It doesn’t take a crystal ball, Mayan prophecy or some tarot cards to divine what 2012 holds for us. When it comes to games, certain patterns have emerged in recent years that allow us to predict, with some comfort, how the year will play out.
If tradition is anything to go by, Activision will announce Call of Duty 2012 some time around March or April. Something developed by Treyarch: Black Ops 2, perhaps? To get the jump, Electronic Arts will announce a rival military first-person shooter at some point between now and then – safe money is on the Medal of Honor sequel Danger Close has been quietly developing.
Over the next five months, the two will fire pot shots at one another (some more directly than others), trumpeting features and explaining to us all just why this year’s titles are the best thing since ever. By the end of the year, gamers will have another two ably constructed military shooters that codify Western hegemony in some way or other, and around the world, the press will write features with the headline “Activision’s game versus Electronic Arts’ game”. Holidays and hangovers, and onto another year with another couple of military shooters.
Perhaps it’s this dejectedly predictable forecast that makes The Darkness II stand out all the stronger. Digital Extremes’ gratuitous and eccentric shooter would’ve been one amongst many a decade ago. Today, it’s a welcome change of pace in a landscape dominated by combat boots, flak jackets and iron sights. It’s a game that revels in the simpler pleasures of a pump-action shotgun, a reticule and some down-home disembowelment.
Based on the Top Cow graphic novel series, Jackie Estacado is a Don with a difference. On his 21st birthday, the Mafia hitman inherited The Darkness, a hungry form of demonic possession that manifests itself as two black eel-like limbs projecting from his shoulders. Now, a cult that wishes to steal the Darkness and manipulate it to its own ends is going to war with Jackie and his crime family. Or the truth is much more grounded in probability: Digital Extremes has kept perhaps the most intriguing narrative twist in The Darkness II for release, carefully delivering an interesting possibility that the game never seeks to resolve.
Similarly, rather than wedging exposition in between long action sequences, The Darkness II tasks the player with talking to characters within the game, and rewards exploration of the environments. Not that there isn’t ample body-count accumulation. In combat Jackie can dual-wield one-handed firearms such as pistols and uzis, or occupy both with a machine gun, a shotgun or a rifle. So far, so straight forward. The variable is the two Darkness limbs: the left tendril grabs and manipulates both the environment and enemies, and the right slashes and rends.
Used in conjunction, Jackie can execute his prey for such benefits as health, ammunition, a shield and the recharging of special abilities. Executions are particularly grisly, the limbs puncture through rib cages, draw and quarter, rush down throats to rip the spinal columns out from within. New executions are added throughout, something that keeps the sanguine joy of each somewhat fresh. However, the pre-rendered, scaled animations are occasionally let down by the proximity of other creatures – when another enemy is in melee range, it appears as if The Darkness is executing a doll in front of someone’s chest.
The other variable is the use of light and dark. The Darkness cannot survive in the light. When Jackie is exposed to it, the screen occludes and his additional limbs disappear. As the combat in this game is decidedly unstrategic, considering the elimination of light sources comes on a case-by-case or necessity basis. Without an overarching stealth component, Digital Extremes’ use of light cannot transcend its gimmicky implementation. Indeed, it often serves no greater purpose than literally blindsiding Jackie with spotlights in order to spike the difficulty.
As Jackie advances through the campaign he gathers Dark Essence – experience – that can be invested in four skill trees in order to supplement his abilities. The variety and scale of the carnage he wreaks determines the amount of Dark Essence available, but it appears unlikely that players will ever be able to maximise their talents in a single play-through. The abilities themselves are also varied and compelling, adding a welcome sense of apprehension to each immutable decision.
A cockney imp who largely provides comic relief and public urination, and who acts as guide when the path to the goal is unclear, joins Jackie throughout. On two occasions Jackie will be able to possess the imp to partake in stealthier gameplay. The imp is fragile but agile – ripping throats and scampering back into the shadows. It provides a welcome change of pace to the larger part of butchery, but these are too infrequent and over too soon to be celebrated overmuch.
Indeed, the larger criticism of The Darkness II is its length. The singleplayer game can be consumed and set aside in a single afternoon and evening. As the game ends on a cliffhanger, some further satisfaction is sapped from the player.
Concerns regarding singleplayer’s brevity are substantially alleviated by The Darkness II’s multiplayer component, called Vendettas. Here, up to four players can control a cast of wryly constructed clichés: The Japanese swordsman, the Scottish hooligan, the Jewish secret agent and the quiet-spoken Caribbean witchdoctor. These characters undertake a series of missions that run parallel to Jackie’s own story, often embellishing plot holes in the singleplayer game, or adding new perspective to events. Each character has a particular Darkness proficiency that reflects one of Jackie’s own, and as such, these character abilities work well in concert.
The package is tied together by its presentation. Between levels, Jackie will deliver soliloquies from his Tony Montana-seque leather chair. The sentences that construct these speeches are brief, in true keeping with the comic source material. The game itself is heavily cel-shaded in order to give it an “inked” impression.
The Darkness II’s less dour, more fantastical take on the shooter is a welcome change of pace to the string of samey combat scenarios publishers have assured us we can’t get enough of over the past five years.