There are few things more awesome than controlling demonic tentacle arms with murderous intent, accompanied by a dwarf-sized gargoyle sidekick who wears the union jack like a dress and has a cockney accent to match. Unless of course said tentacles come with a disturbed inner voice and a mind of their own. The Darkness II offers you all of this, in a familiar yet unique presentation. Find out what I thought of it after the break.
Although I don’t recall the details, I have fond memories of playing the first game back in the days when the current generation of consoles were mere infants. The Darkness was a dark (duh), superbly violent first person shooter based on a comic book that I had never laid eyes upon. Its story centered around Jackie Estacado, a then-18-year old mafioso who never really came across as being as young as portrayed. It was probably the most violent game of its time, with only the likes of Manhunt from Rockstar holding a candle to it. I remember it being so dark I had to pump the brightness up to angelic levels just to see what the hell was going on in this very intriguing Mafia thriller.
Sadly, at the time of its release the game was already far behind its peers in pretty much every aspect of modern gaming. The graphics, although not bad, were easily trumped by other simultaneous releases. There were problems with the sound, the lip sync animations were shocking, and the controls were just plain troublesome. Also, many people couldn’t stomach the game at all, due to the insane camera motion making them want to relive their lunch.
In many respects, this sequel is nothing at all like the first game, yet exactly the same in others. For a start, graphically speaking, the game is not nearly as dark and gritty as its predecessor, instead taking a more cartoon-y, cel-shaded approach somewhere between the style used in Borderlands and the film A Scanner Darkly. In part, I believe the cel-shaded approach allows for even more graphical violence than before [Ed: Actually, I believe it was to emulate the look of the graphic novel that served as the game’s source material] , but more so to make the game obviously different from the first, as development duties were performed by Digital Extremes instead of Vin Diesel’s company Starbreeze Studios, well-known for Chronicles of Riddick. (Correction – Since writing this I have been informed that I got it slightly wrong, and that Vin Diesel owns Tigon Studios not Starbreeze Studios, but they did collaborate on Chronicles of Riddick)
Digital Extremes’ influence becomes immediately obvious when you’ve spent a little bit of time with the game and realise that it borrows quite of a lot from their last blockbuster game, Dark Sector. The damage done by the demonic tentacles, both directly and indirectly, are in gloriously bloody detail. The darkness arms can pick up sharp objects and impale enemies with them for longer range attacks, or if you prefer, simply grab a car door and hurl it in their direction, slicing right through them in the process. Getting up close and personal, things become more detailed, and some of the execution moves that are unlocked later in the game are downright perverted. This is not a bad thing if you have the stomach for it, and if you enjoyed Dark Sector you might as well stop reading now and go buy this pseudo-sequel.
The visuals leave a lot to be desired, and just about every other FPS released in the last year outshines the game without even trying very hard. It’s a hit and miss affair, where some characters are beautifully detailed, and then around the next corner your eyes are assaulted with terrible jagged edges and horrendous lip sync problems. Similarly to the first game, The Darkness II feels like it needed a bit more time for the creases to be ironed out, instead of being rushed to market.
John Woo has got nothing on the quad-wielding abilities of Jackie Estacado: considering that our anti-hero can control two demonic tentacles, a combination of conventional weapons, do a number of special execution moves, and then still exhibit further special powers, you simply know the controls are going to be something frenetic. Once you map out all the buttons you need to press to get going, it sounds like an absolute mess, but despite the complexity, the controls work surprisingly well. It manages to be less intricate than, say, Bulletstorm which felt a bit like Tony Hawk at times. [Ed: Have you tried playing Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands? It feels more like you’re playing a complex musical instrument than playing a game!]
The aiming mechanism is about the only thing I can really complain about control-wise, due to a lack of a reticule and a general odd motion. Love it or hate it, auto-aim is quite evident but it can be switched off if you want to be a macho man. I played the demo on the Xbox 360 and did this review on the PlayStation3, and I must admit that the PS3 controller is far more suited to the game because there’s simply so much going on all at once. Usually I applaud Sony’s DualShock technology for adding another dimension to PS3 games, but in this instance they took an obvious multiplatform shortcut and simply used the ON/OFF vibration from the Xbox 360 version. Instead of adding a subtle emotion to scenes, the vibration goes full tilt every. single. time. This has the unfortunate side-effect of killing the atmosphere. Often, the rotors were so loud that I had to turn the in-game volume up on my receiver to compensate. It’s a shame really, as DualShock can be used eloquently enough to be almost psychological.
