Review: The Darkness II (PS3)

Title: The Darkness II
Format: Blu-ray Disc / PlayStation Network Download (5.8 GB)
Release Date: February 7, 2012
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Digital Extremes
Original MSRP: $59.99
ESRB Rating: M
The Darkness II is also available on Xbox 360, PC and Mac OS X.
The PlayStation 3 disc version was used for this review.

Back in 2007 Starbreeze Studios released the first video game based on Top Cow comic’s popular The Darkness franchise. The reception was mixed – almost all of the praise directed at the title was for its TV scene. Jackie Estacado (demon-gangster) and girlfriend share a quiet couch together and watch To Kill A Mockingbird (or Sonny Chiba’s Street Fighter, or a few other entire films) just before she’s kidnapped and murdered setting off the events in that game, and now this one. It’s a nice, “authentic” couch-date experience, but it didn’t help elevate the game into an A-list title. The Darkness was a so-so reticle shooter with some nifty Darkness powers and a whole lot of shooting out light bulbs and getting lost in the semi-open world the designers created.

New publisher, Digital Extremes, scrapped a lot of the ideas from the first game, (you won’t be sending out your tentacles anymore on hunter/seeker missions) and added a slew of gory new moves and Darkness powers, then they wrapped the project in a gorgeous cel-shade-ish (they call it graphic noir – think of it as cel-art evolved) coat of paint, planted a pretty bow on it, and have managed to renovate the franchise into something much more action-centric and fun to play.

In this sequel Jackie Estacado has since become the Don of the Franchetti crime family. The only things holding him back from a gangster-fabulous lifestyle are the haunting memories of his deceased girlfriend Jenny, and an ancient cult called “The Brotherhood” hell bent on retrieving the forces of The Darkness for themselves. Before too long the streets, alleyways, brothels, and graveyards of New York city are a running river of blood, as Estacado and the cultists rip each others minions to pieces trying to become the sole (or is it soul…?) possessor of The Darkness.

Taking cues from People Can Fly’s Bulletstorm this new Darkness bambino is much more of an arcade experience than its brooding progenitor. Kills can get just as messy and creative as you want them to. Using the newly Christened”quad-wield” feature (L2 and R2 designated for tentacle attacks and grabs – L1 and R1 for precision aiming – new to the series – shooting, and yep… duel-wielding) you can tear through a roomful of bad guys anyway you see fit. Knock an enemy skyward, blast him with a shotgun shell, then tear out his worthless heart just before he hits the ground. While you’re in the mood, feel free to grab his lifeless corpse and hurl it back at his buddies.

Just about anything in The Darkness II is up for grabs.

Impale villains with pipes, lop their heads off with procured air-conditioning fans, steal their shields and either keep them for your own protection, or wing them Captain America style and cut your foes in half. You can even grab your Darkling sidekick and toss him onto an enemy for a tag-team multiplier. When The Darkness II is at its best it’s a frenzy of violence and gory extremes unparallelled in the video game underworld.

If you’re that special breed of gamer who enjoys a good power fantasy built for God-complex junkies who get off on being the biggest, meanest, badass in the room…? The Darkness II will feed that desire capably. Just don’t expect the campaign to be a walk in the park.

As your skill-set and powers ramp-up, so does the strength and cunning of your enemies. If you thought the flashlights in Battlefield 3 jacked with your vision… expect to find yourself absolutely paralyzed by flash grenade and flashlight wielding soldiers in this game. Not only does your Darkling sidekick burn out of existence under their beams of light, but your tentacles draw back hissing and screeching, and your vision goes into pure, white, snow blindness. You won’t be shooting out as many light bulbs in this sequel, but when your Brotherhood enemies come packing Maglites, you’ll grow just as weary trying to scurry into the few dark corners of the battleground seeking out precious darkness and vision recovery.

Added to the heap are whip-carrying soldiers (expect to lose your best weapons to these guys – they strip you of anything you’re carrying in hand) shield carrying soldiers, and teleporters who are rarely seen, but often felt – The Darkness II isn’t anything close to a picnic.

Digital Extremes attempts to tip the scales in the player’s favor through skill-tree purchases and new powers. Estacado can unleash swarms of plague flies, channel his Darkness through his guns to soup-up the damage inflicted, toss black holes to swallow entire groups of Brotherhood soldiers – he can see and shoot through walls and forge armor for himself as long as he remains in… The Darkness.

Another new addition is the execution feature. Knock an enemy off-balance either by bullets or tentacle attack, if you see their heart light up inside their chest (like I said earlier… arcadey) grab the guy, and depending on what executions you’ve ranked up by purchasing skills for them, you can choose to strip extra health from his body, or extra ammunition, or turn him into a Darkness-reinforced shield – all through the click of a different action button. As an added bonus each execution has their own arsenal of gruesome animations as enemies get rent in two, have their heads plucked from their torsos, or… have their beating hearts yanked out through their ass.

