February 13, 2012

Review – The Darkness II

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Videogames that enable players to act out extreme power-fantasies often struggle in presenting checks to balance the ability to do anything with the consequences of such actions – or at least they should. Being let loose to smash and slaughter on a God-like level offers players incredible freedom, but wants for purpose rather quickly. The majority of such games resort to unleashing the hounds with old ideas of order and control, which often take the form of recognizable authoritative order reacting in force scaled to the level of chaos being created.

Powered by comic book source material, The Darkness II continues to serve as an oddity in power-fantasy gaming, with Jackie Estacado’s superhuman abilities offering players a check via the weight of conscious felt purely through the narrative.

The Darkness hits us with something applicable on many levels, with a power that makes Jackie great at what he does, which just happens to be killing people. But it also consumes him via its usage, with each act of power surrendering more of Jackie to The Darkness that works to consume him. And while Jackie’s relationship with The Darkness plays out this way, the consequences of this union emerge entirely through the relationships within the game rather than any play mechanic that might attempt to spank players with the parental hand of morality.

This allows The Darkness to actually brush against a pursuit often cited but rarely achieved, creating a game that does cater to those gamers simply looking for a few hours of visceral tentacle murder as well as those players inclined to read and write lofty words about the more subtle potential being tapped.

The Darkness II continues to offer the opportunity to consider consequences without the weight of heavy handed intention, though the game also struggles with subtlety, at times slipping into preachy forced moments hoping to stress the narrative effort at work beneath the layers of blood players can paint the town red with.

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There is no escape from The Darkness, which whispers in the player’s ear, an ever-present and ominous companion that the player forms a partnership with. As The Darkness allows players to smash and slice through waves of villains, there’s an unnerving comfort that develops with those hungry tentacles that beg the player to feed them hearts and impale enemies when the bullets run low.

Using The Darkness to grab an opponent and rip through their chest is a gloriously bloody spectacle necessitating repeat performances throughout the game. But when the action fades and the player is left standing on a heap of corpses with those two hideous eels of tentacle death hissing and spitting and separating Jackie from every other character in the game, the player is very much alone. What The Darkness brings to gaming is an elegant means of considering the cost of any external aid that might make it easier to achieve our goals.

It’s no small accomplishment that the player feels a sense of alienation from other characters as missions necessitate a growing relationship with the powers provided by The Darkness. The mafia storyline that finds Jackie now the head of a crime family peppers his home with a crew that quickly feels like family, making the sting worse when those same characters start to separate themselves from Jackie as he becomes newly consumed.

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The opening scenes of the game tap the spirit of Martin Scorsese’s film Goodfellas, with the same type of characters that one quickly wants to like, despite knowing that they carry out terrible acts. The restaurant intro to the Darkness II is a hearty shout out to Ray Liotta’s narration as the camera panned past quirky mobsters during the good old days of gangsters captured within that film. But aside from light attachment to the supporting cast, it is still Jackie’s relationship with the now deceased Jenny, his childhood love, that serves as the dominate character relationship. That Jackie spends much of his time keeping a vigil to his dead girlfriend only increases the feeling of loneliness that pervades the game

Jackie’s fight with a brotherhood intent on stealing The Darkness will still see him suffer the loss of family here, but Jenny remains the loudest drumbeat signaling the ultimate consequence still being endured since the events of the original game.

That first game also set an incredibly high bar in allowing the player to absorb and develop a deepening relationship with Jenny – the only game I’m aware of where players can curl up on a sofa with their girl and watch the entirety of To Kill A Mockingbird if they so choose. Players were also free to get up and leave early while the film continued playing, offering options that went far beyond the binary morality still dominating the idea of choice in gaming today.

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The Darkness II is challenged by the fact that there’s simply not as much to Jackie’s character without this relationship, and so the game must dig up the past in order to challenge players with Jackie’s dying humanity via the last lingering connections he has to the world beyond The Darkness.

With a lesser degree of subtlety, players will step into pockets of memories, moments Jackie shared with Jenny – such as meeting her in a quiet diner. These moments are not without weight, with the music playing familiar songs as Jenny dances into view, and the sense of peace such moments stir driving the pain Jackie feels from reliving these memories beyond the screen and into receptive players. Colored by my own experiences, I can only add that the pain of remembering better days of quiet happiness resonated within me.

And yet despite such sparks, there’s a pervasive question of choice being juggled within the game’s narrative as well as the game’s design, which leaves the notion of choice floundering as the game moves away from subtle suffering toward a more supernatural notion of reclaiming Jackie and Jenny’s relationship. The physical action of the gameplay would carry a game devoid of narrative, but there is a sense that the first half of the game brushes against a potentially great accomplishment in offering players deeper emotional investment here.

