Perhaps I have a touch of monster in me, but there is just something infinitely satisfying about ripping people apart with demon arms and making them run from me as if I were a vengeful god, showing my displeasure at their heathen ways. But before that gets taken out of context and is possibly used against me in a future trial, it really is worth commending developer Digital Extremes on the unique and impressive gameplay mechanism that allows some seriously gruesome kills in The Darkness II.
For those that played 2007’s The Darkness from Starbreeeze Studios, the only real holdover is the story, and even that can be quickly picked up without the need of much backstory. Digital Extremes took the property and totally reworked it, but did so in a way that honored the original—but make no mistake, this is a fundamentally different game. It is also a better game because of it.
There is the glimmer of a brilliance in The Darkness II, but there are also a few issues that stunt this game’s potential growth.
When The Darkness II picks up, a few years have passed since the events of the first game. The protagonist (definitely not the “hero”) Jackie Estacado is living large as the Don of a NY mafia family, eating at the fancy restaurants, dining with the ladies like a boss, and trying to forget that the love of his life was brutally murdered.
An attack on Jackie forces him to release the malevolent supernatural entity known as the Darkness, in order to rip through scores of red shirt-like thugs hired to die horribly. As Jackie investigates—and by investigate I mean he basically rips people in two until someone talks—he discovers that the attack is part of a much bigger plot by an OG secret organization known as the Brotherhood that wants to use the Darkness to its own nefarious ends. The entity known as the Darkness is having none of it, and manages to manipulate Jackie, who finds himself stuck in the middle of a struggle that is much bigger than man.
The story is fairly concise, but still delivers plenty of twists and surprises. It is extremely dark and bloody, but also compelling and entertaining. One thing though is that it never stops, and never slows down. The pacing is both a blessing and a curse. From the moment the game begins, there is almost no slowdown in the action with a few minor exceptions that exist for the sake of exposition, which you need to hear to put the finale in context. That makes for intense, frenetic action. It also means that there is no sense of exploration, which would be fine, but you can tear through an entire level in minutes if you want.
The thing that will no doubt get the most attention from The Darkness II, and rightly so, is the ability to quad-wield weapons and the Darkness tentacles. It sounds simple enough, but the environments are designed to be destroyed, so the ability to quad-wield opens up so many possibilities. It also does something else—it makes you feel almost invincible.
Later in the game, you will face troopers that know what the Darkness is, so they fight with light, which can cripple the Darkness and quickly lead to your death. These guys can cause a lot of problems. But when they aren’t around, you can go utterly ballistic and tear through dozens of enemies in horrible and awesome ways. It almost feels unfair, like you are playing on easy while the enemy AI is playing on hard. If you were playing from the POV of an average enemy, Jackie would be one of the hardest boss fights ever.
The left Darkness tentacle can be used to grab items—including people—while the right is used for slashing. The combination can be brutal and amazing. There is a sense of freedom in the brutality. You can use the tentacles to throw objects, use items as a shield, or rip people and objects.
Now, I’ve played a lot of gruesome games in my day, but a few of these animations made me stop and say “damn.” Someone, somewhere is going to have a major problem with the gore in this game. It’s been a while since there was a good, ol’ fashioned controversy about the graphic nature of games.
For as fun as the tentacles are to use, the firearms are also balanced well for either dual-wielding, or using a weapon alone with the ability to aim. It just feels smooth to aim and fire, and Digital Extremes found a proper balance between enemy strength and the strength of the weapons.
As you progress you earn points for the creativity of the kill, which gives you the chance to unlock new abilities. There are several, but the most useful abilities can all be unlocked by about the halfway point, including some truly gruesome execution moves.
The Darkling has also received a major facelift from the previous game, and is now more of a sidekick than a tool. He runs along with you, cracks jokes, occasionally farts on corpses, and will attack enemies for you. There are even a few sections that allow you to play as it, which offers a nice change of pace.
