It seems more than a little foolish to complain that the sequel to a game about a Mafia hitman with demonic powers is a little too outlandish and excessive, but The Darkness II sure is a roaring, inelegant storm of sound and fury. Not in an entirely unwelcome way, however.
As game and movie sequels (for instance Halo, The Matrix) so often do, this first-person shooter leaves the relatively tightness and simplicity of its predecessor behind in favour of digging deep into convoluted lore and mythology. The problem was the 2007 shooter that preceded The Darkness II didn’t really leave any loose ends hanging, so the sequel needs to create some to justify its own existence.
And so it is that returning protagonist Jackie Estacado finds himself saddled with the evil, human heart-eating tendrils and snarly cartoon voice of The Darkness once again, this time battling against foe that knows all about his demonic powers and wants them for himself. On top of that, he keeps seeing visions of his girlfriend Jenny, who was rather conclusively killed off in the first game. What’s going on? Oh, y’know. Stuff. Stuff that ends in desperate cry for another sequel.
If you’re a lover of the schlockier kind of comic book you might thrill to Jackie’s quest for vengeance, the truth and liberation from The Darkness, but the real reason to play this game is the combat system. On top of assorted guns, most of which he can dual-wield, Jackie has a left and right Darkness tentacle. One can grab and throw items and people, the other can smash and rend items and people.
As the game wears on, you’ll collect experien… uh, ‘Essence’, which is spent on assorted upgrades and new powers, so in theory you can specialise Jackie towards your favoured play style. Most likely you’ll end up with a bit of everything, but those who prefer a straight-up shooter can lean heavily towards more effective gunplay.
They’d be missing out on the more entertaining stuff, mind – summoning black holes, hordes of hellish insects, lobbing your frenzied near-constant companion the Darkling straight at goons’ throats… Oh, and an array of spectacular gruesome finishing moves that spray the screen with gore and have distressing names like ‘Assecution.’ I will decline to describe that one, if you don’t mind awfully.
The Darkness II isn’t a game for the weak of heart, and to some extent that’s a good thing – it goes for it rather than softens its edges to try and stay family-friendly despite being a gun game. There is extreme violence, there is semi-graphic sexual content and there is a whole lot of swearing. In fact, about 30% of the game’s dialogue is swearing, 30% is someone shouting ‘Jackie’ in some manner of hoarse, deep tone and 30% is someone shouting ‘The Darkness’ in some manner of hoarse, deep tone. The remaining 10% is a mixture of ‘Jenny’ and pseudo-mythological exposition. It’s a mercy the Darkness II is a fairly short game, as the repetitive dialogue and rote character work gets tiresome pretty quickly. It’s a much more appealing game when it’s just getting on with the intense yet tactical action.
That said, non-violent interludes in which Jackie appears to be in an insane asylum, whose inmates and staff he has apparently interpreted in his madness as his various allies and enemies in his imagined Darkness adventures, offer some of the subtlety that’s so acutely missing in the ‘main’ game.
Weaponless, Darknessless, disbelieving, but still spewing a charateristic torrent of gravel-voiced F-bombs, Jackie wanders the anodyne wards, as other characters speak in softer tones and urge him to leave his fantasy world behind. It’s a chance to breathe, and to take in the slick comic-styled art that spins by too quickly to appreciate in the action scenes. There isn’t, in truth, too much mystery about what’s going, because The Darkness II is about as deep as a puddle in the Saharan desert, but it does add helpful character to what would otherwise just be six or seven hours of bullets and shouting.
Unfortunately, a very silly cliffhanger ending pretty much undoes that good work, so really The Darkness II lives or dies on its action. And it is broadly very entertaining and inventive action, even if it’s not quite as ingenious and strange as the more stealth and quasi-puzzle-inclined first game.
It’s a shame that it eschews the occasion non-linear sections and side-missions of its predecessor, nor despite a few attempts at downtime has anything like as affecting or bold as the famous scene in which Jackie and his girlfriend could watch the entirely of To Kill A Mockingbird if you so wished. But given its current competition is far too many dry-as-a-bone games about soldiers vs terrorists, the Darkness II’s mad colourfulness and noisiness gets 2012's big games off to an entertaining enough start.