It’s a rare occurrence for a first-person shooter to be a solid, all-round package. In the current market of popular shooters, it’s commonplace for each title to have a particular strength; whether that be silky smooth visuals, thunderous sound design, rock solid gameplay or a viscously engrossing backstory and plot, the good games have one or two, whilst the best have the lot. The reception of The Darkness in 2007 was a favourable one, with the title receiving impressive scores almost universally. Therefore, my surprise as to the quality of The Darkness II may be a tad unusual, but in all honesty, it just wasn’t on my radar. That has now changed entirely as it not only surpassed what I had expected, but ensured that my experience was one to remember.
With so many impressive aspects it’s hard to know where to start, so let’s start with my favourite. Mixing up the tried and tested FPS formula is always a risky one, especially when, as Digital Extremes did, it’s such a bold and radical shift. Rather than focus on just the gun mechanics, The Darkness II uses a technique known as ‘quad wielding’; in other words, all four shoulder buttons are used in some form of attack. The top two shoulder buttons are used for firing and aiming – as with most first-person shooters – but the triggers control protagonists Jackie Estacado’s Darkness. Something as different as this could easily have been clunky to operate or frustratingly confusing, but all it manages to achieve is make you wonder why other games don’t implement a similar system. Granted there’s usually the option to throw a grenade or two, but what The Darkness II grants you is unmatched power.
Melee combat is now both immensely brutal and oddly satisfying. With one tendril to swipe and smash your foes into oblivion, the other will grab stunned enemies with the choice of throwing or executing your two options. Alternatively, you can pick up objects in and around the environments, from saws to slice enemies in half, car doors to act as shields or metal poles to hurl like a javelin and thus impaling your foes. Crushing one of the suitably satisfactory enemy types with a single blow is rather empowering but nothing compared to the sheer brutality of the executions. Ripping the spine out of your victim from their throat, impaling their chest Alien-style, slicing them up like a kebab or simply decapitating them, The Darkness II makes the most of its eighteen certification. It doesn’t stop there either, by eating the heart of the recently killed, you up the amount of Jackie’s ‘dark essence’ which can be used to purchase new and improved powers from an ability tree – something that works to great effect.
“Digital Extremes has crafted a refreshing entry in the shooting world and one that not only handles better than most, but puts most to shame across the board.”
Unsurprisingly, there is an aspect of light-vs-dark which affects combat in rather brilliant ways. Whilst you are able to use your standard, human weaponry at all times, the powers gained by The Darkness are only accessible when in the dark. Step out under a street light or get caught in the flare of a nearby fire and you’ll not only lose half of your arsenal, but your power to regenerate as well as having your vision severally impaired. Your enemies obviously know this fact, and will attempt to use it against you with high-powered flood-lights, the high-beams on vans and even over-sized shoulder-mounted torches. The entire system adds a fantastic tactical aspect to what can at times become a fast and frantic shooter.
To accompany its bloody and gory style is a gorgeous visual design. Akin to a cartoon more than anything else, the cel-shaded style highlights the aftermath of combat superbly and ensures the game looks fantastic almost all the time. Unfortunately, the character faces themselves don’t hold up as well as the environments and particle effects, with the lip-syncing being of particular note, but it’s a minor problem amongst a glorious graphical appearance otherwise.
So granted it has a killer combat system, a beautiful art style and gameplay mechanics to die for, but that’s nothing that unique. Where The Darkness II provides the ace in the hole is that it not only has an engrossing and engaging story, but it’s expertly told and keeps you guessing until the very end. The Darkness screams in your head, directing you and fuelling your darker urges, whilst a Darkling acts as your guide, companion and protector outside of your crumpling consciousness. His uses in combat are not too be sniffed at either; throw him at your enemies so he can begin clawing out their eyes, wait for him to provide you with essential items during the hit-and-miss boss battles or even take control of his body at pre-defined points in the plot to utilise his more petite frame.
The lack of specifics as to the plot are purposeful, as, much like the incredible BioShock, it’s a story best left untainted and untouched for the player. Experience all of the tricks and plot points for yourself, and you’re sure to have a better time of it. The Darkness II also does an exceptionally good job of bringing players up-to-date, with a brilliantly monologued “Previous on The Darkness” intro. Could underlying arc of The Darkness II’s story been better? Most probably, but it’s comfortably one of the better told ones out there and that counts for an awful lot. It keeps you questioning yourself, whilst getting you to do something shooters rarely do: care about the characters. The key ones are brilliantly defined and well-rounded, accompanied by some stellar voice work granting a familiar feel to them – as if you have known them for years.
Aside from the main campaign, Vendettas allow players to partake in missions for Jackie, as one of four Darkness infused hit men. Your focus is to secure dark relics in either single player or co-operative form, which acts as a great addition to the core component of the title, seeing that the lack of competitive multiplayer isn’t at all missed. There’s more than ample collectibles and power-ups to horde across the two modes and with the option to play the single player campaign once again but with all your powers – courtesy of New Game+ – it’ll keep you occupied for long enough.
The Darkness II may not have been on my radar, but all that points out is that it’s in need of a good tuning. Make no mistake, this is one of the more sublimely put together shooters for some time and with no entry barriers, no previous knowledge of the series required, anyone can jump in and have a good time. Aside from a few difficulty spikes and combat consistency complaints – on top of the poor lip-syncing, Digital Extremes has crafted a refreshing entry in the shooting world and one that not only handles better than most, but puts most to shame across the board.