Just like The Crow… with tentacles!
Typically games made based on licensed material fail to capture whatever it was that made the original content so compelling. Although I’ll admit that the only exposure I’ve had to The Darkness comic book is from the handful of pages I unlocked while playing the videogame, it would be hard to imagine the people over at Top Cow Productions being disappointed with game developer Starbreeze’s adaptation of their material. Although Starbreeze made some concessions in order to bring the comic book to life in video game form, the end result is a rich, immersive experience that is as gripping as any single player game I’ve played in recent memory.
You play as Jackie Estacado, a talented mafia hit man living in New York who finds himself being hunted by his former employer and care taker, Paulie Franchetti. The story begins on Jackie’s 21st birthday, which also happens to be the day that an old family curse decides to rear its ugly head(s). As it turns out, Jackie is the pawn of an ancient sentient evil called The Darkness, which imbues its host with supernatural abilities. These powers will only work in the absence of light, and Jackie discovers early on, he is required to shoot, stab, and otherwise deactivate many of the games destructible light sources in order to survive the games numerous encounters with gangsters and other unsavory types.
Players will have to develop their dark talents by eating lots of NPC hearts before they will be powerful enough to pull this off.
While The Darkness is activated, it serves as a shield of sorts that will absorb damage as long as Jackie stands is in an unlit area. In addition, Jackie can summon and issue basic movement commands to Darklings, who are evil little imps that come in four varieties; the melee attacking Berserker, the darkness-inducing Light Killer, the explosive Kamikaze, and the gung-ho Gunner. Much like Jackie, the Darklings won’t survive long when illuminated, and players will have to constantly avoid or destroy light sources in order to capitalize on their talents. This means that unlike typical FPS games, players will be just as concerned with the light in a given area as they are with the enemies populating it. Despite the games Halo-esque health restoration system, Jackie can’t survive the frequent hails of gunfire for very long without relying on his dark gifts, and players will typically begin a fight by targeting light bulbs instead of lining up head shots. And once the environment is adequately shaded, the real fun begins.
While in the inky blackness of the shadows, Jackie can combine his prowess with firearms with his Darkness abilities. Jackie starts out the game with only one evil power: Creeping Dark, which allows him to send out a tentacle for a limited amount of time that can unlock doors and kill assailants while he kneels in the safety of shadows. As players level up their darkness abilities by eating the hearts of slain enemies (yum!) they will add new powers to the lineup. Demon Arm, which can impale enemies, throw heavy objects, and smash out lights, is granted to players about a third of the way through the story. Later on, players will recover some ancient guns with unlimited ammo that allow Jackie to maintain continuous fire as long as he stays out of the light. And finally, about two thirds of the way in, players will be able to conjure black holes which make anything not nailed down gravitate towards their damaging centers.
Your Darklings provide comical relief and some backup, but their wonky AI often makes controlling them a chore.
The Darkness boasts some extremely impressive visuals, placing it near the top of the 360 heap in the graphics department. Shadows obviously play a large part in The Darkness’ game play, and lighting is appropriately dynamic and moody. Characters look extremely realistic and animate beautifully, and although they do tend to wind up in the uncanny valley from time to time, their occasional eeriness is a testament to the graphical fidelity with which they are rendered. Textures look great, even upon greater inspection, and the games physics are well implemented, giving the world a credible feel.
Sound is equally impressive in the Darkness, which features some of the best voice acting I’ve ever heard in a video game. Although the entire cast does a great job, Mike Patton, who voiced the Darkness itself is the real standout here… his guttural intonations are hauntingly effective at expressing the evil that has possessed Jackie. Gunfire and ambient sounds all sound appropriately lifelike, and the black metal soundtrack, while a tad repetitive, fits the tone of the game nicely.
One of the best things The Darkness has going for it is its incredible presentation. Typically tedious aspects of video games like menus and load screens are all handled with such style and interactivity that they are actually entertaining. For example, when players die it triggers a level-specific cut scene that shows the Darkness’ refusal to let Jackie escape the nightmarish situation as it brings him back to life at the last checkpoint. Additionally, transitions from one area to another are masked by short vignettes that have Jackie waxing poetic about his situation. Unlockable content is handled with hidden phone numbers scattered on slips of paper located all over the city. Whenever Jackie uses one of the games abundant telephones, he can call the number and talk to a random quirky character, which then unlocks special content like pages from The Darkness comic book. Finally, exposition is handled by numerous in game televisions, which not only show news reporters commenting about Jackie’s recent battles, they offer several channels which the player can surf through, all with their own real life content like TV shows, music videos and movies in their entirety. It’s one of the cooler features I’ve seen in this, the next-generation of gaming, and makes the already gorgeous environments feel that much more plausible. All of these creative touches help players forget that they are playing a video game, and other developers could learn plenty by watching how Starbreeze injects entertainment value into typically mundane game conventions.
One of the subtle things I noticed while playing The Darkness was that I was becoming emotionally involved with the characters due to the superb handling of narrative. Jackie doesn’t just run around and kill things constantly, and while playing The Darkness, players will spend a fair amount of time walking around the streets and talking to pedestrians, bums, and the other denizens of the city that never sleeps. By conversing with others, Jackie learns about side quests in a very natural way, and it helps flesh add texture to an already rich game space. From time to time, Jackie will also perform some basic actions (like blowing out his birthday cakes candles) that further draw players in. I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone, but I will say that the time Jackie spends with his girlfriend, Jenny is one of the sweetest, most human encounters I’ve seen in a video game since Half Life 2.
The Darkness does have its share of problems despite all the aforementioned strengths. For one thing, the shooting mechanic feels a bit imprecise, which is particularly frustrating before you get the Demon Arm since taking out all the lights in a level requires you to be a crack shot. Furthermore, both enemy and Darkling AI seems rather basic. Half of the time Darklings don’t do what you would like them to, and enemies generally pop their heads out from cover like the mafia version of whack-a-mole. Another gripe is that while New York City is presented in an open ended fashion, it feels a bit bare and lifeless in places. The only area that seems to be appropriately populated is the subway, which serves as a central hub for the game as Jackie travels to the different boroughs. And finally, even though The Darkness is a great single player experience, it’s fairly linear and short despite the dozen or so side quests. Most players will be able to beat the entire game in about 10 hours on standard difficulty, but the Hard setting should add a few hours to the experience.
Multiplayer is nothing special. Sure, players can morph into Darklings in the games standard modes of play (Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, Survivor, Last Darkling Standing and Last Human Standing.) However, the ability to become a faster, melee oriented character instead of a hearty, gun wielding human doesn’t change the fact that in addition to being extremely laggy, the maps aren’t polished enough to let players capitalize on the gimmicky shape-shifting and lackluster core shooting mechanics. The online play feels rushed and unsatisfying overall, and although its lagginess may be addressed in a future patch, nobody is going to care either way.
If I were to judge The Darkness solely based on its vanilla shooting mechanics, I would brand it as another forgettable destined to slither its way into bargain-bin hell. Fortunately, The Darkness is so much more than a shooter. It’s got one of the best stories I’ve seen in years, is a technical showpiece for the 360, and provides an immersive Gameplay experience from start to finish with its masterful presentation. Once again, Swedish developer Starbreeze proves that they are the kings of the licensed game.