February 9, 2012
So that being said it should come as no surprise that from the moment The Darkness II starts it's all about the story. An optional preface to the last game does an absolutely stellar job at catching players up to the events which transpired leading up to the sequel and players will find that controlling Jackie, wielder of the Darkness, is a fairly engrossing experience. In fact, it's one of the best parts of the game. Now at the head of Franchetti family, Jackie's resources have naturally come quite a long way from his humble beginnings, but the death of his long time sweetheart Jenny has left his accomplishments hollow. Trudging through the world Jackie seems to go through the motions more than anything else, until an assassination attempt brings players face to face with the Darkness he tried so hard to bury away.
The remainder of the game is a fairly typical revenge romp, as Jackie goes from location to location, learning various truths about the Darkness, all the while murdering anyone who stands in his way. Combat starts off fairly straightforward, but gradually becomes more complex as the game continues on. Using a single pistol rapidly evolves into dual wielding, then interchanging weapons, using melee attacks and grabs, to finally learning how to use environmental weapons to your advantage. Given that players have access to the Darkness as a short/medium ranged alternative, Darkness II becomes a careful juggle between executing foes with short ranged strikes and taking out the more dangerous enemies from a distance.
This means that there's quite a bit to keep track of at the worst of times, an astonishing amount of options at the best. Melee attacks blend in quite well with general shooting, but are clunky and can be difficult to direct depending on what the players intended effect is as the direction of a slash is controlled by R3, the same button used to aim using the vertical axis. Outside of these issues when the controls all come together the experience can be amazingly fun. Throwing car doors to cut mobsters in half, or impaling foes with lines of rebar blends quite well with firing heavy weapons (or two sub-machine guns). The execution system provides quite a bit of flexibility for players, granting ammo, health, or armour from enemies that are killed in various brutal melee grabs.
Blend all this into a fairly unique environment and players have a formula for some pretty crazy fun. Looking for new things to toss at enemies becomes just as addicting as finding new guns, and each zone is filled to the brim with interesting things to use. Similar to the first game players will be avoiding as much light as possible, which not only strips Jackie of his Darkness powers, but will also prevent regeneration, blur the screen, and cause an amazingly annoying sound effect. Shooting out the lights to expand what areas players can aggressively enter is just as vital (if not more so) than knowing when to duck for cover and rack up a few melee executions, which adds a bit of pleasant strategy to the experience.
Unfortunately, while the combat system is a lot of fun it can also be a little distracting. There are times where it's hard to really know where to begin when it comes to killing opponents, and while this may seem like an absolutely ridiculous complaint there's definitely something to be said about having fewer more meaningful options. With only one 'type' of melee attack, one setup for grabs, and default style controls for shooting, Darkness II feels like it's only scratched the surface of something amazing. Quad-wielding weapons and bug-spitting attacks make use of the Darkness powers in interesting ways, but these individually niche attacks feel more like 'filler' than 'must have' abilities, save for two or three. As a result its not uncommon to find yourself wandering a battlefield searching for more hearts to consume in order to purchase new skills, only to be unsure as to what skill to even buy. The best way to describe Jackie is almost a jack-of-all-trades, master of none.
Equally disappointing is the storyline's integration throughout the game, which feels jarring to say the least. When coming upon a scripted moment players are literally taken 'out of body', as the weapons fold back and all control is forcibly removed. The events that transpire are almost always intense, genuinely fun, and even (in some moments) exceptionally sweet and emotional, but it never really feels like players are a part of the story, but instead merely watching from a distance.
It's a shame because The Darkness II has probably delivered one of the most compelling narrative tales the FPS industry has seen in a long time. While most other AAA titles have focused on using shock value as a means to draw out emotion, there's something so admirably natural in the characters players meet in game. From the grunts that stand around, side characters and antagonists, just about everyone in the Darkness II feels as though they have a purpose. Anyone familiar with the first game will appreciate this tenfold, but even those new to the game will be pleasantly surprised and how fluid all of the conversations are in game. It's just an absolute shame that players are left out of every option. It would almost be better if those strange 'transition' sequences never occurred in the first place.
As to be expected from a game that delivers superb story Darkness II also delivers some pretty excellent sound. The voice overs are (with personal exception to the darkling) top notch, and the general score does a great job setting the mood for the more emotional sections. Graphically the game also has a very unique look that not only helps to set it apart from the more realistic FPS competition, but also does a fantastic job setting the stage of dark vs light; and for a game that features exploding a demon face out of someone's chest as a core feature Darkness II's violence isn't actually gory, which is again a brilliant move. It means being able to watch every kill transpire without having to sit through an overload of body parts and blood spraying everywhere.
Darkness II is a frustrating mix of fantastic game design, and agonising mediocrity. There are times when The Darkness II grabs you with its gripping story only to toss you into some standard gunplay. But there are also times when there are brilliant sequences where the story marries up with some devastatingly epic fight sequences. Fans of the first game have a lot more to appreciate while newcomers just looking for a different kind of experience should actually find that taking a chance on a game which doesn't feature a mindless marine on the front can be rather rewarding. That alone makes The Darkness II something of a success.
The Darkness II was reviewed on the PS3. You can read more about GamingUnion.net's scoring policy here.