We’ve all been in a situation where two hands are not enough: we pop pencils behind our ears and grip paper in our mouth, cursing through muffled breath about our awkward plight. Jackie Estacado, the protagonist of 2K’s The Darkness franchise, doesn’t have that problem. Armed with two standard anatomical limbs and a couple of demons sprouting from his shoulders, the mobster boss is suitably equipped to handle a long day at the office – plus the extra appendages come in handy when taking down rival gangs and dealing with curious cults intent on stealing away his gothic powers.
While The Darkness was a solid game, it also benefited from intelligent positioning. Capitalising on the dearth of quality content available for new console early adopters, The Darkness drummed up a cult following due to its dark plot, refreshing mechanics and gratuitous gameplay. Fans spent several years petitioning for a sequel to the dark comic book favourite, and The Darkness II represents the fruits of their vocal labours. More consistent but just as adventurous, The Darkness II is every inch the successor to its 2007 counterpart.
Publisher 2K drew some ire when it originally announced the hotly anticipated sequel, naming unproven Dark Sector developer, Digital Extremes, as the studio behind the follow-up. Busy rebooting EA’s Syndicate series, original developer Starbreeze was unavailable for production duties, and many questioned what effect that change in personnel would have on the final product.
Positively, Digital Extremes’ tweaks are for the best. A refreshing, tonally appropriate, art style gives the game personality beyond the countless other first-person shooters available on PlayStation 3, and the original Darkness’ gameplay has been tweaked to offer a more slick and satisfying feel. But when it comes to narrative, Digital Extremes simply picks up where Starbreeze left off. The batty tale of the demon spirits which reside inside protagonist Jackie Estacado is grounded in the continuation of the character’s romance with dead girlfriend Jenny, and, despite the melodrama, it conveys a surprisingly compelling tale.
The Darkness II puts a strong emphasis on plot. While the gunplay is richly rewarding it’s the narrative that’s key to the game’s experience. Unlike most other first-person shooters, Digital Extremes fixates on the game’s plot development, making it pivotal to every gameplay sequence rather than a throwaway exchange of dialogue between firefights. Such emphasis harms the game’s replay value — as some sections bring the game’s pace down to a crawl — but it makes your initial playthrough utterly captivating.
The original game was lauded for its romantic sofa sequence, in which you were encouraged to sit and watch the entire film adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird with girlfriend Jenny. Such strong emotion was – and arguably still is – rare in video games, and so Starbreeze’s work still conjures plaudits from some of the industry’s biggest critics.
Digital Extremes is less purposeful with its storytelling, but no less ambitious. The developer is respectful enough of the game’s fiction to give you the opportunity to explore at intermittent points in the narrative. Here you can chat to various characters, develop Estacado’s personality and also learn more about the pseudo-mobster fiction you’re embedded within. As previously alluded, the deceased Jenny makes a return for some first-person slow dancing and psychological set pieces. And all of this is tailored around recurring “nightmare” sequences which see Estacado – and many of the game’s NPCs – trapped inside a mental asylum, suggesting that there more distressing forces at play than the Darkness itself.
While the plot dips into self-serious silliness by its conclusion, it’s a telling example of how to make narrative matter in a first-person shooter. What you get out of it will depend entirely on your investment, but there’s some powerful stuff that's aided by decent characterisation, good writing and strong voice acting. It’s still pulpy enough to keep you at arm’s length, but it goes beyond the current narrative expectations for a first-person shooter.
That said, if you are coming at the game purely for its gun-play, you won’t be disappointed either. The heavily touted quad-wielding mechanics work strongly, separating The Darkness II from the wealth of modern military shooters already available on the market. At its most basic, the L2 button occupies your “grabby” tentacle, allowing you to snatch up glowing objects littering the environment and toss them at foes. Steel pipes and pool cues, for example, can be repurposed as deadly projectiles to impale foes against nearby walls and surroundings. Car doors can be snatched off and used as shields — or tossed like devilishly sharp Frisbees – and even your accomplice, the po-faced Darkling, can be bowled at foes in order to reap a savage combination attack.
Meanwhile, Estacado’s right tentacle is used for more basic attack purposes. Holding down the R2 button and selecting a direction with the right analogue stick allows you to slash at foes and also target fuse boxes and door locks.
