The first Darkness, developed by Riddick veterans Starbreeze, was an underrated gem of a game that placed you in the expensive Italian shoes of mob hitman, Jackie Estacado who, on his 21st birthday received a rather unique gift, the powers of the Darkness, an ancient and evil demonic entity that devours people’s souls. Call us boring, but a gift token would be more appreciated.
This power quickly propelled him to the top of the mob’s hit list, and although he successfully took out his enemies, Jackie lost his girlfriend, Jenny, in the process, as the Darkness forced him to watch her execution.
Fast forward a few years and we have The Darkness II. Jackie is now the boss of a powerful mob family, and somehow, he’s managed to keep the Darkness in check for all this time, not letting it take him over, or even letting it out to have a little nibble on someone’s soul.
Of course, as the game opens, this period of relative calm, and Darkness-free living is interrupted, as an unknown enemy group attacks Jackie, leading to another Darkness-tinged rampage strewn with all sorts of psychological weirdness and enough blood and gore to fill a small stadium.
If you’ve played the first Darkness game then you may be expecting more of the same, and in some ways, that’s what you get, but there’s also plenty of change here. Instantly noticeable is the graphical style. Gone is the more realistic look, replaced with a cell-shaded comic-style approach. I was initially a little displeased when I saw this change of art direction in the various promos, as I’ve always thought the original Darkness was one of the best looking FPS games I’ve seen, but after playing the sequel, I’m happy to say the new look works.
Although more colourful and vibrant than the gritty realism of the first, this aesthetic doesn’t stop the game from being suitably serious and violent, and the visual style looks great. From environments to character models and OTT executions, it’s all gravy, and although there are inconsistencies, such as poor lip synching and some awkward character animations, on the whole it works very well. The Darkness is ever-present as an extra character all its own, and the many and varied actions and powers you can use all look good, especially the gruesome special kills.
What I’m not as keen on, however, is the main mechanical change of making the game a linear, stage-based shooter, as opposed to the psudeo-open world setting of the original. Whilst it was no Elder Scrolls game, the first Darkness outing gave you the chance to wander around various city districts and accept side missions and tasks as you saw fit, with main story missions wrapped around this open structure. Basically, it played exactly like the Riddick games, and it was great.
Here you simply move from one level to the next, killing and maiming as you go. There are some story sections, such as trips to Jackie’s mansion or his twisted psyche, but these are all linear too.
That’s not to say this makes the game bad, far from it, it’s just a shame that it’s a little step backwards in some ways. One thing is very true though, the move to a more linear system has made the core gameplay far more focused and accessible and there are plenty of improvements.
Feed the Darknessss!
In the original title, controlling the darkness was more than clunky. Using powers such as the creeping tendril could be nigh on impossible at times, and in general the Darkness was little more than a bullet sponge, and guns played more of a role.
In the Darkness II, however, this certainly isn’t the case. Now it’s your constant and dependable ally, with abilities that are not only much more effectively woven into the gameplay, but are much easier to use. You do have access to all sorts of guns, both single and dual wielding, but in order to survive the Darkness powers are just as essential.
Split into a left and right demon arm setup, you use L2 and R2 shoulder triggers to command the Darkness (L1 and R1 are for guns). The left arm is used to grab and interact with the environment (picking up ammo, eating hearts, breaking through doors etc) whilst the right is the offensive of the pairing, used as a vicious whip or spiked cudgel, the direction of which can be controlled by holding the trigger and moving the analog stick in the needed direction.
This simple method, combined with a few basic button combinations makes using the darkness a much more enjoyable affair than before, and with new powers such as the swarm, which can distract enemies and the ability to use such things as car doors as shields, it’s a much more flexible system too, all the time letting you wield guns at the same time, thanks to the quad-wielding controls.
Sadly, the darklings have been paired down, and there’s less of a focus on your underlings than before, with only one at your side this time. That said, you can now directly control the little guy in some situations, which makes for a novel diversion, and the darkling is a likable character, with more involvement in the story this time.
The Darkness II makes more use of the Darkness’ weakness, which is any form of light. There are areas of the world that are lit up, and to traverse them easily you need to break any light sources or find generators to shut off the power, otherwise you’re unable to use the Darkness, and you’re left vulnerable. Your darkling is also instantly banished should he enter the light.
As well as this basic premise, some additions force you to think on your feet and adapt quickly. Enemies will throw flash grenades to strip you of the Darkness and blind you at the same time, and others carry shoulder mounted lamps that bathe the area in light. To overcome this you have to either kill the light carriers with guns, or shoot out the light to get your powers back.
I’ve mentioned that you can interact with the world, and again, this is much more in-depth than the first game. Now you can pull doors off cars and either use them as shield, as I mentioned earlier, or throw them as a projectile, and you can impale enemies with poles, cut them in two with circular saws and hurl gas canisters, with explosive results. It’s all implemented well, and is integral to combat, as you’ll often run out of ammo.
Alongside the basic Darkness abilities, there are extra unlockable powers you can utilise. These are obtained by earning essence points by killing foes, consuming hearts and finding collectables. Once amassed, you can redeem these points for various buffs and abilities. The ability to carry more ammo, earn more health from hearts and Darkness-powered guns are all useful, as are the abilities to conjure up a black hole, throw your darkling around and use the Darkness as a suit of armour.
Another main use of the Darkness is to perform special kills, or executions. By stunning and then grabbing an enemy you can perform brutal kills to earn health or ammo, and this is also a way to easily kill otherwise tricky opponents. You’ll have to break the armour off some foes before you can do this though.
As the story follows on directly from the first game (there’s a catch up you can watch if you missed it), many old faces return, and you’re instantly thrown into Jackie’s world, which is good, as the story continues to be both interesting and unique. Jackie’s struggle against both the Darkness and his still painful loss of Jenny underpin the proceedings, and the mob war and eventual fight against a powerful cult makes for a good driving force to keep you going, always punctuated between missions with Jackie’s monologues. It’s not an engaging as the first game’s origin tale, but it’s good nonetheless.
Once you’re done with the story, there’s the multiplayer mode to have a go at. Lightly tied in with the main game, here you can play as Jackie’s special, Darkness-powered henchmen, and go on various missions, some of which are mentioned in the main story.
Although each character isn’t as powerful as Jackie, there are enough special abilities and co-op play here to make the mode enjoyable, but it’s nothing amazing (although it’s much better than the first game’s lacklustre offing). It’ll certainly add plenty of hours to the, admittedly, very short campaign.
Fear of the dark
The Darkness II does most things right, even if it does tend to play it safe as a linear shooter, stepping back from its predecessor. When blasting through the story, you really do feel like an ultra-powerful killing machine, and each and every confrontation is littered with multiple possibilities on how to dispatch your foes.
The combat is key here, and the controls, both for standard actions and the Darkness are solid, and the stylish gorefest never gets dull. It’s just a shame that the game is so short, and once you’ve played it through, there’s little incentive to return aside from a a co-op mode that won’t hold your attention for all that long compared to other alternatives.
You can rent or buy The Darkness II at Blockbuster.co.uk.