I'm a little perturbed by how much fun it is too raid a corpse for its blood-oozing heart. Once again, I watch in fascination as my grinning demon tendril lunges into yet another gunned down goon's chest, re-emerging with the glistening red organ to chow down on. It can't be healthy. And yet Starbreeze Entertainment, who developed the terrific Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, genuinely encourage corpse-looting. It should be featured on the back of the box.
Handling yet another licensed property, can Starbreeze strike gold again? Or is this a case of second time unlucky?
Death Does Not Become You
Jackie Estacado isn't having a great birthday. On the run from the law and then targeted for assassination by his own mob boss, Jackie discovers he's inherited a particularly demonic gift from his forefathers; the Darkness, a bloodthirsty entity that gifts him supernatural powers and abilities, but potentially at the cost of his mortal soul.
As if that matters when you're on the run from gun-toting mafia henchman. Already a capable hitman, his murderous instincts having been nurtured by former father figure, Uncle Paulie, who now wants him dead, Jackie finds the Darkness a frightening but otherwise beneficial partnership. But when tragedy strikes and Jackie takes his own life, he discovers the true nature of the Darkness and seeks to rid himself of the curse.
Like Butcher Bay, The Darkness takes a very cinematic - and bloody - route to to its storytelling, with Starbreeze pulling no punches in their gritty take on the already dark comic. Jackie is a strong, sympathetic lead, with Kirk Acevedo of Oz fame in top form. Faith No More's Mike Patton lends his twisted talents to the Darkness, and the rest of the cast is terrifically voiced and animated, with Starbreeze capturing each actor's lines and actions at once, in a process dubbed 'vo-capping'. Very snazzy.
To begin with, Jackie is simply a cunning and skilled hitman. Proficient with most firearms - especially a few pistols hefted in both hands - he's still just a man of flesh and bone, susceptible to all the same mortal undoings. But once he is possessed by the Darkness, Jackie finds a few new tricks at his disposal. For one, he can impale and swat aside goons with a fang-grinning demon arm. Or he can summon a cheeky - and by cheeky, I mean homicidal - Darkling, which comes in a variety of flavors, to set on hapless enemies.
Jackie's powers depend on light, and namely the lack of it. Starbreeze's engine is adept at showing of multiple light-sources, but their true purpose isn't simply cosmetic. Shoot out a bulb or have your demon arm shatter a lamppost and your powers increase tenfold. However, out in the bright open, the Darkness is nullified. You must remove all ambient light or stick to the shadows if you wish to revel in the Darkness' true might.
And it's fun to batter folks with a well-placed slap from a demon arm or send a Darkling off to maul a crooked cop, Jackie is still a capable gunslinger, and Starbreeze employ a stylish auto-aim feature to showcase his hitman roots. Firing from the hip, Jackie's pistols or sub-machine guns often alternate between enemies in your line of fire, and once you're within range he'll perform a brutal coup de grace, which often includes jamming a pistol under a mobster's chin and pulling the trigger. While I'd have liked a little bit more control over the shooting, I can't deny it has impressive visual function. Not to mention you'll never have to reload a weapon or scrounge for ammo. When a pistol's clip is depleted, Jackie simply tosses it aside and picks up another.
New York, New York
Starbreeze don't do linear environments. Butcher Bay was a controlled sandbox, funneling the player down certain channels but allowing them to explore separate routes. The Darkness is much the same, with Starbreeze ordering you in the right direction but affording you a bit of freedom. New York isn't huge, but it is sprawling, with the subway acting as a hub of sorts, a labyrinth of tunnels and railway lines.
To reach certain points in the story, you must travel by subway across New York. At first, I applauded this decision. It embeds you in Jackie's world, which is brought to life in vivid, well-animated detail. But after a while, it becomes a painfully repetitive slog to endure, and the recycled NPCs and cumbersome turnstiles only serve as annoying distractions rather than ambient victories.
Without spoiling too much, The Darkness has an additional area Jackie finds himself in. It's an incredibly ambitious idea, and adds a level of depth to Jackie's story that few games attempt. But, again, repetition creeps in, as do a few odd design choices - boss battles, in particular, are not Starbreeze's forte - and the promise is often overshadowed by this. The Darkness also includes a multiplayer option, but the less said the better. While that might sound like bad journalism, the multiplayer was obviously thrown in late, with little in the way of balancing, modes or, well, fun.
- Great cast and a gripping plot
- Darkness powers are fun, gunplay is stylish and visceral
- Great visuals, for the most part
- Gunplay can feel overly scripted
- Subway traveling becomes a chore
- A lot of missed opportunities and bad design choices
The Short Version: Starbreeze continues to cement their place as a very capable developer of adult, mature experience with an emphasis on stealth and shocking violence. Jackie's story is a gripping tale of revenge, loss and redemption, eventually culminating in a teasing finale of what a sequel might offer. While the game is beautiful and stylish, it's also incredibly repetitive and perhaps overbearingly bleak.