That there was a sequel to The Darkness announced never really sat right with me. For a game that came out nearly five years ago and ended up more of a cult classic than a mainstream breakout hit, I was resigned to occasionally reminiscing about what honestly was a criminally overlooked action-adventure FPS that put as much faith in its story as its unique gameplay mechanics. But not only is the series back from the dead, but Top Cow (the publisher of the comics upon which the game is based) was back on production duty, which went some way in reassuring my ever so slightly incredulous self that the same attention to detail and story-telling chops that made the first game stand head-and-shoulders above its FPS brethren would at the very least have a fighting chance of showing up in the sequel as well.
What has changed, however, is the developer. Starbreeze, current troubles aside, were one of the premier storytellers in the business. Their excellent use of full body immersion in both The Chronicles of Riddick and The Darkness, and their willingness to forgo frenetic Call of Duty-style pacing were a revelation when those games first came out. The lads (and lasses) at Digital Extremes have a lot to live up to then, and they’ve made a bunch of changes to assert their authority. The most obvious one is the use of bright, vibrant cel-shading for textures as opposed to the muted, more realistic look from the previous game. The new look is quite fetching, to be honest, and the inky outlines and the pleasingly detailed, object-strewn game world succeed in echoing the pervasive griminess of the first title.
The lead character has moved up in the world as well. I won’t spoil it here, but I recommend anyone who hasn’t played the first game to try and do so. Now. Not only was the Paul Jenkins-penned story and script brilliant, but there was a wonderful finality to the tale, you know, from the days when games weren’t built from the ground up to be a ‘franchise’. Story spoilers aside, suffice to say that Jackie has to have the worst luck ever. Inheriting the oblique ‘Darkness’ (and its demonic physical manifestations) from a long line of Estacados past, what followed was a tug of war battle between Jackie and the Darkness for control of his body, with corrupt cops and Italian Mafioso rounding out the unholy mix. The Darkness II picks up after the ending of the first game (there’s also a slick recap video to fill you in on the story so far), and thankfully isn’t a reboot.
Jackie’s settled into his new role as mob boss of the Franchetti crime family and is out doing the things you’d normally expect the demi-god of a crime syndicate to do. Things unfortunately take a turn for the worse and you find yourself neck deep in the quite loud intro level, set-pieces and all. You’re soon introduced to your family lieutenants as well as to your firearms skills and Darkness powers. The easiest way to describe combat in The Darkness II is to label it a quad-wielder. The L2/R2 buttons control your guns, whereas L1/R1 control your Darkness-bestowed demon arms. These extra appendages let you melee attack, chuck junk at enemies and use objects as shields.
The Darkness still can’t get along with the light, so you’ll be well advised to either avoid light sources or to shoot them out as soon as possible. Some of the enemies you’ll face later in the game are wise to this, and come equipped with light sources that try and delay the inevitable. You also earn ‘Dark Essence’ from all your kills, decapitations and heart gobbling, which essentially lets you unlock moves in a segmented skill tree. These include additional tentacle executions as well as other bits and bobs such as seeing through walls or summoning a black hole to suck your enemies into.
There’s a pleasingly varied pallet of attacks to buy into and combat in general feels a lot tighter and a bit more fun as a result. The enemies seem to be blessed with better AI and animations are also much improved from the first game. You also have a single Cockney voiced imp (called a Darkling) that follows you around. He’s put to use opening gates, distracting enemies and generally accompanying you through your adventure. Gone from the first game is the ability to summon different Darkling classes from portals in the game world. All you’ve got is this one guy, although he does fit himself into the story and gameplay in interesting ways.
Speaking of redacted features, also gone are the visits to the World War I-ish otherworld from the first game. While those levels weren’t the most visually appealing, they did serve to vary things up and give players another story thread to enthuse over. You also won’t be free roaming around hub levels such as city blocks and the subway to get to story missions or to pick up side-missions anymore. While they had their issues, it’s a shame that they aren’t back in some capacity (even considering Jackie’s mansion hub). For better or worse, this is very much a tighter, more focused game.
The Darkness II isn’t especially long either. Clocking in at eight hours for an average playthrough, the levels never overstay their welcome and the scenery (even if it’s a lowly alley) never grows old. What does pad the game out (if you choose to partake in it) is Jackie’s mansion that doubles as a hub level. A lot of the story beats play out during your visits here between missions, and your unsavory coworkers will always have a thing or ten to gab about. You learn to like them, and seeing characters from the first game show up is also a treat.
The story also bleeds all over the levels themselves. Jackie and The Darkness share a complex relationship, and the memories of his one true love aren’t yet past. There are ghostly visions, visits to random locations and layered dialogue that make you question the authenticity of the story being told. There’s also a ton of voice work in the game and every character stands out; chief among them being Jackie himself and Mike Patton who returns to voice The Darkness. He’s almost worth the price of admission alone. The score is also suitably moody and orchestral (supplemented by subtly used licensed music), with a mean menu track that you hate to skip away from.
So that’s the single player then. And while there isn’t any competitive multiplayer, there’s a mode called Vendettas, which is essentially single player or co-op side missions that give you a choice between four fairly stereotypical characters, each possessed by the Darkness and having a special upgradable weapon and Darkness power to harness. Taking place at the same time as the main campaign, there’s enough incentive to play through these levels as the combat remains fun and the mini-stories tie into the single player campaign just enough to be worthwhile. The multiplayer-curious are advised to give our exclusive hands-on preview a thorough read.
Aside from a handful of interesting features from the first game being removed, Digital Extremes have shoveled enough production and gameplay finesse into this title to make it well worth a purchase for fans and new comers alike, as well as for the more general FPS crowd. All bases covered then, and a strong recommendation earned in the process.