Tales about mobsters have a tendency to feel predictable, and that's part of their charm. You're guaranteed to see or hear about people getting whacked. There's narrative from characters about stuff like "the business," "the way things used to be," or the espousing of tenets like family and loyalty. Lots of bullets get fired. The air is thick with expletives laden with heavy Italian accents, the kind of stuff that's inspired plenty of non-Italians to blurt out, "Fugeddaboutit!" without batting an eyelash.
Now toss demonic superpowers into this cocktail of archetypes and wise-guy culture. That's what The Darkness II does with gory, wild abandon, while managing to surpass its predecessor in almost every facet of design and playing experience. It's an ideal "second game" in a series, which carries the daunting tasks of staying true to the original, improving upon it, and then setting the table for future installments. If you do a No. 2 game right, you get stuff like the Uncharted or Assassin's Creed series. Mess it up (I'm looking at you, Devil May Cry 2), and a series can be on a longer road to redemption.
Starbreeze Studios brought the occult-mafia fusion to gamers in 2007 with The Darkness, which was based on a comic book of the same name. It was our first look into the life of Jackie Estacado, a 21-year-old enforcer for a mafia crime family. His 21st birthday is a landmark day because that's when he inherits the powers and problems of a hellish, ethereal force called The Darkness. Taking the form of a pair of oil-black, snake-headed tentacles emerging from a perpetual cloud of, well, darkness surrounding Estacado, this being enables the young antihero to waste everyone in his path. The tentacles eat hearts, conjure black holes, and violently slash and kill people. Jackie eventually uses the Darkness to wipe out his uncle Paulie, a scumbag's scumbag, and avenge the death of his girlfriend.
The problem is, as one can assume with most demonic beings who possess people, The Darkness is an asshole. Mike Patton voices the creature, which is bent on consuming Jackie and making him his full-time vessel of destruction. The most gripping moment of the first game is when the Darkness holds Jackie and forces him to watch his uncle kill his beloved girlfriend before his eyes. Jackie eventually fights the Darkness itself for control before raining fire on his relatives. He also learns that the Darkness is something of a family legacy.
Now Jackie returns in the second installment, this time as the 23-year-old don of the Franchetti crime family, where he got his start. We learn that he's managed to keep the Darkness in check for two years. What's amazing as you progress through the game is that his guys know about the Darkness, referring to it as "that thing that he does" or his "mojo," which must make the Franchettis the most loyal, progressive and open-minded fictional crime family I've ever seen.
Of course, Jackie's peace doesn't last forever, and The Darkness II opens with an attempt on Jackie's life at a restaurant. There's gun play, plenty of fire and the first encounter with Jackie's would-be enemy. Near death, Jackie is forced to let the Darkness back out, destroy his assailants, and find out who is chasing after him.
This pursuit takes place through the lens of an exquisite graphic noir art style that breathes life into every environment. It's a drastic turn from the first installment, which weighed down the eyes with a gloomy, dank atmosphere that stressed detail over comic-book vibrance, not unlike Starbreeze's Riddick-based offerings. The noir style in Darkness II adds a sense of speed and activity without compromising the soul of the first game. Everything feels more open. Jackie's travels include his mansion, a graveyard, a pool hall, a mental hospital, a fun park and some places beyond the realm of reality.
But some of the real visual juice comes with the combative gorefest the game lays at your feet. Thanks to the power of the Darkness, your enemies meet a variety of foul ends. Among them are decapitation, being diced, having their spines torn via the throat or, erm, the hole on the other end of your body, or being torn apart like a wishbone. There's also a lot of visual play regarding the use of light, since it's the Darkness' one weakness. Like the first game, you'll spend some time shooting out lights and trying to stay in the dark to maximize the Darkness' power, but there are also some brilliant light-play moments when enemies start unleashing flash grenades, shoulder-mounted spotlights and portable generators. You won't be feasting much on the hearts of unsuspecting and overmatched thugs; these guys know what they're doing and have no issue taking apart the player as he stumbles around in a light-blinded haze.
Thankfully, there's a much tighter feeling of functionality in the game's controls, which allowed me to maximize the combination of Jackie's formidable gun skills and the stopping power of his dark, tentacled companion. The previous game's controls felt very loose, as if you had to corral a pair of oddly floating hands (with guns) as well as the Darkness to face battle with confidence. The buzz phrase being thrown around is "quad wielding," which assigns the left and right trigger buttons to fire guns independently in Jackie's hands. The shoulder buttons handle the Darkness tentacles, with each tentacle tasked for a different job — the right tentacle handles attacking and striking while the left one deals with pulling open doors, grabbing items from afar or hurling things at the enemy.
