The Darkness II – Review

Platform | Release Date
X360, PS3 | January 31, 2011
Developed by Digital Extremes
Published by 2K Games

The Pitch:

The Darkness II is the sequel to the critically acclaimed 2007 release The Darkness. Inspired by the popular comic book series produced by Top Cow Productions, Inc., The Darkness II is an intense first person shooter that puts you in the role of Jackie Estacado, don of a New York crime family and wielder of an ancient force of chaos known as The Darkness.

It’s been two years since Jackie used his power to kill the men responsible for his girlfriend’s murder. He’s been unable to shake the memory of Jenny’s death since bottling up The Darkness and now it wants out. A botched attempt on Jackie’s life opens the door for The Darkness to reemerge, and sets Jackie on a brutal and personal journey as he unravels the mystery behind the attack and the motives of The Darkness.

Digital Extremes, the developers of The Darkness II, have a rather interesting history. Dark Sector, their sole complete contribution to this generation, is generally considered to be one of the very first “next generation” games announced. Its gestation period was extremely long, even despite this. Eventually the title was released to lukewarm response, disparaging comments about campaign length and a few hurtful suggestions that it would have been better staying as a piece of vapourware.

This is an interesting consideration when you think that original The Darkness was released way back in 2007. Two. Thousand. And seven. When we were young!

A lot of folks, like with Dark Sector, suspected that we’d never get to play The Darkness II. However, after taking the franchise away from my beloved Starbreeze, themselves off to resurrect Syndicate for EA, 2K have handed over duties to a developer that has seen fit to start from scratch. In the process, Digital Extremes have made their cardinal sin once again. They’ve released a long-awaited game and… it is too damn short.

Too short. There’s a phrase that can be interpreted in a lot of ways! Do I mean too short in terms of consumer value? In terms of narrative brevity? Or, most hopeful, a game so good that I didn’t want it to end? Well, a little from Column A, a bit more from Column B and, unfortunately, just a sliver from Column C.

The story picks up two years after the original events of the game. Jackie Estacado is living the high life as a New York gangster, hanging out with his Italian American pals and filling the hole left by the death of his beloved with lots of trashy looking girls. He’s also learned to control and suppress The Darkness, eschewing its power in favour of a more normal life… filled with gangsters and hoes.

After an initially unknown enemy attacks a restaurant, Jackie is forced to let The Darkness back in and starts to hunt down a new nemesis. Turns out though, this nemesis is just as much the hunted as he is the hunter.

This break, the brief lack of powers, serves as a decent means to separate the player from their relationship with the last game. It sets you up to accept that the powers might be pretty different this time around, and they are. The snake-like arms that crowd your HUD are just for use as weapons now rather than to solve puzzles too. The Darkness II isn’t a game about brain-teasers or character development – it’s a game about killing lots of things, killing them like a bad man, and making sure you loot the bodies for vital organs. It’s the gentlemanly thing to do, right?

Instead of semi-open world exploration, the simplistic tale of an enemy trying to steal your powers plays out in an entirely linear fashion. Enemies swarm forward, use a few light sources against you, and await prompt execution. The quad-wielding mix of right-stick controlled Darkness arm swipes and readily available, powerful weapons, creates a cacophonous action experience that regularly delights if it does occasionally veer into repetitive territory.

Which explains why it might be seen as too short because I wanted to play more. I did. More than that though, I wanted the slow-burning, gradually developing storyline that the original offered. The new comic book styling of the visuals should have possibly tipped me off that things wouldn’t be as complex and brooding this time, but I was still really disappointed in how simplistic the narrative was.

There are lots of talking heads, few who say anything meaningful. Jenny, Jackie’s deceased girlfriend, is banged on about as if we should care purely because, you know, she was his lady and she is dead. I don’t. I need a reason. I need to be in Jackie’s head, just like I was in the original.

Our lead talks between level chunks again but it doesn’t feel the same. For as long as I could turn off thoughts about how good the original game was, I could set these concerns aside. The sticky, exposition laden dialogue didn’t help matters. The whole situation was severely aggravated when I completed the single player campaign and ventured into the game’s Vendettas.

These co-op missions are set up similarly to Left 4 Dead and they are definitely not tacked on content. The group of four is an intriguing bunch, each with plenty of voice acting and unique abilities that can be developed using the same straight forward unlock system offered in the single-player. Levels are new, not recycled, and they even have their own story that runs in parallel to the main game.

Here’s my question though. Why, why oh why, would you invest the effort that Digital Extremes have into co-op content for a game which features such a strong, deep central character? The Darkness IS Jackie Estacado, it’s not peripheral characters. Even the game’s only Darkling, a charming cockney fella who sees you through several pieces of downtime in a potentially hallucinatory mental home, stands aside to let the main man have his time in the spotlight.

If Digital Extremes had pooled development into the single-player, where it belonged, then my complaints of narrative underdevelopment, general brevity and occasional repetitiveness could have been avoided. At its core this is a great game, one with exciting mechanics that feel fresh in a rare achievement for a sequel, so why divide it down the middle? It makes no sense, and make The Darkness II a frustrating package that doesn’t necessarily warrant a purchase. The original had multiplayer, yes, but it didn’t act as distraction or compensation.

Fans will like revisiting Jackie and his newly altered, newly exciting and action driven powers, but they won’t find the same depth or intrigue. Digital Extremes have taken a story-driven classic and turned it into riotous action game. I wouldn’t have minded if they’d have just stuck it out and given me more of it in the right places.

About Martin Perry

Martin Perry is Reviews Editor for Splitkick.
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