If you really think about it, there should be a lot more games based on comics. The suspension of disbelief that is required to enjoy either of the two media lends itself beautifully for this to happen. The problem of course, is the possible pitfall of doing it purely for the sake of profit. In this case we would have a lot more bodies in the virtual graveyard of crappy commercial crossovers. The sort that so many movie tie-ins inhabit.
The Darkness was a commercially successful game based on the Top Cow comic bearing the same name. Though it never made it to the PC (meaning I never played it), it was critically well received. Though the game has been out for a while now, I only recently picked it up (thank you Steam sale!).
As in the prequel, the story centers around the life of one Jacky Estacado. As far as characters go, Jacky ranks right up there with the top antiheroes of his ilk. If you have read the comics, you know this guy was never really a good guy to begin with. One of the hardest things the game and indeed the comics have had to struggle with was making Mr. Estacado even remotely likeable. The reason is simple. The dude is a bona fide douchebag. Without spoiling it, let’s just say Jacky was a mob hitman with no scruples to talk of. At some point, he gets bestowed/cursed with the powers of a force that calls itself “The Darkness”. You can imagine how gaining the ability to control demons and such didn’t exactly help with his moral bankruptcy. The only thing decent about him was his relationship with a certain lady (Jenny Romano) whom he actually loves rather deeply.
So of course, she ends up getting killed on his account. This essentially does two things. Firstly, it severs the last link Jacky has to a normal life. And secondly, the guilt this brings makes the player feel at least a little sorry for the vicious bastard. BTW, all of what I just described happens in the first game and the only reason I mention all of it is to make a rather important point: The Darkness 1 had a compelling story with heavy emotional undertones. Darkness 2 is more of an over the top FPS with heavy emphasis on gruesome action.
The game does bring newbies up to speed with the details of Jacky’s miserable existence. It also wastes no time in putting the player in a hectic gunfight. Before I get to that however, the art direction deserves mention. The look of the game is evocative of a comic book, making subtle use of cel-shading for a rather pleasing effect. Personally I prefer this to anything that tries to go for realism but that is of course, a matter of taste.
As a host to the powers of chaos and general unpleasantness, Jacky has the benefit of doing more than just dual wield. He can double dual wield! I mean, in addition to having his human arms, he also has tentacles on each shoulder. This opens up some rather interesting options for our murderous psychopath. These demonic noodles can use objects in the world as missiles or shields. They can also tear the spine out of an opponent’s ass. This bring brings me to something I mentioned earlier. The Darkness 2 is a very gruesome game. The first time I pulled off an “execution”, it was genuinely shocking. The game makes no bones about it. It helps that the people trying to kill Jacky are even more perverted and evil than him. Doing these kind of monstrous things to an innocent civilian for instance, would have made me feel rather uncomfortable. That being said, after the first hour of this unholy carnage, I did feel myself getting desensitized to the whole thing. Towards the end of the game it hardly even registered.
To be fair, the gore serves a certain purpose. Apart from staying true to the source material, special moves, such as eating the hearts of your victims, will replenish health and essence (a form of currency). This is important because powerful as Jacky is, the game will send entire armies at him. Even if FPS veterans find the forgiving AI to be of little consequence, ammo can still be limited. Besides, I won’t lie, satisfying as the gunplay was, using those damn tentacles was a whole lot more fun.
Even so, if you really do not like the idea of literally tearing people apart, there is an interesting skill system that allows you to focus on guns alone. It brings a little RPG flavor to the party and will be appreciated by players that may want to go through multiple playthroughs. It won’t take long either; the game is short in length (I finished it in about 6 hours). The opposite is true as well, i.e., going down the melee tree will allow for more flying body parts. Though not exactly deep, it is a welcome addition and allows for a much more customized experience.
One of my favorite features by far though, is a vicious little demonic companion that Jacky has. This foul mouthed Darkling is an absolute blast to have around. Sporting a Union Jack T-shirt and a cockney accent, this perverse little demon helps out in fire fights and also acts as a guide. It may seem like a gimmick but following him negates the possibility of getting lost. Oh, and he also takes great pleasure in peeing over the corpses of your victims. I said he was perverse didn’t I?
One of the weaknesses the Darkness has is, not surprisingly, light. This makes for an interesting dynamic where the player may have to take a minute and shoot out any lights to negate any illumination in an area. It also allows the baddies to occasionally turn the tables on Jacky in a major way.
Do not let my remarks on the shortness of the campaign and action heavy feel of the game make you think its weak on story though. The plot may not be Pulitzer winning material but it’s still way better than what the majority of games out there have to offer. Jacky’s guilt about Jenny’s death is a palpable thing and there is no doubt about the toll it takes on him. There are points in the story where the player is even forced to question his sanity. I won’t spoil how this is accomplished but it is definitely a breath of fresh air and shows how unique games are as a medium for delivering compelling narrative. One caveat however, the ending feels a little rushed. As a result it fails to deliver any closure. It’s not bad by any means but does not stand up to the rest of the tale.
The emotional aspects of the story are well supported by the host of characters in the game and their excellent voice overs. Mike Patton’s performance as the voice of the Darkness deserves special mention. In fact, I won’t hesitate to say that the game has some of the most impressive voice work I’ve heard in a while.
Developers Digital Extremes have packed a lot into a six hour campaign. The Darkness 2 stays true to the comics and delivers a compelling tale. The action is relentless and well-paced, accentuated by brief periods of calm. If anything, these breathers bring the bloody world of Jacky Estacado even more to life.
It may be a short ride, but a hell of a ride nonetheless.
FINAL SCORE: 7.8
(The game does have a multiplayer component but I did not test it. Frankly I do not intend to either. I got what I wanted from The Darkness 2 and that’s that)