This kind of control means that skilled players can transform Jackie into an offensively amorphous chupacabra who can creatively adapt to any battle situation and leave a trail of asses in his wake. For instance, the left tentacle can yank off a car door and hold it as a temporary bulletproof shield while Jackie fires away, then chuck the door at the assailant and smash him into bloody chunks. You can control the direction of the right tentacle's slashing with a combination of the right shoulder button and right thumbstick, and there are techniques that let you smack someone into the air, suspend him with the Darkness and shoot him … while then grabbing a large pipe, hurling it like a spear and pinning some poor sap to the wall. It takes quite a bit of time and effort to get the hang of this kind of offense, and the game isn't always particularly forgiving, but the potential is there for a player much more skilled than I to wreak some brilliant havoc.
Another layer of fun lies in the various kinds of executions you can deliver, which bring about a variety of benefits, such as more ammunition or more health. Simply grab a stunned enemy and press one of the face buttons. Of course, you'll need to "buy" a lot of these fun techniques at various points throughout the game. The more people you kill (and the more creative you get), the more essence you get, with essence being the game's form of currency. The skills you can buy are divided into three talent categories, each focusing on a different combat aspect (gun mods, Darkness powers, etc). Among some of the more interesting techniques are a green swarm that distracts your enemies and, of course, the portable black hole you can toss like a grenade.
One more gameplay wrinkle is your small, impish companion known as the Darkling, who returns from the first game. He's inexplicably British, but he also aids in the distraction of your enemies and serves as a GPS of sorts by heading toward the right path in more open areas. You can also pick him up and toss him at the enemy if you want to change up your strategy, and there are a few points where the perspective shifts to his point of view. I enjoyed the change, as the Darkling's missions involve more stealth and less fireworks. He does a lot of creeping in the dark, crawling through vents and tearing out throats while avoiding light. He also adds the occasional touch of comic narrative, which helps offset the heavy story.
What hasn't changed much from the first Darkness game to its newest chapter is the grim character interaction and storytelling. The story lays out Jackie's pain about the loss of his girlfriend, Jenny, without getting overly sentimental and hokey. Jenny also becomes a much larger factor in the story than just a series of pleasant flashbacks. If it's backstory you want, you eventually run into a twitchy guy by the name of Johnny Powell, who served as Jackie's expert on the occult — especially the Darkness. I found his narrative to be pretty fascinating, but I don't want to spoil too much. Jackie's mansion also functions as a narrative hub for other characters, such as his lieutenant Vinnie and some of his fellow mobsters. There's even Aunt Sarah, a tough elder figure who adds some balance to Jackie's life.
The evil characters, however, prove to be much more interesting. A trend I've noticed in the Darkness games is that no matter what you think of Jackie and his mafia cohorts, the people he manages to cross are much, much worse. Victor, one of the main antagonists, displays a rare kind of zealotry about wanting to take the Darkness from Jackie. One of his cronies says things about Jenny and Aunt Sarah that I don't even feel comfortable printing. Of course, there's also the winding, growling and screeching voice of the Darkness, which does a good job of striking the player with a mix of awe, fear and frustration until the very end.
Conventional multiplayer, thankfully, is not to be found in this edition of the Darkness, as it was the Achilles' heel of the first game with its tacked-on feel. I'm of the belief that not every first-person shooter needs players online shooting at each other. In its place are a series of missions called Vendettas, with each mission featuring an off-the-wall acquaintance of Jackie, each of whom has mastered a piece of Darkness power. The timelines of these missions are in conjunction with the main story, serving as an entertaining supplement to what felt like a short main-story campaign, which I'd estimate at six hours. There's a lot packed into those hours, but I thought there was room to explore more story elements, especially if there was time to create these side missions.
With that said, I'm going through The Darkness II again to see how much damage I can do with a fully augmented Jackie/Darkness combo. I'm also trying to collect various "relics" in the game so I can hear Johnny Powell babble about their histories. The Darkness II proved to be a solid, artistically pleasing twist on demonic possession and dark heroes, and it's one story with mobsters I plan to follow with interest.
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