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Monday, March 5, 2012

The Darkness II (7.7/10)


I love mob movies, but I've always struggled to explain why. Sure, there is some romantic ideal involved, and the opposing dichotomy with the generally disgusting, amoral jerks who tend to be the central players makes for an almost paradoxical intrigue. So following the trials and tribulations of one Jackie Estacado, head of his crime family, should yield similar emotional connectivity, channeling both positive and negative connotations simultaneously. Oh yeah, and he's possessed by an ancient demonic force called "The Darkness" that manifests itself by sprouting slavering serpents from his shoulders that have an unfortunate (but fun) habit of ripping your enemies limb from limb.

I never played the first game (it's on the shelf, I'll get to it eventually), but the premise intrigued me. Another in a long line of comic book adaptations, The Darkness tells the tale of the aforementioned Jackie as a young man: working his way up the killing ladder of a mob family and trying to impress his young lady friend with the proceeds of being a hitman. Of course, in a totally predictable twist, Jackie discovers that he is the chosen vessel for The Darkness, granting him veritable super-powers, while he remains cloaked in shadow. The mob naturally tries to take advantage of Jackie's unique new skillset. However, when they try to use his girlfriend Jenny as leverage they take things too far... and end up killing her. Jackie proceeds to butcher the lot of them and take control of the family himself.

"But wait Simon," I hear you cry, "if you never played the first game, how come you know so much???" Well, gentle reader, that is taken care of for you with a well made (and fun to watch) "Previously on The Darkness" intro sequence. But enough with the back-story (I suppose you could always read the comics), what happens in The Darkness II? In the intervening two years Jackie has tried his best keep The Darkness quelled within him, all the while sitting on a large pile of money in a swanky mansion and crying himself to sleep every night over his lost love. But then, during a nice quiet night out at his restaurant with blonde twins who I'm sure are only there for lively conversation, some bastard drives a truck through the wall and all hell breaks loose. Jackie must embrace The Darkness once again just to survive. But the more he learns about the attempted hit and the sinister motives behind it, the more he realizes he must struggle with the demon within to get to the bottom of things. It turns out there are others who want The Darkness for their own, and they are willing to go to any lengths to get it.

The plot is driven by some interesting interludes between the actions which serves to both break up the pacing and provide plenty of background and character motivation. In between chapters, Jackie does the soliloquy thing and tells interesting stories that actually provide a surprising amount of motivation for the flawed protagonist. You can explore Jackie's mansion and take the time to talk to various stereotypical mobsters, learn back story, and even engage in a couple of mini-games (who doesn't enjoy shooting pigeons out on the ledge of your penthouse?). However, there are some darker, far more brooding sections in an asylum that are very well done... to the point that I was actually questioning the reality the whole story was founded on. I don't want to give anything away so I'll leave the major plot points at that, but I will say it's far from predictable. Some of the moments with Jenny are actually quite poignant, eliciting real emotion, a rare feat indeed considering the rest of the subject matter.

The gameplay in The Darkness II revolves around shooting everything that moves with lots of guns combined with the liberal use of the aforementioned demonic shoulder serpents to rip your foes into tiny pieces. The control system is intuitive and easy to use: guns on the triggers (you can also dual wield), serpents on the shoulder buttons. Just don't forget that you can only use The Darkness in the dark (duh) so stick to the shadows... or at least have good enough aim to knock out every light source you see. My only real complaint about the gameplay is that it's pretty much a one-trick-pony. Grabbing a wounded foe and ripping him in half from the butt up is brutally satisfying... until you've seen it so often that it loses the shock value.

There are several upgradable skill trees you can use to augment your powers and even some other fun ones to try, but in the end they don't change your strategy much. You gain these new skills by killing enemies in different ways (the more clever and gory the better, reminiscent of Bulletstorm), and finding hidden relics. These relics are actually worth seeking out as they come with some interesting text that provides background, apparently related to the expanded universe of the comics.

Oh, and I forgot to mention your little Darkling buddy! The creepy little imp (who I have a particular affinity for, considering he wears a Union Jack toga) has several roles. You can pick him up and chuck him at enemies. He also goes a long way toward providing comic relief in a dark and tragic tale (usually by urinating on the mangled corpses of the dead lying in your wake). Lastly, he constantly plays the follow-the-leader role by running out ahead of you and bitching when you take too long to catch up. I don't like feeling like I'm being shepherded, particularly in linear shooters, so having the little bastard constantly berating me when I try to have a look around for hidden goodies was slightly aggravating. However, all was forgiven during the few sections of the game where you get the chance to play as the Darkling: sneaking around, ripping the throats out of unsuspecting baddies (sadly, you're not given the option to piss on them), and opening paths for Jackie. 

For the most part the controls work well, but the hit detection can be a bit spotty when using The Darkness powers. Slashing a giant serpent horizontally ought to hit the guy when I'm aiming six inches to the left, don't you think? This issue is only exacerbated when they start chucking more difficult, melee focused baddies at you. It's easy to get turned around and lose your bearings. Still, Jackie is virtually a god, and if anything the game is too easy... except for the boss fights which trend dangerously close to being unfair. Each one seems to have an un-dodgeable attack, and I could never seem to get the timing right. Fortunately, the autosave kicks in during these slogging battles, so dying doesn't mean you have to start from the beginning.

Graphically, The Darkness II is a major departure from the first game. Gone are the dark corridors and gritty realism. Instead, they've eschewed this for the increasingly popular cel-shading anime style. It works pretty well, but there are some problems with movement animations. On the whole, the game looks great, especially with the copious amounts of blood that end up splattered everywhere. A word to the wise, The Darkness II is pretty gory, but what really surprised me was the graphic content in a brothel scene. There's no nudity, but it's practically soft-core porn. Of course, you don't have to go peeking through every partially opened door in a whorehouse either. Just so you know....

Sound-wise, The Darkness II works well. The voice acting, despite some eye-rollingly cliched mob dialogue, is pretty convincing. There are some great licensed songs that work well when used, and the rest of the time the background music does a decent job of setting the ambiance. Oh, and The Darkness constantly nattering in your ear fails a bit... I know they were going for menacing but it comes off as more annoying than anything.

I'll be honest, I need to go back and play the original. That says a lot in and of itself... I enjoyed Jackie's second chapter enough that I'm curious about the differences between the sequel and the first. In the end, The Darkness II is a perfectly average shooter augmented by a fun gimmick that stales due to a lack of variety. The story has some surprisingly poignant moments that contrast its darker undertones, creating that striking paradoxical dichotomy that seems to pervade mob stories in general... with that one not-so-subtle difference. Just imagine what The Soprano's would have been like if Tony had had The Darkness at his beck and call... now, that would have been great television.


Score = 7.7 / 10

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