Wednesday, 3 April 2013

The Darkness II

Post-Launch Review
The Darkness II
Developer: Digital Extremes
Released: February 2012


A first-person shooter and sequel to The Darkness, we pick up two years after the events of the first game. Jackie Estacado has quickly ascended to run the mob in the city, and has been suppressing the Darkness all the while for fear of losing control. Things are looking good until Jackie is suddenly and violently targeted by a mysterious organization called the Brotherhood, seeking to destroy Jackie and wrest away the Darkness. Jackie is forced to reawaken the demonic power within and take down the Brotherhood before they succeed or he loses control.

At Launch

The Darkness II averaged about between 77% and 80% in reviews, depending on platform. Reviewers were pretty much unanimous in praising the gameplay and combat, as well as the story and graphics. The negatives listed were the short campaign, enemy AI, and some (or all) aspects of multiplayer (most specifically, trouble reviving allies).

Post Launch

The PC version released a patch including a few bug fixes and support for widescreen FOV.
There seem to have been a couple of patches to the PS3 version, also for bug fixes.

The Good

Gameplay & Combat
The Darkness II plays the way I had thought the first game would: fast-paced, intense, and brutal. The Darkness controls and abilities have been substantially altered to speed up combat and make it more visceral, and it feels fantastic. You can hold one or two guns, where one gun means finer aim. The left demon arm grabs and throws things, while the right arm slashes. Each of your four arms - two human and two demon - function independently of each other, meaning you can fire two guns at one guy, grab a second guy and tear him apart, and smack a third guy off his feet - all at the same time. Animations are bloody with plenty of dismemberment. Also, enemies will actually move around, and with a variety of abilities there's a range of enemy behaviours: some will stick to cover, some will charge, some will stand in the open and light you up.
Basically I actually feel like the guy everyone talked about in the first game. In the first Darkness, people talked about Jackie like he was a horrific monster to fight, but with the slow-paced nature of the abilities, I didn't really feel it. But here, Jackie can walk into a room full of armed and armoured soldiers and tear them to pieces in the blink of an eye.
All that power is balanced somewhat by an amplified weakness to light. In the first game your Darkness power slowly drained in the light, and if you ran out you couldn't activate the Darkness again until you recharged. In the sequel, if you're in the light, no powers for you, and also you can't see very well. Enemies know your weakness and will use light against you in the form of flashbangs, armoured lamps, and portable spotlights, often rendering you vulnerable in the middle of a fight and quickly altering your priorities.

The game looks pretty nice, with a strong comic-book feel to it. The Darkness animations are especially slick. I do miss the grittiness of the first game (not the awful facial animation), and I don't really like the massive shift in the tone of the narrative (see below), but the visual direction is definitely appropriate and well-fitted to this game's fast-paced and intense style. Shaders could be better - you can see some blocky and pixellated edges - but overall, pretty nice.
Each mission includes one or two collectibles you can find. These will give you more essence points to unlock Darkness abilities, as well as having some lore behind them, which is narrated by Johnny in his crazy paranoid style. I actually listened to the voiceover instead of just reading through, because Johnny is funny.

There's a wide variety of enemies, each with different approaches to combat and different attacks. Some hang back and shoot at you, some can teleport, some can snatch your guns away, and some are melee bruisers. The most dangerous and interesting are the guys carrying portable spotlights, negating your powers and health regeneration as long as the light shines on you. Each requires a different approach, and different combinations need to be handled differently. There are some cool mechanics here.

The Neutral

The Vendetta missions are an optional co-op mode with a story that takes place parallel to the campaign. You play as one of four... hitmen? I guess? with paranormal abilities and weapons hired by Jackie to do... stuff. The first mission involves fetching Johnny, which is a thing that happened offscreen during the campaign, so that's neat. The other missions involve discovering and destroying the Spear of Destiny, an artifact which could kill Jackie permanently, which is never mentioned once during the campaign. I guess because the mission succeeds.
Anyway, the vendettas are little more than an excuse to kill some bad guys. The characters are a little one-dimensional and there's no development over the mini-campaign. They each have a restricted skill tree covering one of Jackie's many abilities, and each has their own weapon that does things. Charge-up shotgun, throwing axe, sword, and some kind of voodoo stick.
So the vendettas are OK, and maybe fun with some friends, but don't really add anything if you're playing solo.
New Game +
Once you beat the game, you have the option to run through it again with all the abilities and relics you've unlocked from your first playthrough. That's cool. But there's an annoying problem: there are a lot of unskippable sequences where you don't get to play. You can skip some, but not all, which is annoying. And some of them can be rather long.

The Bad

While I wouldn't say the story is objectively bad (what a way to start a criticism...), it pales in comparison to The Darkness. The first game was a very personal story of family, revenge, and fighting the Darkness for control. The second game is an occult blockbuster that introduces an evil secret society (the Brotherhood), ancient relics, an is-he-crazy-or-isn't-he asylum thread, and a dualistic counterpart to The Darkness (the Angelus). Almost everything about the first game becomes mere backdrop to the occult action, and the new stuff is relatively uninteresting. There are a couple of times where Jackie wakes up and the Darkness is killing things, suggesting that it took control of his body while he was unconscious, which is something new and potentially very dangerous. Unfortunately this isn't explored at all and is abandoned as a plot point.
Plot-wise, I feel like this would have been much better as an independent game than a sequel to The Darkness. I get that most of this is probably from the comics, but this sequel is a dramatic and jarring shift of tone from its predecessor. The first game is about a vendetta, a family, and a personal struggle against darkness, while the sequel is pretty much just guns, mysticism, and magic.

The Verdict

Recommendation: play it.
You may have detected a running theme here: that a lot of the elements of the first game were better or more tonally appropriate. That's true, and I think The Darkness II could have done well by paying a little more respect to its predecessor, but holy crap the combat is fantastic. Once you really get the feel of controlling four arms at once, you can pull off some really crazy stuff, and you feel like an absurd unstoppable powerhouse. Seriously, this is the most fun I've had with a combat system in any game, it's that excellent. Even if the first game was stronger in many ways, this one is worth playing solely for its awesome FPS combat.

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