Each new area is fun to jump in to, even if you are more or less a god of death. The environments can be used offensively or defensively, and it is hard to express how cool it is to grab a guy, throw him at a group of enemies, then tear them all in two with a tentacle swipe.
A work of art
The graphics in The Darkness II are also going to justifiably receive a lot of love. Some of the animations are a bit wonky—things like a character handing you something looks blocky and bizarre—yet the majority of the action moves smoothly. But the real draw is the art style.
Technically, it is cel-shading, but it deserves more credit than that name gives it. The art work is taken from hand painted images, which then became the basis of the art work. The result is something that looks like a moving graphic novel.
But more than just being flashy, the art helps with the overall immersion into the game. It looks great, and is helped by some original and interesting-looking levels. The places you visit feature intricate details, and are lush to look at. The deliberate use of light also works well, and it actually becomes part of the gameplay.
Brutally murder people with your friends
An interesting addition to The Darkness II is Vendetta and Hit List mode. Both can be played alone, but they are designed for local and online play, especially the Hit List, which can be extremely tough solo.
Each mode features four separate and unique characters that are touch by the darkness, but are not on the same level as Jackie. They have their own stories, which are told through dialog in the Vendetta mode.
While the Hit List maps are essentially just missions where you go out and kill a boss, the Vendetta mode is a supplemental story to the main campaign. The Vendetta missions play out between the chapters of the main campaign. They aren’t essential to the plot, but they fit within it nicely.
Both game modes essentially boil down to go forth and kill. Sometimes you need to defend against a wave of enemies, other times you need to complete simple objectives—which are typically go forth and kill, then hit a switch. It isn’t all that deep, but it uses the solid gameplay of the campaign and lets you go nuts with friends.
The Dark side
Up to this point, I have been singing the praises of The Darkness II. It really is a great game. But it is also a flawed one, and faces one major issue and a few minor ones. While the graphics and sound are top notch, the sound still has some technical bugs. Sometimes the light will cause you to lose your hearing, but other times the sound will just go out. It is a technical glitch, but not a serious one. There is also the odd synching issue with dialog, which is annoying, but not major.
A bigger issue is the enemy AI. They are at times aggressive and deadly; at other times they will stand there casually as you rip their buddy into tiny pieces. Maybe your victim owed them money. But even with the best of the enemies, there is still the age old AI standby, where they will take cover, and you simply have to aim your reticule where their head will be. They rarely let you down.
Because the game is designed for speed, the levels feel a bit hollow and almost turn the game into an on-rails shooter. You have a linear path to follow, you kill anyone on the way that looks at you funny, then you move on. There are a few collectibles, but they are easy to find, and don’t offer much anyway. Exploration isn’t vital, but the total lack of it is confining. You can barely even flank enemies.
Then there are the boss fights, which are fairly lifeless and dull. There is always a pattern to the boss movements, which leads to repetition. It’s bizarre—for a game with so much variety in the action, the boss fights trap you in to simplistic patterns. The last boss fight is notably underwhelming, which leads to the final, and biggest problem.
This game is short. Painfully, brutally short. On normal, during your first play through, it will probably take around six hours, maybe. If you put it on easy and try to speed through, you should be done in around four hours or so, possibly less. Even the harder modes won’t extend it much. The co-op modes do offer more content, but Vendetta missions can be completed in a few hours, while the Hit Lists are even shorter.
There are a lot of elements in The Darkness II that absolutely sing. The gameplay is incredible, the artwork is well done, and the story is right out of an action-packed comic. Unfortunately, it is also ridiculously short, the levels are linear to a fault, and the enemy AI would be right at home with Monty Python charging the bunny in Holy Grail.
It really comes down to a question of value. Is it worth your money? Maybe. The symphony of gore and brutality is so over the top that it is insane (in a good way), and the play controls in general are silky smooth and polished.
The game is very obviously set up for a sequel–which is hinted at during the game–and there is enough here to get you excited for that. With the exception of a few minor tweaks (especially to the AI), nothing needs to be changed. There just needs to be more of it.
Score: 8 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3 on a copy provided by 2K Games)