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Simply put, players never really possess the freedom to chose pain, to actively torture themselves by lingering within memories of Jenny, and I can’t help feeling that such an option would have carried the torch of the original game and presented players with the most painful and romantic story of lost love ever realized in videogame form.

The game instead falls into familiar trappings with an alternate world Jackie often awakens to between missions, suddenly finding himself an inmate within an asylum, with characters from the game serving as patients and officials in a world working to deceive and distract Jackie.

This approach is not without some genuinely clever moments, such as an inmate with two sock puppets on his hands that mimic The Darkness. But adding the real world together with memories of Jenny and sudden trips to the asylum needlessly complicates the narrative with a familiar gimmick. And that tired question of insanity versus reality culminates in a final choice within the game that wants to provide a deeper set of ideas, but feels like an entirely safe design decision that avoids greater narrative potential.

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For all my criticism regarding what the narrative might have achieved versus the sparks it manages to strike, the core play mechanics of The Darkness II accomplish fresh feats of empowerment for players to embrace with open arms.

Quad-wielding allows players to multitask those tentacle death eels of The Darkness and firearms simultaneously, using the bumpers and triggers of an Xbox 360 controller to quickly fill enemies with bullets while flipping others into the air and tossing sharp projectiles through their innards. From the moment Jackie embraces The Darkness, players are presented with an overwhelming amount of ways to kill people. As impressive as the many colorful options for murdering opponents are, the fine tuning of the mechanics is an equal source of awe.

Digital Extremes has gifted The Darkness with shooting mechanics that are every bit as fun as the supernatural powers offered by The Darkness. Gunplay is no longer a half thought alternative as nabbing headshots while staring down the sights works as well as using those tentacles to tear enemies into two slabs of beef. The dual wielding of weapons even presents subtle shifts of focus, with Jackie’s aim narrowing while firing both guns at once to fill a single enemy with lead, or just as easily firing at enemies at opposing angles. At the same time, The Darkness allows players to alternatively throw projectiles, slash enemies up or down with the aid of the thumbstick, or grab stunned enemies for brutal tentacle executions.

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There are also points where these two opposing approaches to violence cross and compliment, such as grabbing and holding car doors as shields with The Darkness while firing dual pistols or heavier automatic weapons.

As players progress and gain dark essence points through murderous acts, the eating of hearts, and finding lost relics around town, a four section skill tree offers the opportunity to develop new abilities for both The Darkness and gunplay, allowing players to briefly use The Darkness power as ammunition for their guns as well as increase reload times.

Investing points toward developing The Darkness also provides abilities such as suspending enemies briefly in the air for projectile shenanigans, gaining greater amounts of health from slain enemies, and performing increasingly brutal executions among other options. Since players won’t be able to unlock every one of these abilities with a single playthrough, there’s definitely reason to discover and cater to one’s preferred style.

It seems worth mentioning that I never caught myself favoring weapons over The Darkness or vice-versa. There’s an earnest harmony in the relationship that really would keep the game mechanically relevant in the complete absence of narrative.

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The Darkness II also sports a unique visual style meant to give the game a comic book feel that ties back to the source material. It’s not that familiar level of cel-shading that creates a cartoonish vibe, but rather a style that lends a slight surrealism to characters and environments. And while that style choice certainly gives Digital Extremes a look to call their own with this sequel, it also allows the game to unleash a brutal degree of ultra violence with a safe sense of visual detachment from reality.

What I found most interesting about the visuals was the way some areas felt creepier for the slight obscuring of realism, in particular the mannequin factory where broken replicas of the female form were scattered around rooms where slightly opened doors exposed glimpses of actual women enslaved in sexual servitude. The Darkness II doesn’t toy around in presenting the suffering and misery of Jackie’s world, with areas that speak volumes with decay while also offering practical opportunities for gunfights.

There’s a certain level of offense meant to demonize some characters, but the game also strikes at some legitimately disturbing imagery. And at other times the game’s visual style softens with scenes of Jenny, grasping an immense emotional range that can move from complete misery to soft nostalgic palettes, leaving an impression that makes trips to the asylum a chance to catch one’s breathe and curiously recover from the trip.

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The game never needs cut-scenes, though there are times where you aren’t in control as certain situations play out, and as such I never felt disconnected from the events. There are two instances where you’ll take the darkling for a spin, but otherwise you’ll plow through the campaign in 5-6 hours. Depending on one final choice you may even finish the game earlier than you’d like.