Another difference between the two console versions is the lack of installation on the PlayStation 3. Granted, I only played the demo on the 360, but as that was running from the hard drive I don’t recall ever spotting the terrible loading transitions as I did on the PlayStation3, which often spoiled the scene with a pause in the middle or left a massive hole in the storytelling. Another thing that kills the storytelling mechanism is the unnecessary need for “Press this button to continue” sequences around every corner. I feel they could have done so much better with proximity based automation, such as when approaching a character in the game to have them simply start their scripted event without awaiting your approval. There’s more pointless interaction when you have to tell Vinnie that you want to start a mission, and then Vinnie tells you to walk into the lift to start the mission. WHY? Why not just tell me to walk into the lift to always start missions, without the stupid manual interaction? Often I wished I could just slap Vinnie with a tentacle to move things along.
Unlike the original game, you now only have one Darkling by your side who travels with you throughout the game world and assists you in combat and puzzle tasks. What’s a Darkling? Basically imagine Gollum from Lord Of The Rings and you have it about right. The first game allowed the use of four different Darklings—all with different abilities—whom you could summon based upon your requirements or strategic preference. This has been changed altogether, as the game is now far less puzzle driven; the Darkling is completely automated for the most part and runs around causing general havoc, while providing dark comedic relief at the same time with his foul mouth. He also marks his territory by pissing on corpses. During the game you unlock extra skills, one of which is to grab the Darkling and throw him at your targets, whom he then devours (or distracts long enough for you to flank).
The Darkness II is far more action-oriented than the first game’s puzzle focus, and very little thought is required to pass through most areas. Being the Darkness, light is your worst enemy, and stepping into it not only disables the tentacles but removes some of your health, so it’s best avoided. The original game made avoiding the light a very strategic matter, and often used it in puzzle challenges, which is no longer really the case. Sure, you still need to shoot out certain strong lights to get into some areas, but quite often you can simply just run through them as well and take the knock to your health on the chin. What does feel a little off-balance, though, is the fact that, with all your demonic power, you can be disabled by a single bloke with what appears to be nothing more than a piddling Maglite torch. When you run out of ammo this little Maglite might as well be Thor’s hammer, because your human form melee attack is utterly pointless and has absolutely no effect on enemies. I had at least one situation where I had to replay a section over and over again to lure out a non-flashlight enemy so I could scavenge ammo from him just to take care of the little Duracell with my pistols. I suspect that, on higher difficulties, the light plays even more of a role and might make well-lit areas more challenging, but it conceivably makes the Maglite of Doom infinitely more powerful.
Another thing that doesn’t quite sit right with the underground setting of the game is the soundtrack. With someone like Mike Patton of Faith No More doing the maniacal voice of The Darkness, you would expect to hear lots of hardcore double-bass and screaming guitar riffs (as I recall the first game had). Instead, it’s all sensible musical accompaniment between missions, which does make some sense, but leans more towards the doef -doef alternative variety when you get in the thick of things. At least there’s no dubstep to be found anywhere in earshot, otherwise I might have instructed Jackie to turn the gun on himself.
I didn’t touch the multiplayer side of things, but hearsay tells me I didn’t miss anything special. There’s a 4-player co-op mode which is apparently an extremely short romp through the game world with four different characters who also happen to have special powers. It all sounds rather tacked on to me, and apparently that is exactly the case. Since my friends all live in my Xbox, and I don’t play well with strangers, I didn’t even venture there.
So it’s a horrible game then, that you shouldn’t spend your money on? No, not exactly. At full launch price I simply can’t recommend it to anyone but the greatest of fans, at least not with a clear conscience. However, in a few month’s time when it hits the bargain bin or second-hand market, the appeal changes considerably. There is some truly awesome storytelling to be had and some great (bloody) gaming moments with Jackie Estacado and the insanely malevolent monkey on his back.
Final Score: 6 dark, tentacled prawns out of 10
Developer: Digital Extremes
Publisher: 2K Games
Platform: PS3 (reviewed), Xbox 360, PC
RRP: R599 (PS3, 360), R399 (PC)
Release date: 10 February 2012
Age rating: 18+