Since the 2007 release of The Darkness, the first-person-shooter climate has changed. In the world of Mafia-haggled mainstay Jackie Estacado, two years of darkling denial have passed. In the real world however, five long years have gone by, a console generation has evolved, and a sequel, five years in the making, needs rather more weapons in its daemonic dresser drawer than Digital Extremes' The Darkness II has been able to muster.
It's entirely fitting that your born-again baptism back into the Italian-American ambience of The Darkness Universe is played-out on rails. Schmoozing your way through the grossly opulent gangland backdrop of (presumably) Jackie's favourite eatery, your cohorts lead you to your table, shaking hands with old friends along the way, while interchanging a slice of staid mob movie dialogue. Events turn cold quickly, as you dodge bullets and suck turf, dragged away from the fray, amid a firework display of stage-managed gunfire. A few grim visions later, not to mention a near death experience or two, the darkness will have you right back in the palm of its slobbery, serrated jaw.
While the sinister, mob-ruled world of the Darkness: part one remains, its muted, ashen palette has been replaced with a rather more glittery, swashbuckling facade. Jackie has undergone something of a makeover, his poker-straight goth-locks replaced with a more ruffled, late-nineties, Bon Jovi barnet, in black. With two years passing since the untimely demise of Jackie's long time squeeze Jenny, Jackie has taken on a more optimistic and brash outlook on his world, reflected in the The Darkness II's relatively bubbly cel-shaded art style.
Far from fighting the mob, Jackie is now at the head of his family, in order to survive the attempted hit, you're forced to embrace your ungodly gifts in defence of all that you hold dear. Pressing forward with your piranha-like puppets in tow, you'll set out in pursuit of a mysterious limping man, last viewed amid the chaotic restaurant scenes of the opening stanza.
As you snuggle back in to The Darkness' familiar pattern of quad-wielding craziness, you'll notice that the frenetic nature of the gunplay has been coal-filtered into a warming blend of flailing limbs and flying bullets. As before, the left and right bumpers, (or '1' buttons – depending on your console of choice) control your free-spirited appendages, while the triggers dictate your bullet control. Weapon selection is neatly tied together with the relevant d-pad press, letting you choose from one of two, one-handed weapons, or both, plus the option of a two-hander, a shotgun for example. While much of your blood-lust could be satisfied using only your collection of Saturday-night specials, headshots aside, the incentive to kill with Jackie's demonic extremities lies with an increased return of essence compared to a standard rifle or Uzi kill.
Gathering essence, a purple, gaseous discharge, released from each oven-ready corpse will add points to what is an obtuse XP meter of sorts. There's no real frame of reference for what it is meant to encapsulate, what it does however, is act as currency to be spent at soul wells, a kind of purple black-hole, acting as an other-worldly ATM, at which you can upgrade one of four available talent trees. Rather than defining your character's DNA in the way that other games do, instead these prune your talent trees to fine-tune your preferences. One might focus on your weapons, while another will effect your limbs directly, the next might increase the effectiveness of black holes and darklings (my personal favourite). However you choose to specialise, if you spend enough of your time performing executions, the goriest of ends to the various stooges standing in your way, you'll build up enough demon-dollars (not the actual in-game currency) to fully leaf out all of the available branches. Each level also provides a small number of collectible relics to give a shot in the arm to your available essence, should you find yourself lagging. In truth, there is no tangible relevance to their presence, and taking the time out to hunt down any but the ones you stumble across is best reserved for the cheev-gobblers among us.
While instantly gratifying, the teeth-gnashing glee of splitting a goon in two, or constricting and dissecting your foes, is deadened by the speed at which these fantastic executions become habit. When unleashed upon the world, almost everything you'll see, you'll probably have seen in the first half an hour of The Darkness II's brief campaign. The only real incentive to press on with these elaborate, and relatively time-consuming moves is to ensure your essence clock keeps on ticking. The more practical choice is often to adopt a rather more Samuel L. Jackson-like approach and, “kill every motherfucker in the room” (using guns – such as an AK47). Often, grabbing a shield and a shotgun will take care of business quicker than using your awe-inspiring powers. Taking this approach will leave behind corpses with still-beating hearts, available as an all-you-can-eat thug buffet.
Your presence in the mortal realm is dictated by a healthy diet of dismemberment and heart-consumption, each instance of amateur cardiology restoring a tiny portion of Jackie's health. However, should you choose to spend most of your killing time using your serpentine extensions, you'll quickly find that the oh-so-useful hearts stop dropping, and surviving becomes more of a chore. While the sound of enthusiastic heart munching never grows old, it's a shame that the more immediately practical option is to embrace the rudimentary shooting mechanics, just to keep moving forward. When you remove the glitter of the four-pronged assault, The Darkness II becomes a rote, linear, tunnel chugger.