The stages present great variance, with the brotherhood’s quest to take The Darkness from Jackie deploying villains that will use light at every opportunity to temporally rob him of his powers. Such times make guns essential in taking out light powered enemies in addition to streetlights, generators, and the headlights of vehicles. Still, as the final confrontation with the brotherhood unfolds, the game falls into offering rooms that favor overwhelming players with enemies to make the last steps of the game a real grind.

It’s a shame, because it didn’t feel like that before hand, with no endless hallways and the like. But by the end The Darkness II definitely falls prey to old tricks that made me desperate to reach the ending.

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With that in mind, The Darkness II chooses to cut the campaign a bit shorter than most other FPS’, offering a co-op minded alternative with Vendettas mode, which acts as an additional campaign giving players a chance to co-operatively tackle pocket missions that work alongside the primary story of the game.

Given the option to play online or locally with another player or on your own, there are four selectable characters, each with their own powers and traits. Inugami wields a sword called the Kusanagi and can use the swarm ability of The Darkness, while Shoshanna is armed with a gun called the Arm of the Night and uses the gun channeling power of The Darkness. JP Dumond carries the Midnight Stick, which can pick up and toss enemies, as well as The Darkness ability to summon black holes that swallow nearby enemies, while Jimmy Wilson wields a Dark Axe and has The Darkness power to summon darklings to feast on opponents.

Players can either work through the Vendettas campaign, or tackle quick burst assassination missions via the Hit List, which offers additional missions when playing online. Each of the four characters also possess a single skill tree to apply Dark Essence toward, giving quite a bit to chew on after the main campaign has been completed.

Admittedly I’m always a fan of pocket sized missions that can flesh out a game by adding sidesteps to the narrative wealth of the release rather than simply tacking more mindless missions onto the primary campaign for the sake of length.

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I keep coming back to the idea of choice in The Darkness II, particularly because a very promising stream of ideas is cut short by the choice to create a game that could in-turn leave the door open for another release. The game is determined to create the space for another game in the series, which isn’t surprising, but it is a frustrating limitation to what could be accomplished if we weren’t always concerned about what’s next.

That choice sacrifices the ability to do anything necessary to drive home the fundamental idea of gain and loss presented with The Darkness powers. There was a huge opportunity for players to explore guilt and pain or ignore it entirely, and in the end that potential is pushed aside for a more typical attempt to physically reclaim lost loved.

If I nitpick, it’s only because I do believe that potential is there, though falling short of my idealized wants doesn’t make this release any less significant. The Darkness II stirs plenty of ideas and is on a very short list of titles that can leave players emotionally exhausted with narrative pursuits every bit as challenging and engaging as the core play mechanics.

The problem is that the game never manages to tie these ideas together into an experience that feels fully realized and cohesive, with a final stage that works to setup another game beyond this one, undermining play mechanics that fight to lift the game above the breakdown that loses the strong focus established through the first half of the game.

The flip-side is that the game doesn’t really come off the tracks until the final moments, with everything beforehand convincing me to forgive a finale that feels like a slap in the face. Even when it falls into familiar trappings and strays from the accomplishments of the original release, The Darkness II continues to offer a fresh experience with unique ideas, and in a genre stuffed with timid familiarity, such pursuits are certainly worthy of your time and investment even with the mixed results.

Digital Extremes

2K Games

PlayStation 3, PC, Xbox 360 (Xbox 360 Reviewed)

Singleplayer, Multiplayer

Release Date
February 7, 2012

*A copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review


  1. Thanks for the review Jamie. I’ll track down a copy of The Darkness before diving into part 2 which does sound like a game I would enjoy.

    Comment by EdEN — February 13, 2012 @ 5:33 pm

  2. The first game is the absolute embodiment of the word GEM. Also it’s fairly cheap.

    Comment by Jamie Love — February 13, 2012 @ 6:04 pm

  3. This allows The Darkness to actually brush against a pursuit often cited
    but rarely achieved, creating a game that does cater to those gamers
    simply looking for a few hours of visceral tentacle murder as well as
    those players inclined to read and write lofty words about the more
    subtle potential being tapped.

    I don’t buy it entirely. I guess my only solution is to buy it and see for myself.

    Comment by Anonymous — February 13, 2012 @ 6:37 pm

  4. I don’t know if I’d believe me either, but if you play it and think I’m wrong I encourage you to come back and give me shit.

    Comment by Jamie Love — February 13, 2012 @ 6:41 pm

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