Conceptually at least, The Darkness II appears to be unapologetically shallow. Based on the Image Comics series, it’s a tale about a young Mafioso named Jackie Estacudo who is possessed by the titular evil, a literal inward struggle for his soul, and for the soul of his beloved. Internally, the Darkness promises, threatens and bargains with its host, hoping to shape his actions to its own mysterious ends. When Jackie fights, the malevolent Darkness manifests itself externally, protruding from his shoulders and taking the form of two black anaconda-like limbs to butcher his enemies.
It’s a game that revels in contrast. Here the demonically possessed Jackie is pinned to a crucifix. His effeminate good looks – high cheekbones, flowing locks, narrow jaw – are juxtaposed against the disabled grotesque who is interrogating him. This villain is in the vein of Richard III, he wishes to take the Darkness and bend it to his own evil purposes.
In another scene, it’s opulence in squalor: prostitutes behind velvet curtains to ply their trade in a derelict warehouse (“So much suffering!” delights the Darkness within Jackie). Then there's opposing depictions of the Mafia borrowed from popular media. The game indulges our romanticised notions of a quasi-religious secret criminal fraternity turned out in three-piece suits. Elsewhere they’re greaseball thugs in gold chains and jogging suits.
The cel-shaded presentation itself seems at times almost monochromatic in contrast, something developer Digital Extremes calls “graphic noir”. It’s a nod to the Image Comics source material.
The Darkness II is happy to cater to our bottomless appetites for visual gratuity and pop culture fare at every turn: there’s no room for meaningful interpretation here, no real subtext, no obfuscation or social commentary, and the game doesn’t suffer for it in the slightest. The Darkness within Jackie is a very literal manifestation of the “inner demons” that we all struggle with. Can he master it and turn it to his own purposes, or will it consume and control him?
Beneath the pop culture sugar-rush lies an engaging hack’n’slash-shooter hybrid, couched by some intriguing, thematically appropriate mechanics. The Darkness cannot abide the light. Jackie has entered the aforementioned warehouse after receiving a tip that the cultists who put a hit out on him earlier in the game are holed up within. As Jackie fights through the clandestine brothel, he must destroy sources of light either by shooting them with guns, or by destroying the generators that power them.
Shooting is unremarkable in the true sense of the word. This industry has been turning out first-person shooting mechanics for the better part of eighteen years. The arsenal of guns works as intended. The real showpiece is the Darkness itself. One glistening, barbed black limb grabs and grasps, the other whips and rends. The Darkness can tear out a thug's heart for health, or capture him, dangle him in the air and perform one of many brutal executions that should leave little doubt this game will carry a restricted tag upon its release. Each execution provides a different reward, be it additional health, ammo, or points to level Jackie’s skills further. Those skills are divided into four subsets of ability upgrades that allow some customisation and player-defined determination.
Differentiation and comic relief comes in the form of a cockney imp, or Darkling. When the diminutive nether-punk isn’t relieving himself on massacred chunks of his dispatched adversaries, or whistling God Save the Queen, Jackie can possess his sidekick and undertake light stealth sections.
With Starbreeze, the developer of the original The Darkness, working on a reboot of Syndicate, duties on The Darkness II have been awarded to Digital Extremes. While studio’s name is attached to the long dormant Unreal series, of late it has been working on ports – Homefront to PC, BioShock to PlayStation 3 – and, in creating BioShock 2’s multiplayer, supplementary offerings to the work of lead studios. Its last full offering was Dark Sector, a forgettable game largely remembered in this part of the world for its refusal of classification in Australia, and its subsequent watered down release.
The Darkness II represents the studio’s first chance at claiming a return to form. There’s now little question that the game is admirable fan service, it plays soundly and it's certainly aesthetically pleasing. But as the development and marketing budgets for games at the top of the market spirals upwards just as many gamers are becoming more enamoured with low-cost or free indie games at the bottom, it’s a matter of whether it can be heard in a polarising landscape.
Two circumstances will greatly help with that. The first is further confirmation in the form of Rocksteady's Batman: Arkham City that comics can make a highly successful transition to games. There can also be no doubt that The Darkness has benefitted greatly from being pushed into early 2012. 2K can sleep easier knowing there’s now little in the way of divisive competition when the game finally releases. More importantly, the additional development time is already showing through in a more polished and engaging product than the game we saw in May.
The Darkness II is coming to PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in early February, 2012.