It's not as if The Darkness 2 is without its charm. The brilliant Darkling companion makes a welcome return, adorned in his union flag miniskirt, gleefully pissing on the recently disassembled ensemble from the outset, and turning the air gremlin-fart green at any given moment. He's responsible for some of the Darkness II's throwaway sense of humour too. Finding him humming Great Britain's unofficial back-up anthem 'Rule Britannia' to himself, is particularly amusing. Hearing ladies of negotiable affection muttering “Hotdog down a hallway? What does that even mean?” while visiting a dank brothel, goes over well too. The score is another strong point, orchestral and dramatic backing peaks appropriately, even if sometimes it is noticeably repetitive. During the hospital scenes, tentative piano complements a warm, pulmonary baseline. Weaponry clicks and clacks with authentic cartoon realism, and at its best, The Darkness II has moments of climactic, post-Gotham fusion.
Digital Extremes shouldn't feel too bad about their attempts to keep things interesting, they have made a good fist of blurring the line between fantasy and reality, as Jackie awakes repeatedly in the bright-white halls of what appears to be a mental institution, at points throughout, only to find himself back in an unwelcoming back alley within minutes. As the story concludes however, the density of any of the occurring distractions proves to be wafer-thin and unimportant. Jackie's longing to be reunited with his departed soul mate Jenny should strike a chord, as fond memories of their time together are brought to the fore, but these moments rely too heavily on the poignant romance of the first game. If you sat through much of To Kill A Mockingbird, or watched the emphatic nature of Jenny's end while playing through The Darkness, the sense of what could have been in The Darkness II will be palpable. If not, there is nothing to engage you emotionally with any of the frequent faux-dream sequences, lamenting her passing. The bigger picture suffers in the same way, when finally confronted by the limping man, he is inexplicably familiar with your entire life story, and in spite of the logical reasons he has for wanting your attention, the venom of his anti-Jackie rhetoric misses a step, somehow.
The Darkness II is a product of good will but very little invention, imitation rather than iteration seems to be the stock-in-trade. The winding snake-arm set pieces of the first instalment have been replaced with some first-person darkling plays. Much like the main partition, these prove to be something of a one trick pony, experienced in full within minutes of their birth. The moody subway interactions with NPCs, while relevant first time around, take place in Jackie's luxurious mansion this time out, but really could have been omitted entirely. The result is damaged pacing and reduced suspense. The Darkness II even features an attempt at replicating the shock factor of part one, with one particular moment coming close. Like much of its subject matter, this turns out to be little more than a faint echo of what came before.
In truth, The Darkness II isn't challenging as much as it is chastening, brainless AI and flawed boss-fights, confused terrain and chaotic scrambling for ammo leave limited chances to play out a battle using observation, timing or method. Either that, or they turn out to be a game of, who can shoot who the most, fastest. While when the quad-wield sensibilities fall into place, the feeling of complete combat exists, often this will descend into wild slashing and indiscriminate object hurling.
A game with a five to six hour campaign (on an average difficulty play-through) should have a narrative that leaves you wanting more at its conclusion. While the latter stages are a break from the routine, beneath their shiny coating, lies a very familiar skeleton. The particularly anticlimactic end-game is a welcome relief when finished with, rather than an achievement to be reflected upon. A quasi-cliffhanger ending, alluding to the possibility that a fuller campaign was always possible but never achieved, exacerbates the emptiness, save for one last moment of sentiment, this one worthy of its predecessor.
The Darkness II unleashes its fifth limb in pursuit of some interesting multiplayer content, also playable solo. Two game modes and four fantastic, racially stereotypical wannabes (Eastern European, Scottish, Chinese and Black) await. Each one equipped with a different weapon set, plus a darkness speciality unique to their character, imagine each talent-tree personified. Hitman mode will see you skirmish with an easily dispatchable (that's not really a word - never use it) gaggle of goons, in a tired attempt at what is now known as 'horde mode', before re-enacting the relative tedium of the boss jousts you might just have been fortunate enough to have forgotten. Campaign allows you to ride the same railroad again, in much the same way as in the central story, but through sterile environment and with less killer skills.
It's great to see extra content included, and it does provide a variety of sorts, the most enjoyable part found playing as Jimmy Wilson. His recallable dark-axe and wilful alcoholism are great fun, as are the developers attempts at sounding like they know what Scottish people talk about. The additional executions available, beg the question why there aren't more for Jackie to embrace, these limited highs aside. Largely, powers feel limp when compared to Jackie Estacado, mostly because limbs three and four are missing from the tertiary toons.
The Darkness II is a game of should-have-been. Your quad wielding should make you feel like the semi-mortal man-demon you are, the effortless ruining of your foes should feel gratifying every time. Instead, every bland jaunt feels like an opportunity lost. Guilty of excess padding around its midriff, The Darkness II is equipped with all the gameplay tools you could ask for to make a genuinely inventive and interesting shooter, instead it reloads the same-old rusty side-arm and fires blindly into the light, bleeding missed opportunities and asphyxiating its victims, in game or otherwise.