When 2K games announced last year that they were publishing a sequel to the well-received video game adaptation of Top Cow’s The Darkness comics, the news that original developer Starbreeze had been replaced by Dark Sector developer Digital Extremes, the reactions were twofold; disappointment that Starbreeze was no longer involved, but also hope. Hope that the sequel would keep the dark, gritty atmosphere and engaging storytelling but better capture the spirit of the comics.
A new developer, and a chance to do something fresh. Have they succeeded?
[Please note, this review contains spoilers from the first game.]
It’s been two years in-game and five in real life since mob hit-man Jackie Estacado used The Darkness – an ancient, evil force of chaos and destruction - to kill the men responsible for his girlfriend’s murder, and an attempt on his life. Though Don of the Franchetti crime family that betrayed him, he’s a haunted man. He’s gained control over the Darkness, bottling it up inside him, but he’s unable to attain closure from Jenny’s death – weakening his resolve and power against the relentless force that eats him from the inside.
The Darkness wants out – and it receives the catalyst it needs when another hit on Jackie’s life escalates in to an all-out mob war that forces Jackie, for the sake of his own life, to unleash the demonic serpentine heads he hosts that serves as its physical manifestation. It soon becomes apparent that Jackie’s hand was forced – and that it was all orchestrated by The Brotherhood; a primeval secret organisation that wants The Darkness for itself. You’ll follow Jackie as he pursues the Brotherhood trying to discover their true purpose, as well as The Darkness’ own motivations in an exceptionally well-woven tale that’ll have you and Jackie question his very sanity.
It’s compelling stuff – and it’s mostly the narrative that stops this from being standards first-person fare. It’s other hook, apart from the progression of Jackie’s lurid powers is what the developers call “quad wielding.” Not only can you hold and control a gun in each hand, but you’re also in greater control of your demonic limbs, fixing a common complaint from the first game. It works, and it works well. Provided you have nimble enough fingers, it’s entirely possible to slash an enemy in half with one demon arm, throwing an impaling spear with the other while perforating gormless mobsters with twin submachine guns. It’s all rather visceral, relentlessly and unapologetically gory – and wholly satisfying. It’s a good thing that the death dealing is fun, because it’s most of what you do, and there’s a small school of enemy archetypes that you will battle over and over again, as the game takes you from way-point to way-point to way-point. Ripping a man’s spine out through his own arse should, but doesn’t really get old.
There’s a greater emphasis this time around on The Darkness’ vulnerability to light, and you’ll not only have to contend with being weakened by environmental lights, but you’ll also be attacked by thugs with shoulder-mounted floodlights or flash-bang grenades.
Killing those thugs – and doing it with relish and gusto – earns you dark essence, the currency you’ll use to purchase and upgrade new Darkness abilities. The upgrades are a mixed bunch, with some – like executions – adding interesting new ways of maiming while others lack agency. Gun Channelling, which imbues your guns with dark essence; increasing their efficacy, temporarily removing the need for ammunition and, when suitable upgraded, allowing you to shoot through walls. Accompanying you on your journey this time is a lone Darkling, a cockney goblin with a dead cat for a hat that adds the game’s necessary comic relief. He steals enemy weapons, assaults and tackles foes and is also playable in limited, context-specific Darkling action sequences.
The game certainly evokes the feeling of the comics, thanks to its hand-painted, cel-shaded graphic noir art direction. It’s really all rather beautiful. What it gets right in its spirit, it loses in atmosphere. Gone is the admittedly under-populated New-York city subway that served as a the first game’s mission hub, and along with it, the city exploration and side-missions. They were often dull and uninspired, but they helped create a feeling of cohesion and reality to the world. The lack of atmosphere is evident in the little things; in the first game you could watch the whole of To kill a mockingbird, The man with the golden arm and an episode of Flash Gordon on TV’s in the game world; you could dial up random numbers on the subway’s telephone – and even get mugged in the city. There’s none of that in this sequel, replaced instead by an almost singular focus on action. It’s worth noting that Mike Patton’s returned to voice the Darkness – but his delivery is more outlandish and decidedly less creepy than before. It’s still one of the highlights of the game, but is sorely underused.
It’s a really good horror-themed action first-person shooter, and though I have no doubt that Digital Extremes gets the comics better, I’m just not sure they’re as able to turn it in to a great game. It’s a missed opportunity to turn what was a good game in to a great one – but most of the complaints levied against the first game can be levied against this one. Jackie’s Darkness powers are underutilised, compared to the god-like array of abilities he demonstrates in the comics. That’s understandable though; it’s the same problem that keeps Superman games from shining. Far less excusable is that it features boring, old-school bosses that feel out of place. Have developers not learned from Deus Ex: Human Revolution? It’s also disappointing that just like the first game, the most spectacular moments in the entire experience are saved for the very end when you’re not even in control anymore.
Where Digital Extremes has succeeded is the multiplayer. Unlike the broken, pointless death-match mess that got with the first Darkness, this is actually fun to play. You’re offered a two-hour campaign that you can play co-operatively online, or solo. You can select one of four Darkness-infused mercenaries – Japanese assassin Inugumi, Mossad Agent Shoshanna, Voodoo priest J.P Dumond and Scottish psychopath Jimmy Wilson - each with their own unique weapons, a single darkness power and upgrade tree. With a friend or 3, play through a few missions that’re cleverly tied, and run parallel to the main campaign. It feels a bit like Borderlands – and that’s a good thing.
The “quad-wield” mechanic is really quite fantastic and wonderfully implemented, adding punch to the combat. It’s just a pity that, beyond the narrative, combat is really all the game offers.
Design and Presentation: 8.0/10
The art direction and beautiful hand-drawn visuals make it look like it was ripped from the pages of a comic book. Story and exposition are still stylishly delivered by Jackie, gun-in-hand, from the smoky dark.
It’s a short – but engaging single player, with a shorter, also engaging multiplayer. There are a few ancient relics that act as collectibles, and a sort list of “hits” to carry out, but little else to add to longevity. Once again, it’s elevated by the wonderful, and wonderfully bleak storytelling.
It’s a good, stylish, bloody and ruthlessly violent first person shooter – but it misses the mark when it comes to atmosphere. Digital Extremes had the opportunity to polish a flawed gem, and while they’ve certainly improved the action, the atmosphere’s suffered. Still, it’s a fun ride.