PC Game Review: Like Romeo and Juliet. Except Juliet's already dead, and Romeo has demonic powers.
We liked the premise of the first Darkness game when it launched in 2007 (see our review here); based upon the comics of the same name it followed Jackie Estacado, a hitman for the mob, and his particular knack for killing things in gruesome ways. It turned out that Jackie was infused with a demonic force called The Darkness – only ever explained as an ancient force that revels in killing, suffering, and mayhem. Jackie eventually used The Darkness to climb his way to the top of the mob family, where he decided enough was enough and that he'd try to ignore the harsh, screeching voices in his head that told him to murder everyone around him. Thus begins The Darkness II.
A leg to stand on
We're shown a short summary video that poorly explains the backstory of the first game, and get dumped into the shoes of Jackie as he visits a restaurant and promptly gets blown up, destroying his leg. Doubling as the tutorial, this section has Jackie being dragged through the now-destroyed restaurant with gun in hand, shooting at the assassins after his life, until he's moved to the kitchen where a burst gas pipe is ignited and blows him to within an inch of living. Unable to muster the strength to tell The Darkness to shut up any more, he gives in and has his body repaired in mere seconds; activating the demonic powers that are the game's focus.
What follows is a bloody fight through the alleyways behind the restaurant, introducing the game's basic mechanics one by one. Though clearly designed to be cross-platform, controls on PC are pretty great: right click zooms in for normal shooting with the left click, also doubling as a trigger when dual-wielding, while the middle mouse button controls one of the two demonic tentacles under Jackie's control. We've nicknamed them Stabby and Slashy; Slashy is manipulated by pressing down the scrollwheel and moving the mouse up, down, or sideways, causing Slashy to follow suit. This causes astounding amounts of damage to the soft, squishy humans you'll encounter throughout the game, and once sufficiently damaged they'll be sliced in half, or slammed into the ground in a spray of red goop.
Stabby is the more useful of the two tentacles; pressing the E button on a fallen foe lets Stabby, well, stab through their chest to eat their heart, regaining health (and their rich, tasty courage). Stabby can also grab items from a short distance, allowing quick pickups of ammo or guns, can grab car doors to use as shields or projectiles that slice enemies in half, and has the ability to snatch stunned enemies shot in the leg or whacked with Slashy, to execute them in a variety of horrible, horrible ways. The most basic is to coil around the enemy, then burst through their chest to eat their heart. As repulsive an idea as that initially seems, it soon becomes second nature to mow down scads of enemies and go on a heart-devouring spree.
Jackie's understandably angry that someone blew him up, and the game moves into the second major portion of the whole experience – Jackie's luxurious home. It's less an apartment than a mansion in the sky, and wandering around its lavishly-detailed rooms and outdoor grounds is a pleasure that few games offer; it's these parts, interspersed by the missions, that give the game life and the characters interest. Each member of the 'family' is fully voiced and written to stay consistent throughout the game, and are believable in their banter about cracking skulls – and good food.
Jackie's love interest is also introduced – or rather, described. See, Jenny was his childhood friend, teenage mate and eventual girlfriend, who had the misfortune of being murdered in front of Jackie. He's still crazy about her, and one of the few tasks in the mansion is to light a candle in her memory.
Through talking to wiry mobster Jimmy the Grape, the location of the assassins is discovered, and Jackie begins to plan an assault in atypical mob style. His investigations eventually lead to an abandoned mannequin warehouse where a brothel has sprung up, giving The Darkness II an unexpected graphic spin.
Wandering through the brothel to meet with a snitch, you catch glimpses of the prostitutes and their various clients. From blowjobs to anal sex and prostitutes crying in the corner as their client dresses, it's a stark contrast to the sexual content in most games – or lack thereof – and one that makes us baffled as to how this game made it through our current classification system.
Regardless of the setting, Jackie reaches the snitch and discovers that he's being hunted by an ancient association, uniquely called the Brotherhood, that know all about The Darkness and want to harness it for themselves. That, unhappily for Jackie, involves some not-nice methods to acquire it. Cue the killing of many, many people.
It's this new foe that highlights the strengths and weaknesses of The Darkness as a force – it's capable of supreme carnage and power in shadow, but is crippled and useless in light. Thus when enemies arm themselves with high-powered torches and flares in addition to spotlights, it turns combat into a tactical game where keen situational awareness is essential for survival. Enemies will strafe and flank, and importantly, will even retreat when a situation is uncomfortable.
This is somewhat mitigated by purchasing upgrades for Jackie at regular intervals, using points accumulated with every kill. The more gruesome the kill, such as splitting an enemy in half by yanking on each leg or removing their spine through their posterior in an 'Ass-ecution', the more points are awarded. These unlock additional executions, a limited-time Gun Channelling power that beefs up all weapons, and armour that makes Jackie hardier in the dark.
However many upgrades you have, the enemies seem to keep up in pace, and become much more powerful and numerous as you progress. We can't say much more without spoiling the story, but it's a hell of a ride that took us eight hours to complete. Admittedly we listened to every piece of dialogue and explored each level thoroughly; five to six hours on Normal difficulty is likely if you rush through.
Though short, The Darkness II comes with an option to start over and carry over upgrades purchased, modifying the combat experience with another playthrough. There are also Vendetta missions that stand alone from the main campaign, and can be played solo or cooperatively. Digital Extremes have managed to craft a game that takes a solid FPS core, wraps it in maturity and gore, and leaves a lasting impression not for its extremes of violence – but for its characters and unique combat. It's a beautiful game in more ways than one, but is let down by its all-too-brief story. Even with that in mind, we still think it's worth full price – we can't wait for a third instalment in this crazy series.