If it's crap ... We'll tell you
I’ve never been able to grasp American fascination with Italian gangsters. The group seems to have some sort of air to them that the general population finds intoxicating, particularly when it comes to fiction. From The Sopranos to Goodfellas, the reason for the popularity of this particular group has always eluded me, and the fact that they are usually reduced to their stereotypical depictions never helped either. Partially why I love The Darkness series of video games is because they usually subvert or totally change up the clichés brought about by the “Italian gangster” genre by adding in a hefty amount of personal gravitas and emotion…not to mention there are two fucking huge snake-demons chowing down on human hearts.
The first entry into the video game franchise, The Darkness, came via Starbreeze, the acclaimed studio that took the Chronicles of Riddick license and crafted not only an acceptable product, but one of the best first-person shooters of the last console cycle, proving that not all license games have to be a disappointment. Since Starbreeze left the franchise focusing instead on a reboot of the Syndicate series, the reigns have been passed to Digital Extremes. The company, while known for dabbling with several big budget games, has remained an entity with a mediocre track record. Because The Darkness garnered critical praise for its story, atmosphere, and characters, the bar was rightly raised high for Digital Extremes to deliver.
In the beginning, God created the stars, the heavens, and life itself. This made The Darkness very angry. Bound to suffer the pain of light, The Darkness, a deity of chaos, decided to bind itself to a human host, and the host’s descendants, for protection. The current host is the star of the game - Jackie Estacado. After the events of the first game, Jackie remains a tortured soul as the love of his life was killed in front of him, his “adopted uncle” attempted to murder him, and The Darkness continues bubbling inside of him until the day it can escape back into the world. Now the head of the Franchetti crime family, life hasn’t become any easier for Jackie as the Brotherhood, a secret cult who wants The Darkness for their own benefit, declares an all out war against the mob, Jackie, and The Darkness.
Special thanks must be given to those who worked on every facet of audio in the game. Blood and human bits sound skin-crawlingly mushy, weapons give the feeling of power without sounding overbearing, and even sounds that could have been easily simplified (bullets hitting a concrete wall, the sound of a gun pressed against human teeth, etc.) are given a phenomenal amount of attention. It would be a flat-out crime to talk about audio without delving into the voice work. While Kirk Acevedo was good as Jackie Estacado in the first game, Brian Bloom manages to mine a larger amount of emotional depth in conjunction with the terrific script. Mike Patton returns as The Darkness, a role that couldn’t have been better voiced, who laces every line with such delicious malice that you can’t wait until you hear the wavering, yet frightening, voice of the demonic presence. Even a character that would be traditionally glossed over (the “damsel-in-distress”) is given a unique twist in the story as Jenny Romano’s voice actress, Stefanie Frame, plays the character, for the most part, with a detached demeanor making Jackie’s desperate struggle for her soul seem even more cruel and hopeless. Even minor characters are given great voice actors, including the deranged, yet somehow grounded, Johnny Powell (voiced by David Hoffman). I could easily go on praising each voice actor, but I will trust you, kind reader, to take my word when I say that every part has a great voice.
It would seem like a strange decision to move from the dark ‘n gritty visuals for a more colorful palette, but when you start playing the game, it all makes sense. The rich color scheme, along with the cell-shaded presentation, gives off the feeling of a vibrant comic book come to life, providing a sense of energy and liveliness to the world. In comparison to the original “The Darkness,” this new look provides growth and expansion for the series as enemy types, characters, items, and set pieces all look wonderfully distinct opposed to the first game’s drabber atmosphere. For many, what will sell the game to them will be the representation of gore, although these are people who usually get restraining orders. The Darkness 2 definitely delivers on the visceral front as you’ll eviscerate enemies with a plethora of weapons, particularly your incredibly handy (no pun intended) demon arms. Also, as light is the enemy of The Darkness, you must strive to stay out of it, or turn out the lights, or else you'll be blinded and unable to use The Darkness in combat, so always keeping on eye out for kino light-wielding goons is a top priority.
The gameplay is fast and smooth and a definite improvement over the original. While you could occasionally get stuck, directionally confused, or simply overwhelmed by enemies, The Darkness 2 focuses more on a linear and straight-forward path that's filled with a swath of options for dealing with your enemies. Quick thinking on the battlefield is a must for this game as you'll make shields out of car doors, throw enemies at one another, and take quick moments of rest in the combat to shoot out lights and prepare for the next course of action. The touted “quad-wielding” where you control each “gun arm” and “demon arm” proves to be quite fun, useful, and enjoyable to master with a large swath of combinations in battle to use and experiment with in battle. The genius of the gameplay is in the combat; replenishing ammo or health relies on performing executions, with terrifically bloody animations, I might add. This gives you more of an active process than just scrounging around in dumpsters ammo or health packs or hiding behind cover until you regenerate back to full health. Though you’re limited to one Darkling this go-around, he proves to be incredibly useful as he’ll open locked doors, kill unsuspecting enemies, and give out wonderfully foul-mouthed pep talks. The downsides of the game, though there are only a few, include a rather surprisingly average amount of enemy types, even though their artificial intelligence and different roles in combat will unquestionably test your ability to react in a firefight. There's also the inclusion of a "Vendetta" mode where you get to take four unique characters, with their own weapons and finishers, and plow through a separate campaign; it's not that long, but it is a fun excursion for a couple of hours that houses a neat story with some interesting characters.
It can be said that those who worried that The Darkness 2 wouldn’t continue the tradition of great storytelling can put those concerns to bed as Digital Extremes managed to craft an engaging story with terrific characters. Throughout the tale, Jackie flips back and forth between fighting a gritty gang war with the Brotherhood, and living as a patient in an insane asylum. Because the writing is so competent, I’ve been on the edge wondering about which universe was real as the mental asylum provides a profound line of questioning into Jackie’s sanity. Although the finale of the story ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, it isn’t terrible enough to dissuade the player from becoming invested in the story presented, especially since it concludes on such a fantastic high note. Oh, and if you couldn't guess already, this game is DARK. When you hear The Darkness make a comment on "delicious suffering," you'll understand what he means. It's rated M for a reason.
Terrifically paced, wonderfully acted, and astonishingly realized (with an outstanding combat system to boot!) you would be hard pressed to find a first-person shooter on the market with as much brains, style, and heart as The Darkness 2.
Rating: BUY IT! BUY IT NAHW!!!
I believe in a thing called love, just listen to the rhythm of my heart.