The Darkness II Review
If you've heard anything about The Darkness II, sequel to 2007's comic book-inspired, cult-fave horror-shooter, it probably concerns its multi-limbed mechanics. Called “quad-wielding” by developer Digital Extremes, the feature generated plenty of buzz when early previews displayed its ability to fill foes full of lead, while also opening them from belly to brain, from behind dual pistols and a pair of demon arms. After completing the game's highly-satisfying, gore-soaked story, I'm happy to report this neat little trick is no gimmicky back-of-the-box bullet point.
Before touching on the sheer joy that comes with turning mobsters into meatbags, though, let's provide some context for those just catching up. Once again, players assume the role of possessed protagonist, Jackie Estacado, the mob-tied thug who sees the evil incarnate Darkness as more of a curse than a blessing. Since avenging the death of his longtime love, Jenny, in the first game, Jackie's climbed the organized crime ladder all the way to the top and suppressed his literal demon. Unfortunately for him—not for us—a new threat has emerged, one that wants the Darkness for itself. Dubbed “The Brotherhood”, this sinister sect of psychos forces Jackie's tentacle-sprouting, heart-eating alter ego out of retirement.
Before facing this formidable new foe, The Darkness II gives players time to get comfortable behind its killer quartet, tossing two levels worth of clueless goons their way. Utilizing the triggers to dual-wield pistols—or a single two-handed weapon—and the bumpers to use the lethal limbs, it quickly becomes clear that four arms are better than two. The first-person controls will feel familiar to anyone who's played a military shooter (the left trigger even allows peering down the iron sites when carrying one gun), but once the leash is let off those demon arms, it's obvious you're nowhere near Call of Duty''s familiar frontlines.
The right tentacle transforms enemies into fleshy confetti with horizontal and vertical swipes—directed by the right thumb-stick—while the angry appendage on the left performs executions, which are unleashed as stylish, stomach-churning finishers that liberally paint the environments in pulpy viscera. From the “wishbone”, which graphically bisects baddies down the middle, to the “anaconda”, an intestine-bursting kill that makes Alien's defining scene look like a cheap parlor trick, performing these entrails-spilling moves never gets old. Of course, such thrill kills only scratch the surface of what Jackie's pissed-off pair of limbs can do. They're also capable of feasting on hearts right from victims' chests, granting a health boost. They can also hurl environmental objects with all the power and grace of an Olympic javelin competitor; nailing scumbags to walls with rusted lengths of rebar is one of the more satisfying ways to show them you mean business.
Whether filling a head full of hollow points or decapitating it with a Darkness arm, the combat remains fast, addictive, and bloodier than a Texas slaughterhouse. That said, it's even better when attacks are combined; the intuitive trigger- and bumper-mapped mechanics allow for seamless transitions and even simultaneous attacks, so pumping buckshot into a bad guy's face while, say, rearranging his buddy's ribcage with a demon head is encouraged. Want to tear the door off a taxi cab, then shoot through its rolled-down window? Well, you can do that, too!
Literally ripping dudes limb from limb probably would have kept me smiling through the entire seven-hour campaign, but Darkness II keeps things fresh by gradually introducing more intelligent enemies. The Brotherhood's weapons and armor have been specifically crafted with Jackie's unique skills in mind; some wield whips capable of stripping him of his guns, while others carry shields that can only be shattered by Darkness powers. Jackie's biggest threat, though, comes from shoulder-mounted floodlights; the Darkness' primary weakness is light and these beams, which can pierce Jackie from across a level, do a dangerously good job keeping it at bay. Other sources, such as Brotherhood lamps running on separate generators that must be discovered and destroyed, add another strategic layer to the already smart combat.
The pulse-quickening battles between Jackie and the Brotherhood are fueled further by talent trees, a new RPG-flavored addition that injects Jackie's clip-emptying, arm-flailing arsenal with even more nuance. Every kill carries points and this earned currency can be cashed in for familiar perks such as faster reloads and bigger bullet belts, as well as Darkness-inspired bonuses like enemy-consuming black holes and flesh-feasting insect swarms. It's not possible to fill out all four trees in a single play-through, so completely pimping Jackie's powers provides a built-in excuse to teach the Brotherhood a lesson at least twice.
The Darkness II's levels are pretty linear and there's a number of scripted moments pushing you along the critical path. These often-criticized qualities, however, actually make for a tighter, more cinematic experience in this case. The fat from the previous game—abandoned hub worlds, boring subway travel and side missions, tacked-on multi-player—has been completely excised, leaving the player with a lean, mean experience to indulgently sink their teeth into. The sequel also drops Jackie's Darkling minions in favor of a single demonic sidekick. The creepy little bugger, who cracks jokes in a Brit accent, pisses on corpses, and wears a dead cat's hide on his head, provides a nice comedic contrast to the otherwise macabre material. Occasionally, players are even put behind his razor-sharp claws, where they'll find themselves navigating tight spots and freeing enemies of their vocal cords.
Complementing the dynamic gameplay is a twisty story that will test your psyche as much as your trigger finger, terrific voice work—including another wicked good performance from Mike Patton as the Darkness—and a stunning graphic novel-inspired art style brimming with rich detail and expert use of light and shadows. If I had to gripe, I'd say the few boss battles aren't great. They're not bad, but like the original BioShock's final showdown, they feel a little too videogame-y in an experience that otherwise gives expected formulas the finger. The campaign's also a bit short, but a separate, 2-3 hour co-op campaign, starring four new characters with their own supernatural skills, is worth tackling solo or with a friend. Come November, when everyone's blistering their thumbs on new Call of Duty and Halo entries, The Darkness II will probably be a distant memory. Until then though, it deserves a regular spot in your gaming rotation—and in your nightmares.
Disclosure: Reviewed on an Xbox 360 copy provided to us by Take Two.