I can only hope that in the inevitable sequel for NetherRealm’s Mortal Kombat, during the post-release siege of DLC for the game, Ed Boon includes Jackie Estacado in the roster. If anything just to show the vicious killers from Outworld how to tear a man’s heart out in the most punishing – quasi-homoerotic – method possible.

The Darkness II is a hard “M” rated video game. There are territories this game enters into that even the mad scientists at Rockstar have only skirted. Blowjobs, corpse desecration (sometimes involving urine), Satanic ritual torture… it’s like a post-season wrap-up party on Fox’s Glee set.

Not everything about this new Darkness sequel is top shelf. (or Top Cow depending on your disposition) I noticed that the tentacles can get a bit stubborn – especially the one you use to grab people and items. Every so often it wouldn’t grab onto something (a shield soldier’s shield for example…) that I desperately needed to grab onto. On a few occasions it even dropped items (an explosive bottle of propane for example…) that I was ready to hurl into a collection of bad guys, only to find myself empty-handed. Though these issues give the illusion of an evil appendage with a sadistic mind all its own… it sure helped the donations in my cuss-jar increase dramatically.

Very much like Chris Brown’s temper, The Darkness II campaign is short and narrow. Digital Extremes added a waypoint system so players – like myself – who got lost in the original game won’t get lost in this one. But this new game’s a much more linear experience than that last one was – I doubt anyone could get too far off course in it. Keeping with the Chris Brown theme… expect some spirited Boss Battles – just don’t expect too much variety.

There are beautiful games, there are gorgeous games, then there’s The Darkness II. Screenshots don’t really do the game any justice. Digital Extremes has managed to tear out the full-color pages of the Top Cow comic series and animate them in a way we haven’t seen yet in console gaming. Even the two hub levels – the Estacado mansion and the Asylum – are gorgeously rendered properties. As much as I missed running through the campaign in full-slaughter mode, when I found myself in the mansion and the asylum I wanted to tour these spaces and take in the sights. Few games (and I hate using this term, it resurrects disturbing images from Tony Scott’s Top Gun) take my breath away when I first see them. The Uncharted games, The Killzone games, and the Arkham games are all super-models in the industry, but when you see something like Frozenbyte’s Trine 2 – or now, The Darkness II – you realize that even beyond those titles there are games out there that have managed to be EVEN BETTER LOOKING.

Games that can still… (cue-up Berlin song here) take your breath away.

Kudos to whoever put this soundtrack together. As I went tearing my way through a juke-joint, hunting down an informer I needed to question, (and then kill rabidly) Tone-Loc’s Wild Thing shook the walls of the place. Later I’d hear songs by Ram Jam, Blind Melon, Jane’s Addiciton, The Deftones, Type O Negative, Helmet, and The Flamingos. The Estacado mansion has its own jukebox completely packed with mafia movie music – you can even change tracks if you want to. The game’s soundscape is just as lush as its visual landscape. In fact, if you couldn’t see the game and could only go off of what your ears were picking up from the action, you’d think all hell was breaking loose on the television screen. It is of course. There’s so much crunchy, slushy, splattery, gun-blastery sound dripping from your home-theater system you may have to fight the urge to run a squeegee over those speaker cones after each play session.

The Darkness 2 has an online/offline ad-hoc co-op campaign labeled “Vendettas,” and can be broken down in something called “Hit List” if you just want to play single portions of the campaign. Digital Extremes added four new characters (mob-hired mercenaries) to the online portion of the game, each with their own Dark Essence weapons and upgradeable powers. The Mossad agent Shoshanna has a buccaneer’s pistol that fires charged Dark Essence shots – she also has Jackie’s ability to power-up her weapons by channeling The Darkness through them. The voodoo priest J.P. Dumond can open black holes and has a staff that lifts enemies kicking and screaming into the air. Inugami looks like a triad, and packs the appropriate samurai sword. He can also summon locusts. The Scotsman Jimmy – part highlander, part football fanatic, part hatchet-wielding lunatic – can summon Darklings. All four characters have their own built-in executions, some of them much more graphic than Jackie Estacado’s.

Vendettas has its own three hour+ story that runs parallel to the events of the main single player campaign – I was surprised that it featured levels and areas not seen in the regular campaign, as well as new Boss types. As a part of The Darkness II package Vendettas is an absolute blast to play. It feels like Valve’s Left 4 Dead games, but with sorcery and brutal execution animations to compliment the four player mayhem.

Think of The Darkness II as a blender packed full of Martin Scorsese gangster movies, King Diamond records, and psycho-violent first person shooters…. it’s a Satanic-spaghetti-splatter-shooter of the first rank and order. Some players may pine for the last entry, when the series was much more moody and character driven, but for those that get turned on piling up bodies as they tear their way through a brilliant first-person-shooter campaign there are far worse options out there (Homefront..?) than The Darkness II. The added online co-op component – Vendettas – makes this a complete package worthy of full retail price, and almost forgives the sinfully short single player campaign. If looks could kill this baby would be Theodore Robert “Ted” Bundy.

The Darkness II is every bit the beauty, and every bit the beast.


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