There comes a point while playing through The Darkness II that the player finds themselves laughing; chuckling along with the ridiculous violence, the pithy remarks made by Jackie Estacado’s English minion or an off-the-cuff statement about how nice the mob boss’s hair is looking from one of his top goons. But then there’s a pause – should we be laughing at this game? This rather aptly dark tale of love and loss, betrayal, revenge, lies and (a lot of) murder – is it something we should be giggling about? Whatever your opinion on this, Digital Extremes seems to be of the opinion that Estacado’s tale, while not being transformed into an out-and-out comedy, does need a bit of a lighter heart and to be a lot more over-the-top than Starbreeze’s 2007 effort was.
It’s difficult not to dwell on the success of the last game: a masterpiece in atmospheric design, while it strayed a bit from the comic that spawned the licence it more than held its own from a gaming perspective, showing Starbreeze as one of the finer FPS developers around. Whoever took the helm for the sequel had a lot to live up to. And so Digital Extremes – multiplayer developer for some versions of Homefront and BioShock and creators of some of the most average titles ever made in the shape of Pariah and Dark Sector – took the reins. It’s no surprise that the sequel falls short of what the original managed to accomplish, even if the studio has taken The Darkness II in a direction all of its own… something that definitely should be commended.
This direction sees players ‘quad-wielding’ a lot of the time – a gun in each hand and a Darkness tentacle on each shoulder, all operated independently with a different shoulder button and making the player capable of some impressive gun-slap-shoot-tear combos. It’s definitely the most empowering incarnation of Estacado we’ve yet seen, and goes some way to making the player truly feel like they are something to be feared.
Skulking through levels, shattering lights and ripping enemies limb from limb probably shouldn’t be as satisfying as it is, but there’s a truly visceral contentment of sorts that comes when the man responsible for some serious personal anguish has his heart ripped out with your bare hands. For those not following closesly: The Darkness II is very violent indeed, to the point it includes an up-close execution called ‘Assecution’. Try not to picture it – the reality is worse.
But it works – it does feel utterly wanton, but it feels completely like it’s supposed to. The Darkness II has far more in common with the source material it comes from, and not just in the looks. The story and characters are closer to the comics, and the constant, never-ending cavalcade of violence stays just the right side of ludicrous for it to remain fit for purpose (even if it could hit the squeamish quite hard). It certainly isn’t an advert for the maturity of the gaming medium, but there’s more than enough room for a game like this that knows exactly what it wants to do – The Darkness II
wants to provide players with a good, solid distraction; escapism and a power trip of the simplest kind, wrapped up in a narrative that isn’t actually that bad. At least not in gaming terms, though it does leave plot holes and contradicts its own logic numerous times throughout (note to the developer: an iron maiden would likely kill a weakened man bereft of his life-maintaining superpowers).
Issues pop up throughout the game, though, and hold it back from being everything it could have been. The length of the single-player campaign clocks in at around four to six hours in total, and feels even briefer than that, with much of the action seeming to be relentless (and eventually fairly rote) gun battles. For a game without a huge online component – just the four-player Vendetta mode with its selection of missions and characters all to itself – that is a bit too short.
Then there’s the tentacle control, which can be unwieldy when it decides to be – and it decides to be just that quite often, grabbing a nearby car door when all you wanted was to rip a man’s head off. Most of the time it’s a mild irritation, but there can be times when it’s necessary that you grab an enemy – to harvest energy or ammo from them, for example – and your flailing Mike Patton-arm missing them and grabbing at thin air is not conducive to a frustration-free experience.
Speaking of frustration, some enemy types – mainly those that teleport about the level – step well beyond the realm of challenging and into a whole new world of hair-tearing fury. Throw in a handful of generally forgettable, sometimes insultingly cheap boss fights and you have a motley crew of antagonists that you don’t necessarily want to kill – you just want them all dead.
The Darkness II doesn’t entirely absolve itself of all the guilt it has in relation to its length – this is a pretty short single-player experience – and some irksome issues serve as definite sticking points. But the imagination on show and the fun to be had with being a quad-wielding (apologies for using the marketing term, but it fits) mob boss with very little left to lose almost makes up for the rather brusque experience. If The Darkness III were to combine the best of the first and second games, we’d have ourselves a winner for the ages – as it stands, we have a game definitely worth a playthrough, but probably not worth tripping over yourself to slap down the cash for.