Forgive me, for I have sinned. I have torn men in twain, popped their heads off and thrown their corpses at their friends, only to have the body explode. I’ve ripped the spine out of henchman through their rectum and I’ve burst through their stomach, face-hugger style. Did I mention that I did this using two snake-like tendrils of pure darkness? What you may be thinking, rather understandably by now, is that the Darkness 2 is another mindless gore-based FPS. That’s not exactly true.
The main conceit of The Darkness 2 is the quad-wielding mechanic, in which you use both of your snake-arms with your human-arms in order to fight; with the normal arms, you can dual-wield pistols or SMGs (or use both to hold a single assault rifle or shotgun), whereas the snake-arms are used for melee and holding onto objects and enemies. It feels like a natural progression from traditional FPS mechanics. Combined with the heart-eating mechanic, in which you can eat the hearts of defeated enemies for a health boost, and the light system, more on which in a moment, the play becomes much more strategic than initially indicated. For example, you’ll find yourself throwing enemies ahead, so that when you run from cover you’ll have a guaranteed heart to eat to recover health lost during that dash – it’s a rare FPS that encourages you to think ahead in such a manner.
The Darkness also provides abilities to complement your play-style, whether it be standard run-and-gun fare or alternatively a melee-oriented approach. There’s a gun-channelling power which gives you unlimited ammo and increased damage with guns for a small while, which is perfect for the FPS side of things, and a stun power letting you execute enemies at will. Executions are ammo kits, health kits and armour kits all in one. If you’ve played the recent release Space Marine, you’ll be somewhat familiar with this mechanism; when an enemy is stunned or damaged enough, you can activate an execution which are by far, the goriest thing I’ve seen in any video-game. If you go back to the first paragraph of this review, every method of death I mention is an execution. Once you’ve unlocked the appropriate powers on the skill tree, you’ll be able to use the executions to regain health, which is handy; to make a shield of darkness to protect you from damage, which gets less useful as the game goes on; to regain ammo, which is nonsensical but still very useful. I mean, why are these mobsters carrying around pistol ammo in their spines anyway?
The light system is an interesting idea, if a little flawed in execution. If you are under a bright enough light source (and determining which light source is considered bright for the purposes of this is difficult at times), you can no longer use the powers of Darkness. No more health regeneration, arm-snakes, special abilities or tiny goblin helper. It’s a concept that works well at times, but I found more often than not that it got in the way of fun. You can shoot out the lights, sure, but there are inexplicably bullet-proof lights around that require that a generator be shot up instead. The generator will more often than not be just past that wave of enemies too, with no alternate way around. It’s designed to make your character feel vulnerable. Unfortunately, your character never has a sense of invulnerability in the first place, which would then be worth taking down a peg. Otherwise, the combat is clever, strategic and well-implemented.
It’s a shame that the bullet-fodder isn’t as well designed. The first time you encounter the more advanced enemies, there is plenty of challenge to be had: enemies with powerful lights to inhibit your darkness powers, enemies with darkness-infused shields that need to be worn down with bullets before you can tear it from their hands and melee-based chargers. The first time is the only time you’ll feel challenged though. When you’ve seen wave after wave of these enemies, the combat begins to drag: shoot light, headshot, execute; shoot shield, remove shield, headshot, execute; shoot, execute. It’s a routine that, to be fair, we see in a lot of other FPS and action games, but in a game that has otherwise excelled in the action, it’s more disappointing to see.
Of course, the combat only exists to power the game through the story. That’s not to say that the story doesn’t have an appeal of its own, it does and it’ll certainly pique your interest, but the main draw of the game is the intelligently designed combat. The Darkness 2 exists in that sweet spot between, say, the Call of Duty series and Bastion. In the COD games, the story is barely even worth listening to; you are a soldier, you must go to this checkpoint, then shoot these men, then the next checkpoint and so on and so forth. The story is there, but it’s obviously not as well-developed or polished as the shooting sections of the game (that is to say, the rest of the entire game). Bastion, on the other hand, is a game that you could strip all interactivity out of and still be left with a deep emotional core and a story that really engages you. The game section of Bastion is still good, of course, but in this case, its the story that’ll keep you sitting down and playing. The Darkness 2 lives somewhere in between; the plot is more developed that most FPS games and does interest the player and if we’d been given a little longer with the characters, I’m sure we’d have been emotionally invested in the game, but at the same time, The Darkness 2 lives and dies by the gory action.
The story is not overly complex: it’s Godfather meets Constantine. Johnny, the player character, is a mob boss who has fought his way to the top using the Darkness; the Darkness is a demonic entity that passes down from father to son and allows the user to slaughter anything in their way. There are other forces in the world that would take the Darkness and use it for even more morally dubious means than Jackie does; Jackie spends the game fighting off attacks on himself, his powers and his family. All the while, Jackie is haunted by the presence of his old girlfriend, slaughtered in front of him in the last game. There’s an interesting selection of characters to converse with between bouts of combat and I’m loathe to ruin the story for you by passing on too many details. Someone wants the Darkness from you, you want to use it to save your girlfriend and there’s a whole false-reality possibility in there too. My main concern regarding this is that as much as I appreciated the writing and the characterisation, I didn’t feel as attached to the characters as I could have. Players who haven’t experienced the original The Darkness likely won’t be moved; many of the qualities and plot crescendos of important characters seem to require background information unavailable here. Instead, the characters are presented as important or emotionally central, but without anything to back it up; The Darkness II never really gives them enough time to breathe and to allow the player to become attached to them. It’s the sort of story you’d expect to see unfold in a comic-book. The visuals, at least, certainly show that origin; they’re almost cartoony, with a disturbing hint of realism that gives some of the characters and models a somewhat marionette look. While it’s not really immersion-breaking, it does take a while to get used to.
The Darkness 2 is a superb game. More importantly, it shows that the FPS genre is not necessarily the stagnant swamp that the Call of Duty, Medal of Honor and Battlefield series would lead you to believe. There’s an excellent story, engaging combat and unique visuals, which in sum is well worth the price of admission.