Of course, these attacks come in addition to Jackie’s core set of abilities too. Using standard FPS controls the possessed gangster can dual-wield a large combination of pistols, rifles and shotguns, opening up the game’s combative potential beyond most alternatives. What’s most impressive about The Darkness II is just how slickly the systems work: switching between tossed projectiles, shields and gunplay feels natural within minutes of starting the game, giving the opening moments a revelatory sensation. Why don’t more games give you access to a couple of deadly tentacles?
The fluidity of the action is, in part, aided by Digital Extremes’ decision to be lenient with targeting. Those with 5.0 kill/death ratios in Call of Duty might feel put off by The Darkness’ extreme auto-targeting, but it’s a smart design decision that allows you to switch between attack options quickly without having to worry about being exact.
The combative variety is enhanced by the game’s currency system, which rewards you with Dark Essence for getting more intelligent with your kills. Clearly partially influenced by Bulletstorm, the game dangles attack options in front of you and encourages you to experiment. While you’ll get by simply shooting foes in the face with an automatic rifle, you’ll significantly enhance your points tally by being creative with your kills. Executions and clever uses of the environment will double or even triple your Dark Essence intake, allowing you to upgrade Estacado’s skill trees much quicker. Naturally, the more elements you upgrade, the stronger (and more creative) you get. It’s a bit of a shame then that the game never really scales to your growing abilities, running out of ideas by the time campaign reaches its conclusion. Armoured guards take the place of basic cannon fodder but, while the game is smart enough to keep you moving in combat, it never really demands you change the way you play.
The use of light, at least, ensures that you’re more contextually aware of your surroundings, but frustrates in the game’s later stages. While it’s totally appropriate that a character possessed by the Darkness should be vulnerable to lighting – stripping away your health regeneration and tentacle abilities – the combat loses its flow as later enemies begin to hone in on the weakness. Guards armed with blurry spotlights are extremely difficult to pick off, and unavoidable headlights and indestructible spotlights leave you sloping through the shadows rather than confronting your foes upfront. While we’re sure that’s part of the design philosophy, it breaks the fearless combat that punctuates so much of the rest of the game, and feels like a cheap method of ramping up the game’s difficulty.
The Darkness II toes the line between modern and classical health systems, giving you access to regenerating health when in the dark, but also restricting you to four health quadrants. These can be replenished by gobbling up the hearts that dead foes leave behind, and opens up some strategic options as you purposely leave hearts lying around the world in case you need to call upon them later.
The game’s strong, comic book presentation is one of its greatest assets. The game elevates the formula adopted by fellow cel-shaded first-person shooters Borderlands and XIII, crafting a game that’s undeniably grotty but also markedly slapstick. It’s an impressive visual style that’s enhanced by strong art direction and some complex environments throughout. The areas themselves contain lots of interesting eye candy, to the point you often find yourself stopping and casually inspecting graffiti and computer screens. It’s consistent too, with brothels, subways and carnivals all adopting their own unique feel, but giving the impression of belonging to a greater, believable universe.
This form of consistency extends into the game’s additional Vendetta missions. Separate from the main campaign – but tied into the narrative – these co-op enabled side missions allow you to adopt the persona of one of four stereotypes, each equipped with their own unique weapons and combative abilities. While each of the characters’ arsenals is derivative of Estacado, each includes a unique skill tree opening up access to a brand new set of abilities as you progress.
The Vendetta missions can be enjoyed offline, but they are naturally enhanced when played with friends or strangers via matchmaking. The co-operative gameplay’s unlikely to blow you away – it’s essentially more of the same – but The Darkness II’s action is snappy and satisfying enough to encourage some investment here. Still, without Estacado’s greater range of attack options, the novelty wears off fairly quickly.
And that’s a problem with The Darkness II as a whole: there’s just not enough to it. The campaign can be beaten in five hours, even if you’re savouring every last detail. Similarly, you can play through most of the Vendettas missions in an evening, and while there are some additional Hit List objectives to clean up, the whole affair can be done and dusted in a weekend or less. Digital Extremes would point to the inclusion of a New Game+ feature as reason to play through the single-player campaign again, but the narrative focus of the plot makes it difficult to sit through some sequences for a second time.
The Darkness II is absolutely worth your investment: its rich sense of style, gratuitous twist on standard first-person gunplay and legitimately engaging plot separate it from its peers, but there’s a serious lack of substance here that diminish from the game’s overall value. A lack of variety in the campaign’s final third, and token co-operative missions don’t help proceedings, resulting in a game that’s strong while it lasts, but isn’t around for very long.