Developer: Digital Extremes / Publisher: 2K Games / Played On: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Mature [Blood And Gore, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content]
When The Darkness came out five years ago, it not only tried to do right by the original comic, but it also followed the template of F.E.A.R. by mixing the action of a first-person shooter with the freaky imagery and psychological torment of a survival horror game. But while the F.E.A.R. games have devolved, The Darkness II one-ups its predecessor with solid controls, a good variety of combat options, and just all-around better action.
Created by Garth Ennis (Preacher), Marc Silvestri (Uncanny X-Men), and David Wohl (Witchblade), The Darkness comics star Jackie Estacado, a mafia hitman who is the human host for the titular demon-like force. Set two years after the original game, The Darkness II finds Jackie heading up the Franchetti crime family when someone launches a very hostile takeover.
Written by Paul Jenkins—who’s penned issues of The Darkness as well as Spider-Man, Batman, and Wolverine—it’s a story that not only would’ve made for a good comic, but works for this game as well, as it sets up plenty of opportunities for frantic battles without seeming like an afterthought.
It is, of course, those battles that drive The Darkness II. While you have the usual compliment of firearms found in most first-person shooters, you also wield Darkness powers, which manifest as long arms with sentient snake heads that can slice people, grab objects, and give you other mystical powers.
This is where the game is at its best, when you give in to The Darkness. While your guns—be they pistols, shotguns, or Uzis—just shoot people, your snake pals are a lot more versatile. Not only can they toss enemies around like rag dolls, but they can also grab and execute people with the panache of Freddy Kruger. You can even pick up gas cans, rebars, and furniture, and wing them at your enemies with a surprising degree of accuracy.
The Darkness powers can also be used defensively, such as when you tear a bad guy’s shield out of his hand or grab a much-needed gun from the floor. In addition, rip off a car door and it will serve as a shield. Granted, not a very effective one—you’re better off slinging it at your enemy’s head—but when you need a couple of seconds to regain your health, it’s better than nothing.
The snake arms can also break down some doors and cut electrical wires that are keeping other doors locked. You can even, by moving the right analog stick, decide whether their slashing will be horizontal or vertical, though this mostly comes into play in choosing whether to slice and dice horizontally or vertically.
What’s most effective is that unlike some games, where your coolest abilities can only be used sparingly, The Darkness II lets you get all crazy with these powers. There’s no waiting for them to recharge, no scouring for upgrades, just the release of pure, unadulterated power.
You also gain new skills through an RPG-like skill tree with points earned by killing scumbags (the more creative the kill, the better the experience), breaking the environment, and eating the hearts of people you’ve killed. Besides adding attacks—including one nasty swarm and a power-up for your bullets—you can also improve your ammo capacity and how much health or ammo is earned from executing someone.
In fact, the only downside to having magical snake arms is that because they constantly hover at the side of the screen, they partially block your peripheral vision. This can be a real problem at times, but since The Darkness II’s levels are fairly linear (albeit with some alternate branching path sections) you often come at your enemies head on.
Another disadvantage of your mystical powers—albeit one that makes the gameplay interesting—is that the Darkness, naturally, hates the light. If, for instance, you stand under a street lamp, your snake pals will recoil, and you can’t use them to smack anybody or regenerate your health (though you only ever regenerate up to a quarter of it anyway; to restore a totally empty segment, you have to eat a heart).
Further complicating matters (again, in a good way) is that some enemies are aware of this weakness, and know where to purchase bulk quantities of really huge flashlights. Though Jackie is evidently a Splinter Cell fan, so he knows you can turn off most lights by shooting their bulbs or destroying generators. The game even politely tells you when a light can be broken or not, so you don’t needlessly waste tons of bullets.
The Darkness has also seen fit to provide an intern, a creature from another dimension called a Darkling. While the last game gave you a bunch of them you had to micromanage, this time you get just one. But boy is he handy. Not only will he attack your enemies, he also occasionally opens doors for you (such the gentleman). You even, on two occasions, play as the little bugger. Though because he doesn’t have special snake arms, or a handgun permit, these bits instead have you sneaking around and killing people all quiet like. Which is actually a nice change of pace from the more blood-drenched battles.
While the single-player experience is a bit short, the co-op campaign fleshes out the story. Playing as four other characters, each with their own weapons and Darkness-infused skills, this two-hour long sojourn runs parallel to the campaign. There are also some one-off co-op missions in which you’re tasked with killing someone… and anyone who gets in your way.
Both of these modes are engaging, and while there’s nothing especially bad about them—save for the confusing decision to have different button configurations than the campaign—they do feel more like side dishes to the campaign’s main course.
As you’d hope, The Darkness II has solid controls that are smooth, intuitive, and responsive. While the triggers are used to shoot and look down the sights, or to pull your weapons’ respective triggers when you dual wield, the Darkness powers are conveniently located on the bumper buttons, with the left used to grab and the right to slash.
In fact, the only control issue is that there are times when the button prompts—say to talk to someone or eat their heart—don’t come up when they should, and you have to wiggle around to find the sweet spot. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does during a frantic battle when you’re badly hurt and trying to munch someone’s aorta, it suddenly seems like a very big deal.
Unlike the first game, which went for the gritty semi-realism of so many shooters this generation, The Darkness II has opted for a cel-shaded style. But because it does so with subtlety and the original game’s dark tone intact, this doesn’t have a cartoony feel, but instead resembles Borderlands’ darker moments.
The game also does a neat trick of turning black and white, and muffling the sound with white noise, when you step into the light. Similarly, when someone flashes a light in your face, the screen often goes blindingly white, and can leave you momentarily disoriented.
While you’d expect a scary game to have a soundtrack full of metal music or goth rock, Digital Extremes instead opted for a subtle classic score. This was smart, as it compliments the action well without being a distraction.
However, the game’s voice acting is mostly just average, with many characters sounding more like stereotypes than actual people. The exception to this is The Darkness itself, which, as in the original, is expertly growled by Mike Patton, the Faith No More singer who’s contributed voice work for Portal and Left 4 Dead.
In so many ways, The Darkness II is an improvement over the original. The controls work better, the action is more straightforward, and you don’t have to play Pikmin with a bunch of surly little demons. It’s just more engaging and fun all around. But while its changes are noticeable, they’re also subtle; this isn’t a completely different game, it’s more like a refinement of what worked before. That’s good news for those who enjoyed the first one, but even better for those who were interested in the original but found it lacking.