The Darkness: Random thoughts on single player

Instead of camping outside of the Apple Store for a phone I can’t afford, I’ve been poring over The Darkness, which a lot of people have on their must-have summer game list. The top question I’ve gotten from people who have seen me on Xbox Live is: Is it worth buying. I get nervous every time the question is answered, because it feel strange putting dollar amounts on an experience. I’ll try to do my best here.

If you want some background on The Darkness, you can visit the Web site.

Lots of FPS games were made to play with friends, people who would enjoy the company of planting heated slugs right between each others’ eyes. Nothing brings people together like watching one buddy saw another in half.

However, The Darkness is one of those games that’s best enjoyed alone — lights off, headphones on. If you’re looking for a truly visceral single player experience, then the people at Starbreeze have just given us some of the the best stuff out there. Compelling characters, powerful storytelling, excellent visuals and some nifty gameplay — it’s reminiscent of Chronicles of Riddick, and further solidifies Starbreeze’s FPS gaming identity.

This is the one of the most visually enjoyable games I’ve seen since maybe Gears. I try not to stop and look around too much when I’m playing an action game, but I couldn’t really help it with this game. Three-fifths of the game takes place in New York City, and the game goes a great job of capturing that gritty — almost grimy — atmosphere the city takes after hours. The lighting is fantastic (as it should be, since it plays such a huge role in the game), and the amount of detail (such as the varied graffiti in the subway, or how the lit directory signs are just a little too bright to stare at) is staggering.

The fun carries onto the Darkness powers as well, especially when you control your demon head and have to navigate it around corners or through little cubbyholes to spy on enemies and/or kill them. Mostly kill them … painfully. The demon head will both tear out the throat (or face) of an enemy, and can also plunge into someone and rip out their heart. By the way, the game is rated M for Mature — so don’t get this for your 11-year-old. I found the demon head a little tricky to control at first, since it can literally go up, down and around walls and corners — this made the camera angle very funky at time, so I had to retract my demonic buddy and start over more than a few times.

I also thought the “demon arm” power was pretty cool, but I wish it had better functionality when it came to throwing stuff. I used it mainly to break lights and impale the occasional bad guy. The Darkness “guns” became my go-to weapons, especially the left one, which fires some kind of super-bullet that kills instantly and leaves a nice hole in the wall. My favorite power is easily the miniature black hole, which I used to take out small groups of enemies. If you conjure one up in the right spot, it almost looks like your enemies are stuck in a giant dryer at the laundromat — they just tumble around until you “detonate” the hole or your power runs out. Detonate it at the right time, and the bodies (as well as the other stuff that gets sucked in) flies all over the room.

As far as story goes, the game breaks it down into several elements. Aside from the interactive cutscenes (where you can move the camera around), the loading screens give us small monologues from the main character, Jackie Estacado. He’ll talk about anything from the task at hand to other characters to his love for the New York subway system. It’s a nice way to develop the character. The player picks up bits and pieces of the story via objective updates as well as talking to a bevy of characters they meet. The conversational elements in the game are handled very well — many times, you’re given the choice to steer the talk in a different direction. The voice acting is movie quality and really helps the player generate real feelings about the characters. In the case of the main antagonist, Uncle Paulie, you REALLY want to kill him. He just sounded like someone who deserved to die.

The game also tosses in some lighter moments. For instance, there’s a scene where you have to choose whether or not to hang out with your girlfriend and watch TV (10 acheivement points) or get up and leave to handle some business. You can also wander around the subway station and check out the breakdancers as well.

I’m not going to sit here and gush forever about the game. As much as I like it, it’s not perfect. The main complaint I hear from other players is that you’re sometimes left hanging out to dry — you’ll be wandering around some massive level trying to figure out where the hell you’re supposed to go, because the game doesn’t necessarily spell everything out. It’s very easy to get lost in this game’s levels if you’re not paying attention — but that’s the key. You won’t have any glowing arrows or GPS style maps with moving blips. You’ve gotta use your eyes memory, and that could be challenging for those who are not directionally inclined AND like to move at a fast pace. The game give’s you a general map to follow, and there’s also an info kiosk in the subway that gives you accurate verbal directions. This takes a LOT of getting used to, and I found it a little frustrating at first.

Well, my time is up for now. I’ll tackle the multiplayer over the weekend, and I’m also going to try out The Bigs. Then comes the formal Darkness review for the paper, as well as Transformers thoughts.

Oh, and apparently there’s some sort of big video game media summit happening soon, too.