Friday, April 13, 2012

The Darkness II review

The Darkness II is a gory but smart first-person-shooter.

Formats: Xbox 360 (tested), PlayStation 3, PC
Developer: Digital Extremes
Publisher: 2K
Age rating: BBFC 18
Released: Out now
The first Darkness was one of gaming's surprise successes. Starbreeze's adaption of the Image Comics' novels was an evocative piece of work, praised for its unflinching narrative and violent combat.
Now, five years later, Digital Extremes has picked up the reins to produce this sequel, which strips back the original's open-world structure to focus on FPS action.
The Darkness II hasn't lost the original's eye for story, however. You play as Jackie Estacado, a mob boss inhabited by the Darkness, an evil parasite with a bloodlust. Haunted by the brutal murder of his girlfriend Jenny, Jackie has spent the last few years trying to suppress the demon, burying it within. But now an organisation looking to extract the Darkness has found Jackie, assaulting one of the mob's restaurants, killing everyone inside and leaving Jackie inches from death.
Jackie's naturally a bit egged off, and to survive he calls on the Darkness, sprouting twin black snakes with big teeth from his back, and proceeds to gut anyone who looks at him funny.
It's this concept which fuels The Darkness II's "quad-wielding" combat. While the left and right triggers fire guns as usual, the bumpers are used to control the two tendrils of the Darkness. One to grab and one to slash. Objects that can be roped in are highlighted and can be thrown at bad guys, or you can pick up a wounded foe and snap him in two like a wishbone, devour his heart or dish out other gruesome finishers.
It's a game slathered in comic-book gore, befitting Jackie's rage and the Darkness's thirst for blood. Mixing up your attacks nets you more experience points to spend on upgrading your Darkness powers -- supercharging your guns, for instance, or creating a vortex that sucks enemies in.
It's a combat system that works brilliantly, offering a vicious, kinetic and varied toolset to go about your business. It's certainly enough to sustain the game throughout the six hours of campaign, however, it's a shame that the enemy and level design is comparatively blunt. Some enemies carry shields which need to be swiped before you can attack its carrier (or you can pinch it and lob it straight back at him), while other enemies may schlep around with handheld lights which disorientate Jackie and render the Darkness inert. But that's about the limit of invention, leaving the variety of combat to be its own reward. Fortunately, on that count, it's some of the most satisfying since Bulletstorm's chaotic bloodletting.
It's all wrapped in an interesting, well-presented story bolstered by excellent voice acting. While the subtraction of the first game's open-world and puzzle elements disappoints, it makes sense in a layered narrative that explores Jackie's psyche while under the influence of the Darkness.
A decent, if somewhat hackneyed, co-op mode offsets the brevity of the main campaign somewhat. And it's to the game's credit that Digital Extremes hasn't crowbarred in a naff competitive multiplayer; something the first game did and suffered for. A well-judged decision that contributes to a game that is, both mechanically and narratively, one of the smartest shooters of recent years.

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