Posted in: Game Reviews by Michael Durr on February 29th, 2012
The quickest way I know for me to like a game is to give it a strong story. Games like Bioshock, Mafia and Skyrim succeed based on the fact that they provide entertaining and engaging stories. The player wants to unravel the mystery, take down that crime family, and slay that dragon because the story compels them to do so. This time around, we look at the game of the Darkness II, which takes a look at the story of Jackie Estacado and his ever going battle with the demon simply known as the Darkness.
For a game that participates so much in a dark setting, one might think that things such as detail might be tucked away and hardly ever seen. That could not be further from the truth. This game blends light and dark elements almost seamlessly. It is fairly easy for example to tell the difference between a dimly lit street light and by the same token, a large spotlight that Jackie needs to avoid.
The darkness is where this game really shines (no pun intended). Shadows are done beautifully and a simple graveyard takes on plenty of facets of complexity. The Darkness powers are on full display and show a whole lot more than a couple of simple decapitations. The variations on the fatalities and little pieces of detail (like enemies continue to shoot while a demon head is ripping a hole in their stomach) make this as entertaining to watch and play.
The game uses cel-shading techniques in order to better emulate the comic book experience. Many characters will have a toon-like quality (especially in the mental hospital scenes) but never does the game feel overly cartoonish. Instead, the characters give the game an absolute dark and gritty feel. There are a large number of scenes that are exciting to look at far beyond the intended action sequences.
In the same breath, the NPC characters do have an aura of rigidness (and we are not just talking the “Chief” character either who just grunts a lot). They might look quite detailed, but do not seem to move very much. It echoes what we usually see in linear games but as dark and devious as the graphics are for onscreen action, it seems sometimes bland in the talking and mental hospital levels.
Sound is displayed in the usual 5.1 Dolby Digital. From the moment the player first fires a gun or decides to unleash the Darkness, sound explodes through the speakers. Heck, the opening credits imply that this is way more than harmless blood splatter. The sound effects echo through all speakers in use and immerse the player into a great game experience. One would never think that the ripping of body parts would sound so pleasing to the ears.
The original score by composer Tim Wynn also offers the player another chance to really feel a part of the game. The haunting notes that work hand in hand with the ongoing screen action really cement the player’s place in a very harrowing experience. I even noticed some pieces of licensed music such as “Wild Thing” by Tone Loc and that fifties tune, “I Only Have Eyes For You” by the Flamingos. None of the music or sound effects seems to be out of place and fit together nicely.
One quick note, but subtitles are recommended and can be turned on in the options menu.
Since some people might not have played the first game and dived right into the second one (myself included, I bought the game and it is currently sitting sealed on my shelf), we might be a bit confused as to why Jackie Estacado has the Darkness and where it did it come from. But one of the nice features we notice immediately is that when the game is started, we are given the option to let us know what happened last time on the Darkness. Just like a soap opera but without the cheesy subplots. Okay, maybe a bit cheesy.
Anyway, the second game basically takes place two years after the events of the first game. Jackie still in possession of the Darkness has used his powers to become the Don of the Franchetti mobster family. However, he still has bad memories of his dead girlfriend, Jenny Romano. He has tried to suppress the Darkness and has sealed it back in his body with the help of Johnny Powell. But as we learn, the Darkness always gets its way; it is just a matter of time.
The opening scene puts Jackie in a fancy restaurant about to enjoy dinner with a couple of twins. All of the sudden, a car flies through the restaurant instantly killing the two ladies and seriously injuring Jackie. Vinnie, one of Jackie’s men gives him a gun to fend off attackers as Vinnie drags him thru a few hallways and eventually finding themselves in the kitchen. However, the kitchen is an explosion waiting to happen and gas is leaking from the propane tanks. One flaming bottle later, and Jackie finds himself alive but barely breathing.
As he struggles on the floor, he crawls to a figure in the doorway. Suddenly the Darkness starts to rage inside of Jackie, trying to get out. As he gets closer, the Darkness gets stronger and it intensifies its desire to be sealed no more. With one last reach of desperation, Jackie finally embraces the Darkness. He regains his powers and his mobility and proceeds to shred the opposition. However, this is just the beginning and with the Darkness out, Jackie will encounter more pain and suffering than he has possibly ever endured.
The game takes Jackie on missions that start out rather simply; avenging the attack that occurred at the restaurant. However, eventually Jackie uncovers the source of the attack and it is a dark and sinister one that wants the power of the Darkness to themselves. He also goes against his own psyche which constantly plays games with his head and blurring the lines between reality and fiction. Expect a couple of trips to the mental hospital.
The mission inside the restaurant before Jackie is blown to smithereens serves as a gun tutorial. Here one will learn how to shoot enemies and not take too many hits to one’s destination. After Jackie gets another near death experience at the hands of exploding propane tanks, we get to the meat of the gameplay and that is exploring the powers of the Darkness. In particular, this refers to the two demon arms and a little friend that Jackie knows as the Darkling.
