What is it with you gamers? Why does it always have to be about Mafia dons, and ripping people limb from limb, and brutal murders, and revenge, and eldritch abominations from beyond the void, and all that? Why can't we have a game set in a sunny meadow with puppies and bunnies? I mean, bunnies are pretty vicious. You've got your antagonists right there.
I suppose one contributing factor is that some of the games with Mafia dons and ripping people limb from limb and blah blah blah actually tend to be quite good. Case in point: The Darkness. While it would've been very, very easy for The Darkness to be a testosterone-fuelled, chest-thumping bout of manly ultra-violence, it surprised everyone by being a game full of actual, genuine heart and poignancy, particularly when it came to the protagonist's interactions with his innocent girlfriend. Yes, it also had lots of testosterone-fuelled ultra-violence. Got to keep you guys happy somehow.
The Darkness II, as the sequel has imaginatively been titled, has taken a different route to much the same ends: It's still a deceptively clever game with a surprising amount of decent writing and real heart, and it still has an absurd level of gore. I mean, this is a game in which players can grab a gangster by the legs and tear him in two. Combat subtlety is not its strong point.
Before we go any further, a fair warning: discussing The Darkness II's story in any level of depth necessitates spoilers for the first game. If you haven't played the first, go out and pick up a copy then head on back.
Right. The Darkness II is set two years after the events of the first game. Protagonist Jackie Estacado is now the head of the Franchetti Mafia family and has successfully locked the titular Darkness deep within himself, but for all his success, he's still torn up over the death of his girlfriend, going so far as to light a memorial candle for her each and every night.
While I'd happily play a game about a man agonizing over the death of a loved one (although, in hindsight, "happily" might be a poor choice of words), I fear it'd be a bit of a niche title, so things predictably get worse. A restaurant dinner turns messy when one of Jackie's female dinner dates spills her brains all over his suit, and when Jackie winds up dying in a burning kitchen, surrounded by gunmen, with a mangled leg, he finally unleashes the Darkness once again. Cue five to seven hours of heart-eating, limb-shredding, spine-removing — but surprisingly clever — first-person shooting.
We'll deal with the heart-eating, limb-shredding, and spine-removing first. The Darkness II has a much-touted quad-wielding ability that refers to the fact that Jackie, in addition to two hands, has two huge, fanged combat tentacles sprouting from his back. This affords an excellent measure of control in combat.
For example, Jackie has a pistol in his left hand and a Micro-Uzi in his right. He can fire off every round in the pistol and then, while it's reloading, open fire with the Micro-Uzi — while simultaneously hurling a car door with the left tentacle to slice an enemy in two, and slashing another foe in half with the right. If you're careful about your distance, then you're never not attacking, and mapping each individual limb to a different shoulder button means that controlling all of this is surprisingly easy.
Making it a bit trickier is light. As the name implies, the Darkness only functions in, well, darkness. Standing under a spotlight almost completely whites out the screen and removes your combat tentacles and any other buffs you might have unlocked. It's not long before enemies start using this against you by carrying lamps, hurling flashbangs, and hiding behind, um ... bulletproof spotlights that can only be turned off by shooting the generators. I didn't realize how stupid that sounded until I wrote it out.
Yes, I did mention unlocking, which is where the aforementioned "clever" part comes in. Killing enemies in different ways grants Jackie "essence," which is this game's shorthand for "experience points." A simple kill with a gun grants a measly 10, while a full-on execution (ripping someone in two or pulling out his spine) gives 30. Finding a purple swirly rift lets you level up four separate trees of abilities, and as you're unlikely to max out everything in one playthrough, there's an awful lot of choice.
You might, for instance, choose to upgrade your executions to reward you with health or ammunition. Maybe you want to be able to reload faster and load your guns with explosive ammo. Perhaps you want to hurl black holes or periodically charge your guns with Darkness, letting you see (and shoot) through walls without costing any ammunition. It's up to you, and the wealth of unlocks translates directly into a wealth of options in any given firefight.
The problem is that, after the halfway point, the game can be reluctant to let you enjoy this. In addition to foes carrying lights, you face off against enemies in body armor and helmets, or hiding behind shields that need to be blasted and then torn away, or equipped with whips that disarm you, all of which force you to play conservatively. That's not a great thing in a game that glories in having you pick up foes before using a tentacle to re-enact the Chestburster scene from Alien. A few contextual interface woes make it worse, too; tapping L2 to rip away a shield and finding that the tentacle instead swapped out your assault rifle for a shotgun isn't much fun in the heat of a pitched battle.
For the most part, the combat is visceral and satisfying, and even when it's not, the dialogue, characters, and story should be enough to keep you interested. While hub areas are gone, you're usually given the opportunity between missions to wander Jackie's penthouse apartment and chat to the regular cast while indulging in minigames. These sections flesh out things for those who like the universe, while they're quickly skipped by those who want to get back to the action.
Jackie's as likeable as ever (more likeable than you'd think a demonically possessed hitman-turned-mafia-don can be), and while some of the returning characters don't get as much screen time as I'd like, there are a few decent replacements, with the pathologically nervous occult expert Johnny Powell stealing almost every scene. Admittedly, there's not as much heart as the original game, and I'm a little sad to see the hub areas go, but it's astonishingly well structured nonetheless.
Once you're done with the single-player, which will probably take anywhere between five to seven hours, you've got a New Game+ mode and some co-op multiplayer to keep you interested. The latter is split between the Vendettas minicampaign, which runs parallel to the main story, and the Hit List set of single missions. (These can also be played offline in single-player, but good luck with that. While you can probably manage most levels, the bosses have so much health it's unbelievably difficult to tackle them solo.)
These modes put you in control of one of four characters who've signed on with Jackie, each carrying a different Darkness artifact that grants him one of Jackie's powers. It's a nice idea but — wild personalities aside — they're much less interesting to play than Jackie himself, and despite possessing upgrade trees and Darkness powers of their own, they're rather reliant on gunplay, which isn't the game's strongest combat point. The co-op is certainly a welcome and well-made addition, but it's not a huge draw, and it's nowhere near as good as the single-player.
Still, a few minor flaws aren't enough to keep me from recommending The Darkness 2. The single-player portion is tightly structured, and the brutal combat is unbelievably satisfying while still, at its best, providing plenty of options. The well-told story helps this first-person shooter stand out from the crowd. While the co-op multiplayer should really be viewed as a bonus to the game's campaign rather than a major selling point on its own, it's a rather nice bonus to have, and it helps to round out an enjoyable title.
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