The perennial binary opposition of light versus dark, good versus evil, Tron versus Tron Legacy, this is the very glue that holds not only gaming together, but every conceivable medium. Generally such concepts are explored through abstract metaphors involving carpenters from Marseille, battling with the manifestations of their inner omens in a patisserie, or something but never has it been more literally explored than in the Darkness series.
Like many, I am a series newcomer and the grapevine’s overall view of the first game led me into second with a sense of boyish excitement and cautious anticipation, as well as that ever-present voice telling me to embrace the darkness. You play a young Tommy Wiseau, or Jackie Estacado as his friends call him, two years after the first game and are living the highlife of a mafia boss in a city we can safely presume is New York. You survive the world’s most overblown yet ineffective assassination attempt and in the process, inadvertently stir The Darkness within, unleashing it onto your assailants. As well as introducing both the main character, antagonist, close-friend, game-mechanics and such, it also serves as a pretty effective tutorial which leaves your immersion entirely unblemished. A rather subtle, delicate touch is the choice to have the controller gentle rumble whilst Jackie is speaking, even in itself makes him feel more tangible.
The Darkness, not the Justin Hawkins musical abomination, is an ethereal being which possesses Jackie and manifests itself through Doc Oc-inspired, gigantic, viper-like arms which quite literally rip your foes apart, as well as your semi-irritating comic relief Darkling, doing the worst Alan Sugar impression I’ve ever heard. Apart from being possessed by the personification of pure evil, other side-effects include all powers being totally ineffective in direct light. This mechanic creates a certain level of environmental awareness not present in other games, you simply cannot just run into a given room, flailing your arms like something out of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and instead a more measured, photophobia approach needs to be taken. As always, the use of the sporadic-yet-effective slow motion makes a welcome entrance, creating glorious visuals that put V.A.T.S to shame.
These aforementioned Darkness-arms allow for myriad of ludicrously over-the-top, gratuitous and downright stylish kills which never cease to draw the occasional wince or ‘oof!’. As well as this, the arms also allow certain items to be picked up, allowing one to impale, mame and decapitate using your immediate environment, a good thing that there seem to be so much scaffolding in New York. They allow the hearts of your enemies to be rendered from within their chest, to be fed upon like drunken Scots on Burns Night, restoring health in the process.
As well as the arms, dual-wielded guns create an entirely unique ‘quad-wielding’, a rather lumbering phrase, so whilst your left demon-arm is dangling an enemy by his big toe, your right one jabbing away at other enemies, you could be firing off entire clips of both your desert eagles. Well, you could, if it didn’t make the screen look like a particularly brutal murder during the Tomatina. That said, quad-wield creates an utterly seem-less flow in gameplay, allowing a majestic shift between styles.
In addition to the single-player, we also see the introduction of ‘Vendettas’ ,an online co-op mode featuring four crap stereotypes in the ilk of Left 4 Dead, something The Darkness II could’ve done entirely without. Without the free-flowing combat of single-player, this additional mode seems very much for the sake of it but is worth a single blast-through with some select friends. At the heart of it, it highlights the irritating tendency of single-player focused developers feel the need to shoe-horn in a multiplayer rather than focusing their resources on the key strengths and draw of the title.
The game itself is stylised a la Borderlands, although not technically cel-shaded but ‘graphic noir’. This term was coined by Digital Extremes’ Sheldon Carter, a technique allegedly incorporating both cel-shading and photorealism, creating a style unto itself which has the unfortunate consequence of occasionally displaying some textures, especially faces, at fairly poor resolutions. This is only a minor issue as, for the most part, characters are well-animated and entirely personable, especially your deceased girlfriend Jenny, making for some genuinely heartfelt and emotional encounters. The colour palette is tantalisingly vibrant and some of the level designs are astonishingly good, a particular highlight is the brothel and Paul Jenkins’ depiction of hell.
‘Dark Essence’ allows for character specialisation, naturally I opted to increase my gory execution repertoire in a way that some members of society might deem to be morbidly disturbing but if a game has an 18 certificate you can be certain that I’ll use it to its fullest. Whilst quite firmly reading from the same hymn sheet as Mortal Kombat, it manages something entirely unexpected but completely welcome, it approaches the love story with as tenderly and empathetically as most films and even more effectively than some, even if the store suffers a light bout of Bioshock syndrome and shits all over itself at the very, very end. But, like Bioshock, the story is that engrossing and compelling that I feel that I can wipe it down, apply some talcum powder and just forget that part ever happened.
This is precisely the perfect use of the 18 certificate, take note NeverDead. It’s adult but not entirely for the sake of it, the occasional unnecessary swear word aside -when you see it, you’ll know-. Minor, nitpicky criticisms are that a couple of the achievements are somewhat spoilerful, climbing up ladders feels a bit iffy and a muted plea for Digital Extremes to patch the game to completely destroy any record of what happens after the credits. The co-op mode as almost entirely superfluous and whilst it brings little to the table. Visceral is a hugely banal and grossly misused term in videogames but this game is the absolute epitome of the term. This is genuinely some of the most rewarding combat I’ve played in recent years and whilst being utterly gratuitous in terms of gore, it’s also gloriously magnificent.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360.
Visceral and utterly gratuitous combat. A exciting, thought-provoking, yet tender plot. Gloriously magnificent.
Spoilerful acheivements, superfluous co-op mode and a somewhat perplexing ending.