Preview: The Darkness II
If I’d spent more than 28 seconds of my life watching The Sopranos I’d have a killer opening line for this preview linking some pithy quote from the show to H.R. Gieger. Instead, I’m left to lunge for the lowest common denominator and note that, at its heart, The Darkness II is a game about breaking people in two with your big black phalluses (‘phalli’?).
I’m not just saying that to amuse your inner 14 year old. More emphasis has been placed on the Darkness powers (and Maw Tentacles in particular) in this sequel to 2007’s weird, comic-spawned shooter.
Backtracking for a moment – The Darkness and the sequel we’re discussing here are about Jackie Estacado, a mobster who, on his 21st birthday, wound up hosting the Darkness, a sentient demonic force from the dawn of time. This demonic force has suitably demonic plans for Jackie but, having risen to the top of the mob, he’s been keeping it in check for the last couple of years. It’s all based on the comic of the same name (created by Marc Silvestri and Garth Ennis), though developer Digital Extremes (like Starbreeze before it) has taken a grittier, less fantasy-oriented direction than the source material.
This sequel is a slightly odd beast. While in the first game demonic powers complemented first-person shooter mechanics as auxiliary gameplay mechanics, in The Darkness II your supernatural abilities are pushed right into the foreground from the word go. You start to wonder whether maybe it should have been a third-person game that focused on hand-to-hand/tentacle combat with shooting as a secondary mechanic, in the mode of the likes of Devil May Cry.
Things start with you enjoying a meal at your restaurant. Then there’s an explosion. Then you get some guns and start shooting people. You get the gist. A minute or two later the Darkness has reared its black slimy head and from this point on you’ll seldom be without it. It mostly just disappears so you don’t creep out your kindly Aunt Sarah and other people of your acquaintance in the plot-y bits (which feature heavily). In the first game, you might remember, the Darkness was something you had to charge up and use judiciously. Here, it’s something you’re encouraged to use as much as possible, with Digital Extremes even going so far as to offer points for more elaborate kills, a la Bulletstorm.
This makes for a shift in gameplay – where the first game was about thinking your way through situations and managing resources (providing a note of survival horror), the sequel is faster and tends to encourage wholesale slaughter.
The tentacles are more prominent – at least in the first few hours of the game, which is what I played through. Their main uses are slashing at opponents and using them to lift and fling things around the environment. There is, however, some subtlety to it. A key move, for example, is the execution. There are a range of these. They involve hoisting an opponent into the air and killing them in various unpleasant ways. Depending on the unpleasant murder method you choose, you’ll receive benefits such as increased health or ammo.
There’s also a pretty extensive skill tree with more advanced moves such as slapping an enemy up into the air before knocking him pack down for a ‘ground pound’. Perhaps you’re starting to get an idea of the ways in which it resembles a third-person brawler by this point. The first few hours of the game, however, are mostly about fighting men with guns. Men with guns don’t always provide vast amounts of opportunity to use your fancy moves, and it’s often better to just fire a few rounds into their face.
The Darkness’s aversion to light makes a welcome return. You can’t use your powers while you’re being illuminated and your health won’t regenerate. Add in the fact that you can’t see a damn thing while a light is being shined in your face and it’s a pretty good idea to shoot them out. It makes for an interesting strategic twist and stops the game being a mindless slaughter-fest.
While the degree to which abilities-based brawler combat has been welded onto this FPS feels odd at times, it’s not unwelcome. Frankly, it is fun to play something that brings more to the genre than a new weapons set. It’s also fun to play a single-player campaign that’s doesn’t just serve as a training ground for multiplayer maps. Here’s hoping that the rest of the game builds on the strong start with more interesting design choices.
The Darkness II is out on February 10th.