Review: The Darkness 2 (Xbox 360)

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Jackie Estacado isn’t your typical Mafia Don. He’s young, brash, and possessed by a gut ripping terror from beyond known only as the Darkness. For him, the voices in his head are all too real.

In the last game, it was an unexpected birthday inheritance that put him at odds with the dark power passed down to him from his father. At the same time, it also allowed him to tear apart his gun toting enemies with ease in revenge for the death of his childhood sweetheart, Jenny.

Two years had passed since then and while Jackie still pines for her, life has gone on. And he has turned his back on the Darkness, suppressing it since then. That’s until someone tries to take him out, nearly killing him in the process forcing him to dip into the Darkness’ bloody well once again.

The sequel is much like its predecessor – gruesomely bloody and stacked with mature themes. Instead of Starbreeze reprising their role in this game, Digital Extremes were picked to take the helm and raised the bar by trading in the gritty visuals of the first game for the cel shaded bouts of nightmarish violence and psychological torture that line the asylum walls here turning it into a bloody Valentine directed at Top Cows’ comic series. Having one of the original scribes from the series, Paul Jenkins, work the plot over with the same care didn’t hurt, either.

From start to finish, Jackie’s world wraps itself around every chapter. Pushing aside some of the typical Mafiosi cliches, it layers his world between friends and foes whose personalities deliver lines both for the story or for when you just want to chat them up. It’s an amazing level of invested detail that extends right on through the monologues that Jackie delivers in between the major chapters as the game loads the next area. Those looking for a solid, storytelling experience from a game won’t find their time wasted here.

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Characters’ wits are laid out with solid dialogue and amazing acting easily teasing how well this could have worked as its own series along the lines of HBO’s Spawn from years back. Occultist Johnny Powell shares his intimate knowledge of things forbidden in a paranoid staccato while villains mock Jackie with straightforward insults or in licking the picture of his dead love right before laughing in his face. From bordellos to abandoned fun parks, its an underworld filled with figures that will tickle your funny bone before someone else comes along to break it.

The cel shaded walls and streets of Jackie’s neighborhood draw in plenty of juicy, visual detail to drag players down into the gutters with the debris on the street before looking up at the posters on decaying walls. Few of these scenes are static – there’s always something in the background going on and parents are well advised that in this game, a flop house entails everything that you think it does on the sidelines. The Mature label on this game applies as much to the material that is used to construct its world as it is for the heavy violence that paints in between its lines with a red brush.

Jackie’s Mafia buddies know about the Darkness as the “thing” that he can do. Stories of his “supernatural” powers have bled into the pavement and it has worked for his rep, though that hasn’t stopped his enemies from trying to cap him. Fortunately, once the Darkness has awakened, it’s really all that he needs to wipe everyone off of the map.

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Digital Extremes’ changes might come as a surprise to players coming in from the first game. The Darkness and its powers have been retooled into a more compact and linear system that delivers as much flesh rending as the first, though focused more on action than subtlety.

Darklings, the little impish creatures that the Darkness could call up in the first game to help Jackie, aren’t an option anymore. Instead, Jackie gets one with a churlish, English accented attitude to occasionally appear and aid in his battles and puzzle solving. Though it’s a pretty dramatic shift considering how much play the minions got in the last game, I didn’t miss that too much. Instead of worrying about summoning a number of minions to aid me, I felt more focused on playing the game with the Darkness.

The Darkness’ tentacles have also had their playtime tilted more into shredding bad guys than quietly slipping through ventilation ducks or snaking along the ground to tear out the spines of baddies from behind. As dodgy as the controls for that were in the first game, this was actually something that I missed having. But again, this worked in the game’s favor thanks to a number of other changes that dramatically expand on what it can do.

A number of skill trees now dictate what the Darkness can become for Jackie. By killing enemies with “execution” moves using the Darkness, eating their hearts, or getting creative such as tearing off and using taxi doors as flying scythes, or recovering hidden relics for Johnny Powell to lecture you over, points are earned. These points can then be used to do things such as expanding how much ammo Jackie can carry, armor him up while in darkness, or have enemies drop “black holes” that can be picked up and then hurled at more unsavory folks sucking them up faster than a Dyson cleaner.

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It’s a great system that asks the player to get creative in using what’s on hand to get the most out of every kill using the Darkness and the benefits aren’t anything to sneeze at making it well worth the time spent on planning things out. By the time I reached the end of the game, I had nearly upgraded everything. There are also guns, and they handle decently enough, but they’re considered secondary to the Darkness itself which turns Jackie into a walking avatar of death.

It’s not indestructible, though. Strong light suppresses its powers, though Jackie can shoot bulbs and lanterns to give himself a little more shade to work with. Health is also divided into four segments and regenerates. As long as a segment has health, it can come back to full. If it falls down to the next segment, however, you’ll need to feed the Darkness a heart to heal up what’s missing. And the enemies will get tougher the closer Jackie gets to the core of the conspiracy that seems to know a lot more about the Darkness than they should.

Many of the areas are meticulously detailed, though from a gameplay perspective, also tend to be linear experiences in funneling the player exactly where the narrative wants them to be. There’s not a lot of room to be too creative especially given the dense AI, but it works well enough for keeping the gullet of the Darkness filled with ground gangster. Much of the real trouble comes from light sources and how to get around or disable them to unleash the Darkness.

The single-player game is a great, storied experience. It’s also short at around six to seven hours, though if you’re a fan of the comics, the characters, or the idea of walking around as an upgradeable harbinger of doom in a modern setting, might be well worth the investment. The ending is also worth getting to, especially after the credits, which all but promises a sequel. On top of that, Vendetta mode also hopes to keep you fixated on spreading more of that joy online.

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Vendettas can either be played together as a single player campaign that traces what is going on outside of the main campaign with the help of four individuals that also share in a bit of the Darkness’ power. They’re on Jackie’s payroll, so they’re helping him out in their own way. You’ve got a Japanese gangster with a “magic” katana, a Mossad agent that’s good with a gun, a voodoo doctor with a magic staff and a penchant for black holes, and a modern-day Celtic warrior with an axe.

Each character have their own specialties and group bonuses that help other out in co-op with up to four players. This also includes smaller trees to improve their powers that they can develop either offline or online. A number of maps can be played outside of campaign mode, but to get the most out of the experience, Vendetta mode is meant for online.

It’s not a bad addition to the game and offers its own set of challenges with three other friends in a storyline that follows along with the major events of the game, though restricting multiplayer to co-op only might put a damper on anyone hoping to see who the best Darkness wielder is as it did in the last game. Not everyone will want to play nice together, and once you’ve upgraded all of your characters and have gone through the maps, there’s little incentive to keep going back.

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At the same time, after completing the main single-player campaign, players can opt to do a “New Game +” mode which resets their last checkpoint but allows them to try out any of the other chapters in the game in any order. If you’ve missed any relics, just want to experiment with the difficulty, or go crazy with upgraded Darkness powers, Digital Extremes has made it easy to go back in and wreak as much havoc as you want to.

The Darkness II’s single-player experience boasts the kind of storytelling and gameplay chops that other solo ventures such as Visceral Games’ Dead Space thrive on. The main campaign’s short length and its co-op only MP might be sticking points for many players’ wallets, but as an interactive comic book drenched in the inks and paints of Jackie’s private hell, it’s a virtuoso performance that hardcore fans of the series might be more willing to appreciate.

The Darkness II
2K Games / Digital Extremes
Microsoft Windows / Xbox 360 / PS3 (reviewed for Xbox 360)
Rated: M for Mature