Tuesday, 27 March 2012

'The Darkness II'

After about two months of dissertation crises, sadly dashed hopes, and some really bad Sasquatch horror, I needed this.

Set two years after the events of 2007’s The Darkness, developed by Starbreeze Studios, the sequel finds Jackie Estacado as don of his own criminal empire. He gets to eat at fancy restaurants, he meets exotic women and he lives in a mansion that sits on top of a skyscraper. The high life, then.

He does have one teensy tiny problem: that darn demonic entity known as the Darkness still calls Jackie’s body its home. Having used the Darkness’ powers to slaughter his way to his treacherous Uncle Paulie and avenge the death of Jenny Romano, his girlfriend, Jackie has since managed to bottle the Darkness up, keeping himself from unleashing violent tentacle carnage ever again. But when a mysterious cult with designs on the Darkness launches a full-on assault against Jackie, he’s forced to unleash the evil within himself once again to protect not only his organisation, but also his loved ones... both living and dead.

I shouldn’t type any more for fear of spoiling what is a rip-roaring story with shocks aplenty – full of real icantbelievedeyjustdiddat moments. But amidst all the fragmenting skulls and spurting arteries, there’s an affecting emotional quality that shows Jackie (now apparently voiced by Batman) still struggling with the loss of Jennie. If you’re wondering, then yes, The Darkness II has at least one scene that rivals the original’s To Kill a Mockingbird sequence.    

While Jackie manages to be a strong antihero, almost every supporting character follows that identikit Goodfellas stereotype. You’d expect this, but unless you’re actually in the mafia, then you’ll probably have a hard time finding any of Jackie’s allies even the slightest bit relatable. Even dear old Aunt Sarah, seemingly having undergone a personality transfer since 2007, delivers mostly profanity-laden dialogue. I guess she’s endearing like that.

No, the best character here has got to be your faithful Darkling companion. Sporting a cockney accent, he crushes heads, rips out throats, gouges eyeballs, urinates on corpses, and is altogether awesome for it. This marks one of the few times where a comic relief sidekick actually works.

Starbreeze didn’t return for the sequel, so the developers of Dark Sector (that one with the glaive from Krull), Digital Extremes, were called in to continue Jackie’s story. This means change.

The first thing you’ll notice is the striking new visual style. Even four years later, the original’s grim photorealistic looks still stand out as some of the best in console gaming. In keeping with The Darkness’ comic book origins, that’s all been replaced by a colourful, don’t-call-it-cel-shaded paintjob that’s low on fine detail but high on lavish style. At times it honestly feels like you’re walking through a graphic novel, and only adds to the immersive experience. Yes, it’s a jarring shift at first, but it doesn’t take long before the comic trappings win you over. So don’t start freaking out like a rabid Zelda fan in 2001.

More important are the changes made to the game’s structure. Taking a leaf from their classic Riddick game, Starbreeze gave The Darkness a quasi-free roaming feel where you wandered around a small city environment, taking short side-missions from various characters while heading from one main plot point to another. Digital Extremes, meanwhile, have opted for a far more linear approach. Aside from the mansion, which acts as a hub filled with interactive characters, the story progresses in a linear fashion. Levels task you with getting from A to B, between which you cut a swath through hordes of enemies, along with the occasional boss encounter (another new, if a little forced addition). While this does result in an arcady vibe, it suits the game’s frantic pacing well. Very little of the original’s downtime returns, and you’re quickly thrust into the next violent set-piece.

And it works because, in contrast with its predecessor, action is what The Darkness II gets right most of all. Guns now feel like instruments of death instead of the peashooters you used in 2007. Even the lowly pistol means business, while a close-up shotgun blast tears off limbs with bloody aggression. Like with the Starbreeze original, though, the true joy of combat doesn’t become apparent until you mix gunplay with Darkness powers.  Digital Extremes have streamlined this aspect too, with your two fellow demon heads serving their own specific roles. The right head acts as a conventional melee attack, allowing you multi-directional slashing manoeuvres, leading to much dismemberment and decapitation. The left head, meanwhile, acts as a grabbing tool (I call him Bitey). Pool cues, car doors, industrial fans – you name it – can be used as javelin-like weapons to impale/dice enemies, or handy shields to provide some extra protection. If an enemy is weak enough then you can grab him too, whereupon you can perform a messy execution. These animations range from a simple head-ripping, to chestbursting and even pulling their spine out via an orifice you don’t usually see one emerging from (the Predator could learn a thing or two from this). This isn’t just a gory spectacle, as you’re granted benefits like a health or ammo refill depending on your choice of fatality.

These powers and more can be upgraded through a simple skill progression tree using the points acquired from killing sprees, so go nuts. Given the game’s relatively short length, it’s unlikely that you’ll unlock everything by the time the credits roll. That’s not a flaw, mind you, as a New Game + mode is unlocked upon completion, so you can revisit past levels and unlock new skills, adding replay value.

Enemy AI was a massive bugbear many had with the first Darkness, so you’ll be pleased to hear that it has been tightened. Some foes, shock horror, even take cover now. But they still aren’t the smartest bunch, and can usually be ripped apart with ease. Still, I wouldn’t call The Darkness II a cakewalk. The challenge is ramped up upon the gradual appearance of more powerful enemies, some of whom use shoulder-mounted torches against you (surely the bane of Jackie’s existence), while others pack whips that can snatch guns right out of your hands. When you’re faced with large numbers of these guys, it can all become overwhelming as you’re forced to go scampering into cover with your weapons taken and your powers nullified. Aside from these frustrating difficulty spikes, you’re given a fair and satisfying challenge throughout.

One element that naturally remains the same is Mike Patton’s demented performance as the Darkness itself. Just like before it’s a raging mess of insanity, with Patton constantly sounding like a Lovecraftian Entity that’s just had the misfortune of stepping on some Lego.

Starbreeze set the bar pretty high with their first take on The Darkness, but Digital Extremes has reached said bar and, at least in places, managed to surpass it. That winning combination of mature plotting and gore-fuelled action makes a triumphant return, proving to be just as effective as it was four years ago, while throwing in plenty of new improvements and surprises thanks to the new development team. And while it may be short (most gamers won’t have a problem blasting through this within six hours), it’s a wild ride that you’ll definitely want to revisit.              

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