You can throw items, pick items up as cover, disarm enemies and in one especially nasty turn execute those you've picked up with your grabber tendril.
These extra abilities are varied and drive you on in a manner that is vaguely reminiscent of the big hitting multi-player first-person-shooters like the Modern Warfare and Battlefield series. The impetus is not only in gaining a weapon that will potentially change the style in which you approach the various killing scenarios, but also just to view how the developers have created a twist on the tools you have already been using and how much further the slayground atmosphere can be pushed.
The narrative is intriguing at times and pedestrian at others, the balancing act of toeing the line to the comic book medium and not falling into the traps of insultingly two-dimensional characterisation and event catalysts is one Jenkins seems to handle well, the knowledge and appreciation of the medium shines through in a knowing way.
Topping up dark essence is pretty essential, however it is pretty hard not to accumulate more than enough to see you through, even without searching for things like the hidden relics that come with a bonus. You're generally reliant on the two tendrils, less righty tighty lefty loosey and more righty slashy lefty grabby, with which you'll accumulate points from the mundane “eat heart +5” to the niftier feats such as decapitations with ceiling fans you've thrown like deadly frisbees.
Boss fights are well integrated into the story and make a useful playground to showcase your new talents to full effect. Even if you find yourself at other times taking out the hordes of vanilla goons with the same attacks, or perhaps feeling less than threatened, the bosses throw enough at you to make relying on either gun or dark skills alone less viable an option.
Longevity is possibly an issue, the story driven FPS was never a genre intended to keep players coming back for more. A mode entitled “Vendettas”, whose timeline runs concurrently to that of the main narrative, has a co-op option and places you as one of four hitmen sent out on missions. It's more than just a fluff side-piece and has a decent story and mission structure, making it an addition that feels very much part of the package. Beyond that, upon completion of the main story you’ll gain access to the “New Game +” mode which sees you playing through with all your already accumulated skills, so those eager to max out their talents will be set.
If there is one criticism of The Darkness II it is that of general level design and enemy AI. The settings are often pretty, but there's little by way of imagination or flair, and it is hard to think of a locale you could describe to others as memorable when recommending the game. In many areas it’s little more than a corridor shooter with a few neat touches, branching and outflanking being almost impossible in but a few locations; no crate hopping, no door opening, no inventive pathways. The idea of taking out lights, moving through the shadows and letting loose merry hell on a bunch of murderous goons is addictive, but certain sections fall all too easily into waves of enemies funnelled towards you; taking cover doesn't make them intelligent, just not idiotic bullet magnets with death wishes.
These gripes don't greatly detract from the mainstay of the gameplay though, which is an almost nod-and-a-wink towards all that is great in kitsch horror, traditional FPS fun and a few bells and whistles thrown into the mix. The guilty pleasure of punching holes through chests, tearing heads off and ripping torsos in two like a Christmas cracker should be old hat by now, but somehow it still retains that hint of the forbidden, like a videogame intent on channelling every finishing move from Mortal Kombat and Daily Mail games-bashing headline all in one, and I can think of no greater compliment. Linear, but fun while it lasts.