By: Armaan Khan
Jackie Estacado is living the adolescent dream: he is in his early twenties, is head of a mafia family, and has his pesky demonic parasite problem—the titular “Darkness”—under control. Then some punk tries to kill him and all hell breaks loose, literally. The aforementioned pesky demon parasite resurfaces and Jackie embraces its power to wreak havoc against his enemies once again, tearing them limb from limb in an orgy of violence and gore. Thus begins The Darkness II.
Blood and Guts
Chances are you’ve never played the first Darkness game, which was released exclusively on consoles five years ago, and that’s probably for the best. This second installment in the series eschews the original’s horror-movie sneak-and-pounce style for a more traditional shooteymans experience. You take on the role of Jackie as he tries to find out who ordered the hit against him and exacts brutal, bloody revenge against them. Aiding Jackie on his quest is an entity called the Darkness, which lives inside him and has been passed down from father to son in his bloodline for ages. Whenever Jackie is in a dark area, the Darkness manifests in the form of two snake-like tendrils that Jackie can use like an extra pair of hands. It also gives him the ability to regenerate health and use a variety of useful skills, but most of those have to be unlocked over time by spending “essence” that you collect from dead foes.
The combat is frequent, bloody, and 100-percent pure teenage male power fantasy. I haven’t seen this much gore in a game since Manhunt 2. While it is possible to just shoot everyone with a variety of weapons, if you want to get the most essence possible for each kill you’ll have to utilize your Darkness powers to greatest effect. That means ripping and whipping enemies into pieces, impaling them with makeshift spears, slicing them in half with car doors and fan blades, and if you can get close enough, performing brutally elaborate executions. It’s incredibly varied and visceral, and it conveys a strong sense of power that engages the primitive lizard side of your brain in an extremely effective manner.
It falls apart as you approach the end game, though. The last couple hours of the story campaign is filled with waves of armored enemies who can take a lot of punishment while Jackie’s overall power level doesn’t increase to match, so the addicting power fantasy gives way to tedious by-the-numbers fighting. By that point, though, I was hooked in the story which kept me from losing all interest in the game.
And Brains to Boot
And that story… Wow, is it a hoot. It’s trite and shallow, and it does nothing that you haven’t seen before a hundred times over. But it’s also very well told with great writing and voice work, and it takes you on an interesting ride. I’ve never cared so much about the secondary characters in a shooter before, and I have never connected with a protagonist in the powerful way that I connected with Jackie. I don’t mean connected in the sense that I felt I was one with Jackie, just that I wanted him to win. Our motivations were aligned, and that’s a unique experience for me. In other games, I went through the motions because I was told to do so. Here, I did it because I wanted to.
It takes very good writing to accomplish that, and The Darkness II pulls it off in a smart way that you wouldn’t expect from a game whose first instruction to you as a player is to “check out the rack on that broad to your right.” Getting to the endgame is a very satisfying experience, destroying the final boss even more so, and even though the game drops a cliffhanger on you, it does so after the main story has been wrapped up so there’s no feeling of emptiness once it’s over.
The story campaign is only half the fun. When you get done with Jackie’s adventure, or even before you start, you can participate in the Vendettas mode that lets you either play a little mini-campaign that takes place simultaneously with the main story as one of four side characters who inexplicably wield Darkness powers of their own.
Wait. Did I say the story campaign was half the fun? That’s wrong. It’s actually all the fun. Vendettas tosses out all the compelling storytelling from the main game and puts you through levels composed of arena fight after arena fight after arena fight. There are no breaks in between battles, unless you decide to not move into the next area, so the missions do nothing more than highlight the tediousness of the game’s combat. It becomes very boring very fast, and since each character only has a tiny subset of Jackie’s abilities, you don’t even get the same addicting sense of power as you do in the main game.
The characters are just as uninteresting as well. While Jackie is a soppy wuss masquerading as a tough guy, thus making him immediately relatable to 99% of the game’s target demographic, the four Vendettas characters are one-dimensional almost-racist stereotypes that are impossible to connect with. There’s an Asian samurai, a female man-hating ex-Mossad agent, a black witch doctor, and a ginger Scotsman who’s always drunk. They all have three lines of spoken text each that repeat hundreds of times while you play, and although there is some unique dialogue as they receive and respond to in-mission objective updates, it’s not enough to make you like the characters enough to want to keep playing with them.
The Vendettas mode can also be played in online co-op with up to three other people, but that doesn’t increase the fun factor much. Tedium is tedium, no matter how many other people are suffering alongside you.
The game runs at a decent clip on max settings on my rig. I didn’t experience any crashes whatsoever during my time with it, although the last few levels exhibited the odd framerate drop at random moments. I was actually very surprised to find out the game was running at maximum, though, because it didn’t look like it was. That’s not to say the graphics are ugly. On the contrary, they’re very nice to look at, but they don’t look “maxed.”
Video configuration only gives you the basics: resolution, display mode, v-sync, and the ability to adjust texture memory and shadow quality. Those of you with large monitors will want to sit well back because there’s no options to adjust FOV, not even by hacking the cfg file (which appears to be a binary file and not plain text). You also can’t adjust model detail, so I’m assuming you’ll need something equivalent to what’s in an Xbox to get good frame rates. It also means the game won’t look any better if you’ve got more powerful hardware.
As is the case with most twin stick FPS games these days, the controls aren’t well suited to the keyboard and mouse. Wielding Jackie’s tentacle attacks requires a click of the middle mouse button, followed quickly by either a horizontal or vertical movement to indicate direction. It works maybe half the time, while the other half your viewpoint just gets twirled around in a disorienting manner. Other tentacle actions require you to use the Q and E keys, and powers and executions need you to hit a number key to perform. Managing movement and power usage while dodging around in the middle of an intense firefight is awkward at best with the default setup, although you are free to remap the keys to find a more comfortable one. The controls are a lot better with an Xbox controller, if you’re willing to sacrifice the accuracy of the mouse.
You also have to put up with a checkpoint system and no real save/quicksave functionality. In practice this wasn’t that big a deal, but I like being able to save when I want to save, thus avoiding, say, replaying several lengthy battles thanks to an untimely demise.
Conclusion – Is It Worth The Money?
The Darkness II’s main campaign is a well-written tale that is worth experiencing, even though the fun factor decreases as the game wears on. Unfortunately, the Vendettas mode is boring and makes up half of the included content. Is it worth paying full price for a game that’s 50% fun? I don’t think so, but if you can find it on the cheap, definitely snap it up.
The Darkness II Technical Summary:
- Time Played – 8.5 hours
- Widescreen Support – Yes
- 5.1 Audio – No
- Bugs – None
- DRM – Steamworks
- Control Scheme – Keyboard/Mouse, Gamepad
- System Specs – Core2 Quad @ 2.6 GHz, 4GB RAM, 2GB Radeon 4800
- Game Acquisition Method – Review Copy
- Availability – Steam
- Demo – Yes