While gun mechanics can be explained fairly easily (pistols, uzis, shotguns, dual-wielding, etc), the demon arms require more explanation. The left demon arm can be described as a “grabber”. It latches on to objects such as car doors, javelins, and propane tanks which can then be used as weapons and shields (as with the case with car doors). It can even grab onto enemies and either use them as projectiles or shred them to bits.
Yes, executions. This is the lovely satisfaction of recreating a slice and dice reminiscent of an Alien movie or perhaps pulling apart a body like a wishbone. Then there is the right arm which allows for horizontal and vertical slashes which basically serves as yet another weapon in the arsenal. This creates a quad-wield system which makes for holy terror on the enemies. But I forgot one of the most entertaining aspects of the Darkness, the Darkling.
The Darkling is basically a very real figment produced out of Jackie’s mind. He appears as a small imp, almost reminiscent of the clown from Spawn. However, unlike the clown, he is totally loyal to Jackie and accomplishes many small tasks. First, he assists in distracting and holding enemies for Jackie to finish off. He also serves as pointing Jackie to his next destination when it might appear that he might be lost (or generally misdirected). The Darkling is also there to occasionally take a leak on a fallen enemy.
In addition, there will be certain moments where the player can take control of the Darkling and navigate through air vents and occasionally eliminate an obstacle in Jackie’s path. All of these activities allow for the collection of dark essence which serves almost as a currency during your time of playing the game. This dark essence can be used to purchase talents.
This can be health executions (when you execute an enemy, you absorb their life force), the ability to create black holes (which suck the enemy into a vortex), gun channeling (using the power of the darkness as ammo for weapons), and a killer spawn (dark insects that stun your enemies) among others. As enemies get harder, the player find themselves adjusting to the new powers and then unleashing them to get through the toughest sections of the game.
Speaking of difficulty, the game is not designed to be overly hard. There are four different difficulty levels from “Thug” to “Don” which satisfy every user level from the complete novice to the hardcore gamer. Even at the “Don” level, if the player makes good use of their “powers”, they can get through the toughest challenges. By the same token, even though “Thug” is very easy, the player can still become absorbed into the amazing story at play.
The game sports a fairly short single player set of missions. Experienced players will run through it in 7 hours, casual players will probably log about 10 hours. As a result, the developers had the foresight to include the popular option for NewGame+. This feature once you complete the game will allow for two things, one to carry over all bought talents (since it will require multiple play throughs to buy them all) and level select so that you can pick apart the game at will. This will also allow you to work on certain achievements a lot easier than a standard play through.
In the multiplayer arena, we have a special game mode called Vendettas. These are different from the main story but are a compliment of the plot. You can choose to do these alone on a Hitlist or co-op with a buddy. There are four characters to choose from: Inugami, Shoshanna, JP Dumond, and Jimmy Wilson. Naturally, each of these characters has different powers and abilities that will appeal to certain Hit Lists. Also, keep in mind that certain Hit Lists will only be available online which in a game that focuses very much on the single player experience is a bit troublesome.
There are fifty achievements for the standard 1000 points. The achievements are pretty fun for the most part. The story achievements are all secret in nature since there would be a heavy dose of spoilers to see those in your achievement menu. There are also quite a few Vendettas achievements which for some will be considered a negative since they want little to do with that component of the game. However, with a good online friend these might be fairly easy to accomplish.
Other types of achievements also exist which primarily fall into the category of statistical achievements (Kill 50 enemies with Thrown Objects – Ready for the Big Leagues) and special feats (Killing 2 enemies with one javelin – 2 Guys 1 Pole). There were also some odd achievements that involved Carnival Games (Earn a score over 1000 in each of the carnival games – Carnie Kid) and impressing fellow members of your crime family (Impress Dolfo in two different ways – That’s Why I’m the Boss).
In addition, I found that a couple of 5 point achievements could be obtained by simply not making a decision when the moment presented itself. (Real Guys know How to Dance – Romantic & Refuse to Cooperate with Victor in the Interrogation – Decisions, Decisions). All in all, the 1000 points are not impossible to complete but at the same time will extend the playing value of this game to the point where it can still be a most satisfying play.
The Darkness II proves that simple (but entertaining) gameplay coupled with a very strong story can always provide the player with many hours of excitement. Jackie’s story is an early candidate in my mind for the best video game story of the year. The game also provides excellent audio and video and a wealth of fun achievements. Even though the Vendettas feel thrown in there for the sake of a multiplayer mode, I feel a lot of people will at least touch the mode and give it a fair shake.
Outside of the average replay value, I found that the only negatives in the game center around the very easy and sometimes senseless AI. (Let’s run out of the light into the dark to this scary guy with demon arms around the corner instead of letting him come to us) Despite that, this game gets an easy recommendation. The story plays with your mind in a good way and even the mental hospital scenes despite their lack of action are fun to get through because they progress the story. All adventure fans should give this one a try.