The best phrasing I could use to describe 2007’s The Darkness is “diamond in the rough”. Based on the Top Cow comic book series, Starbreeze Studios (now working on that fancy new Syndicate thing) delivered a very amiable shooter that had some bold ideas and genuinely grounded characters. It was a really fun game, but it never really seemed to be widely-recognized by the public. Five years have passed since we last saw Jackie Estacado and the nefarious force inside him, and even with a new studio behind the sequel, The Darkness II proves that he’s doing better than ever…relatively speaking.
Title: The Darkness II
Developer: Digital Extremes
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: February 7th, 2012
Platforms: 360 (Reviewed), PC, PS3
On your first play through, a spindly little occultist named Johnny Powell reviews the history of both The Darkness itself as an entity and exactly what happened in the original title. It’s an immediate example of both the excellent voice acting and the interesting new art style. By keeping thing succinct, the intro sets up just one of the many conflicts within the sprawling story of The Darkness: the inner turmoil between Jackie Estacado and his demonic passenger.
The story of The Darkness II is more expansive than its predecessor, reaching out to many different locales that vary from a run-down carnival to several stately manors. The Darkness, having been dormant for two years, has returned to save Jackie’s life in his moment of need, but not without a heavy cost. He finds himself haunted by visions of his dead girlfriend while trying to shed light on an organization that calls itself The Brotherhood, which is…well, I’ll be honest, it’s kind of a clichéd name but oh well. The Brotherhood desires to contain and control the Darkness for their own use, and their continued attempts to wrestle Jackie away from it make up most of the narrative.
While the main antagonists might have a bit of a contrived group name, the story itself is actually quite good, if a bit basic. It flows from level to level at a rapid clip, with expert voice acting and solid writing to back it up. Just about every character has a defined personality to them and the story arc evokes some rather sincere emotion when dealing with many of them. Of special note is the Darkling, a singular imp clad in a Union Jack t-shirt and sporting a dead cat on its head – I took to calling him Manny, but my reason for bringing him up is that his character is a great source of comic relief and is one of the standout performances, considering how little time he gets to be in the spotlight. It’s rare to see a shooter take such care in building up characters that are more than “bald manly men who shoot guns and drink cocaine”, but writer Paul Jenkins pulls it off with style.
Most levels in the game are fairly linear, with the occasional binary “decision” showing up to switch up the narrative ever so slightly. The level design itself ranges from “really good” to “kind of middling”, the lesser levels showing up around the halfway point before the quality rises again towards the end. The closest thing to a “hub” level in the game is Jackie’s apartment that double as the Franchetti Crime Family holdout. Here, players can talk to just about every minor friendly character in the game, engage in two shooting mini-games, and explore the apartment itself. In addition to this, the mansion also houses each of the 29 Darkness Relics that players can find throughout the game – rare objects that chronicle the history of the Darkness (with amazingly funny info points narrated by Johnny Powell) and give huge experience boosts.
Players familiar with the first game will likely find common ground with how the game feels, but Digital Extremes has evolved several of the original concepts, perhaps as a result of the Darkness evolving within Jackie. For starters, and possibly the most immediate change that has been made, is the concept of “quad-wielding” two guns and the Darkness’ tendrils. On the 360 version, each tendril is mapped to the shoulder button – the left tendril allows the player to pick up items and enemies, which can then be thrown or used as shields, while the right is a straight-up melee attack that can be used vertically or horizontally and has a few upgrades of its own. The right can also devour hearts from fallen enemies, which restores a quarter of Jackie’s health and gives him an extra bit of “Dark Essence”, which can be translated directly to “Experience Points”. The controller layout for these tendrils feels very natural, and within no time at all it’s easy to rip through enemies with guns blazing and tendrils flaring.
Jackie has a full-fledged talent tree now, with four separate paths that can pretty supremely change how much utility he can bring to the table. They’re all rather in-depth, and even with racking up oodles of Dark Essence from excessively violent kills, I only managed to completely fill up two talent trees. Thankfully, there is a New Game+ mode so players can eventually unlock the full spectrum of The Darkness’ power. Of note is the fact that the talent trees are all well thought out, and I can’t really think of a choice that seemed worthless or underwhelming.
In addition to the single-player campaign, which clocks in at just around seven hours – standard fare for a single-player title nowadays – there’s a complementary “Vendettas” campaign that can be played alone or with up to three other friends. It runs parallel to the main storyline and focuses on a group of four mercenaries that have all been affected in some way by The Darkness, usually due to having a Darkness Relic of their own. They all have a singular ability out of the multiple powers that Jackie possesses, and they each have a smaller three-pronged talent wheel that can be upgraded over the course of the campaign. They’ve also got a melee weapon, and for the most part these can end up being egregiously overpowered. I played through most of the multiplayer campaign as Inugami, a Japanese warrior with a cursed sword (see above), and never once felt truly challenged. The fact that they only have one power makes them seem a little close-minded in their gameplay, but when you have multiple people playing it’s not nearly as noticeable.
The multiplayer campaign itself is actually fairly short and it’ll run you just over two hours. It’s interesting to see a parallel storyline going on while Jackie is dealing with his own problems, but at the end of the day it’s not a necessary component. If you’re looking for a bit more challenge with your multiplayer, there’s several “Hit List” missions that run in between the Vendettas campaign – these are more arena-like missions and some of them are extremely difficult, several requiring multiple players before you can even run them.
My biggest complaint with The Darkness II right now is that there just isn’t enough of it. The single-player campaign is a blast, but it feels like it’s over too quickly. Similarly, the Vendettas campaign offers just the barest glimpse at what a full-fledged co-operative offering could be like. I’m sincerely hoping there will be extended DLC that fills in gaps in the story, as the only things offered from the main menu’s DLC tab right now are boring 360 Avatar items.
With only a few shortcomings, Digital Extremes has delivered the first big shooter of 2012 with The Darkness II. Its campaign has the ability to evoke some real emotion, which is something you just don’t see in most games today. While the multiplayer offering comes up a bit shallow, it’s still quite a bit of fun to blast through with some friends. All in all, the concepts presented here come together in a brilliant way. It’s a roaring bloody good time.
Dylan Sabin is Toastervision’s Editor-in-Chief and has often been described as “manic”, “slightly eccentric”, and “a fan of fine cheese”. He decided to give the site-running business a chance with Toastervision, and so far it’s been a pretty rad experience. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @DylanSabin.