Fans of the 2007 shooter, The Darkness, (and the long-running comic from which it is inspired) will have a fair idea what to expect thematically from its Crow meets Goodfellas gore-fest sequel. Mobster and tortured soul Jackie Estacado returns, grieving for his lost love Jenny, whilst desperately trying to keep his sinister powers in check. This goes reasonably well until a botched hit on Jackie leaves him with no choice but to unleash The Darkness - an other-wordly parasite which has possessed him since his 21st birthday. For the yet uninitiated, this parasite is both a blessing and a curse for Estacado, providing him with a host of abilities (including the use of two giant demonic tentacles), but also quite literally leading him on a harrowing journey to Hell and back. Now that Jackie has unleashed The Darkness once again, he soon learns that a mysterious stranger intends to violently relieve him of his powers.
The first evident difference between The Darkness II and its predecessor is an extreme overhaul of the art style, abandoning digital methods in favour of cel-shading and hand-painted textures. The idea may sound hackneyed, but it works, imbuing the whole affair with a comic-book feel without the need for cheapo tricks such as adding speech bubbles or panels. Furthermore, these visuals can be genuinely breathtaking, adding a sense of beauty even to the vilest of locations, including a brothel dripping in red velvet and crushed spirits.
The graphics aren’t the only aspect of the game to get tweaked since the first time around, with Digital Extremes opting for a far more stripped back approach for the sequel. Jackie’s Darkness powers have been streamlined, and where before the player had control over a number of ‘Darklings’ (imp-like creatures who carry out Estacado’s bidding), they now only have one; a fairly irritating little snot in a Union Jack vest, who is full of charming habits, such as swearing in a Cockney accent whilst pissing and vomiting on corpses. Really.
Paring down the gameplay is an extremely welcome change, allowing the player to focus on what is easily the game’s best feature; the ability to ‘quad-wield’ two guns and the two giant demon arms. As one might expect, this leads to all sorts of splatter-tastic combos: whip an enemy with one demon arm whilst chowing down on the heart of a mob goon with the other, without even pausing to unload dual machine guns into the faces of all and sundry. Lashings and lashings of claret is the order of the day, and referring to The Darkness II as ‘visceral’ is like saying Rocky Balboa is ‘a bit fond of punching’. The veritable cherry on top is the fact that increasingly imaginative names for your preferred methods of slaughter pop up on the screen as you play. For instance, tear a baddie apart from groin to throat and you have yourself a ‘wishbone’. The ferocity of each move is relative to the amount of ‘Essence’ (ie. XP) afforded to the player, which can be used to level Jackie up with added abilities.
Despite the ambitious arsenal at Jackie’s disposal, the controls are surprisingly intuitive, the flailing demon arms managing to feel at once natural and somewhat unhinged, mimicking Jackie’s own mental state. That isn’t to sell the ordnance short however – the guns are similarly pleasurable, with the shotguns providing a particularly satisfying punch. A doff of the cap should also be directed to infamous noisenik Mike Patton for reprising his, frankly, incredible performance as the voice of The Darkness, guttural roars and gleeful squealing permeating the slaughter.
The action is frenetic and rollicking good fun, rattling on at a steady pace. However, it is very much of the Call of Duty school of first person shooters, delivering a largely ‘on-rails’ experience. The player is ushered down long corridors into swathes of not-so-smart enemies. While some objects can be used as shields or tossed at enemies, others remain firmly glued to surfaces. Furthermore, an irritating number of doors can’t be opened. This gives The Darkness II a palpable ‘look but don’t touch’ feel, which is where the game begins to fall down. Due to the linear nature of the action, there is a clash with the RPGish elements. Without a living, breathing world to play in, otherwise welcome additions such as dialogue trees and character levelling feel a little redundant.
Furthermore, the main campaign is incredibly short, clocking in at a paltry six hours or so. Thankfully there is also a ‘Vendetta’ mode, allowing the player to assume the role of one of four hitmen, carrying out side-missions for Jackie. Each of these characters has their own specialist weapon and Darkness power, and the Vendetta campaign can be played either solo or co-op.
The most fun of these characters to play with is arguably Glaswegian boozehound, Jimmy Wilson. Permanently pissed, with ginger hair and Celtic top, this bulky brawler wields a giant golden axe and rants about the ‘Hated English’. Politically correct it ain’t, and indeed the rest of the character roster follows similarly dubious stereotypes: Inugami the sword master, hell-bent on vengeance for the slaughter of his family; Shoshanna the stoic Mossad moll and JP Dumond, the New Orleans doctor cum Voodoo priest.
This mode is enjoyable enough to blast through solo, but the multiplayer is marred somewhat by numerous glitches. For instance, reviving fallen comrades can be a pernickety affair, and players may find their character getting stuck in the scenery more often than they’d like. Hopefully these issues will be patched down the line, and Digital Extremes should be praised for a co-op mode which ties in nicely with the main campaign. Unfortunately, as it stands, the multiplayer mode is often confusing and awkward, rather than fast-paced and fun.
The Darkness II is very much a mixed bag. Despite the added bells and whistles of the Vendetta mode, the campaign is still the main event here. While it certainly has its flaws, it is surely a testament to the innovative nature and the downright good, messy fun of the game that this reviewer still heartily recommends snapping it up. Let’s just hope that next time Estacado gets a chance to exercise his demons, he can do it for longer, with a bit more freedom.