This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Darkness 2.
Ah, doesn't this take you back? Around mid-2007 I was living in a drainpipe licking the backs of Cornetto lids for sustenance, and one night I'd scraped together enough pennies to afford to spend the the night at the YMCA. After agreeing to be viciously buggered in return for being allowed a go on the communal PS3, I played a demo for a game called The Darkness with a silly opening sequence and a slightly obtuse puzzle that I couldn't get past. So after Big Steve chased me off so he could play the new Ratchet & Clank, I scrounged up some yellow craft paper, made some figurines from stolen Burger King napkins and produced a short Internet video explaining how I'm really clever and therefore the game must be dumb.
Who would've thought that that event would lead me to where I am today. Now I have Cornetto lids beyond the dreams of avarice, and I'm the one paying to viciously bugger Big Steve. And I'm now professional enough to play a game for more than ten minutes before I attempt to sabotage its developer's retirement plans. Unless it's Final Fantasy. Or Monster Hunter. Or I'm bored, or in a bad mood, or it's Thursday.
Anyway, after all that, The Darkness turned out to be not a bad game, apparently. I didn't play it myself, 'cause it was Thursday. Not that it matters, because the original developers Starbreeze have mysteriously vanished from the credits of Darkness 2 in favor of the chaps who made Dark Sector, which you can't say doesn't make at least some kind of sense. But it means despite being a direct sequel, Darkness 2 has a significantly different feel to the first, like when a soap opera character disappears for a few weeks and comes back played by a different, slightly older actor who doesn't get so uppity about minimum wage. Jackie Estacado now looks less like Benicio del Toro doing shampoo adverts and more like a generic fashion model who has a complicated relationship with his hairdresser.
In the years since the first game, Jackie has become the head of his crime family, living a life of wealth, power, and glamor. Until he's hit by an assassination attempt, which he only survives by doing what I think we'd all do in the same situation: awaken the ancient demonic power that dwells within him and mince up his attackers with the tentacles. Then Jackie continues living a life of wealth, power, and glamor, but now with angry black snakes growing out of his shoulders. Fucking 1%!
Darkness 2 is again a first-person shooter but eschews Darkness 1 's gritty, realistic look in favor of that colorful, semi cel-shaded comic book style as previously seen in such games as Borderlands and Cuh-seeee (XIII), which I find I don't like very much. Especially in games like Darkness 2 where the characters have realistic proportions, so everyone looks like some kind of papercraft model and they drew their facial features on with wax crayon.
What's also different from Darkness 1 is that what was once a big clump of Play-doh has now been vigorously rolled between some palms into a big, linear sausage. No more sidequests or hub travel, just a linear sequence of missions. And while in the first you summoned several imps with different abilities, only one of the little fucks showed up for this party. But while comparing it to the original is perfectly valid and clever and handsome, it's also slightly unfair, because they're trying to do different things. Darkness 2 goes less for exploration but may have a somewhat tighter focus. Why you gotta be so down on a new developer leaving their mark on a property, you asshole?
The combat takes a somewhat spectacle fightery approach, since you get more points for creative kills and there's never a shortage of real go-getting mooks whose dreams of promotion utterly blind them to the fact that you've already bitten off enough limbs to start a horrible furniture shop. So you can smack enemies about with horizontal and vertical swipes, stun them by hurling objects, furniture, and their mates at them, grab them and pull their heads off, or just shoot them with guns if you're some kind of boring motherfucker who always asks for plain cheese when we're sending out for pizza.
To the game's credit, all of this controls quite intuitively and there weren't any abilities or Darkness powers I found I never used it all, which reflects good design. I even kind of prefer having only one imp, because I've never been big on tactically ordering NPC support characters in the heat of battle. I think I'd get much more into a Rainbow Six game if the option was there to pick up one of your squad mates and throw them at an enemy in order to instigate a forced piggyback ride. On top of that, there's a strong character-based story focus and it's competently put together, golf clap, golf clap.
But. . .if there's nothing particularly wrong with Darkness 2, then why is my outstretched palm still indifferently horizontal. We need to go deeper, fellow surgeons of the cultural operating table, and back-engineer this gut feeling.
It could be that it's just too short, presumably to make room for a singularly out out place co-op campaign in which you play a hilarious international stereotype so stupidly overpowered that gameplay turns into "who can reach the baddies first." It happens in parallel to the main plot, but the main plot is about an angsty murderer being slowly reduced to half a pound of mince by a psychotic torture cult while an evil dark power conspires to keep him in a state of constant emotional torment, so excuse me if I feel the fat drunken Scotsman with an axe is undermining the established tone a wee bit. In never leaving Jackie's perspective, the single player campaign feels like a very personal journey. And there are even moments when the Darkness induces hallucinations to make him question reality. And the co-op undermines that, too. "Oh, I guess this is reality, after all, 'cause there's a Voodoo priest and a samurai summoning black holes and actually let's double check that."
It could also be that Wacky Jackie's just hard to sympathize with. He's the head of a crime family, lives in a palace, and can eviscerate people with his back hair, so it's hard to believe he can feel threatened by anything. There is a bit where he loses his Darkness powers and has to pull himself out of a fuckin' iron maiden to go get them back, which could have been a great opportunity to play as a severely weakened Jackie, clawing his way to get his shoulder-mounted liquid Twizzlers before he bleeds to death. But no, he's back on his feet and toting guns again within seconds, and the bottom falls out of any sense of danger with an audible thud.
So to reiterate, there are plenty worse games. But while Darkness 1 felt like an adaptation of the comics into gritty, Gothic realism, Darkness 2 is more like an attempt to recreate the comics as-is. And I've never liked that sort of comic, because I'm not a teenage boy with problems at school, a string of annoying stepfathers, and a constant, unfulfilled hard-on. The crime family as some kind of romantic ideal rather than a pack of amoral thugs, the glorification of violent revenge, and masses of homoerotic sadomasochism. Mercifully, though, not so many women proportioned like ice lollies balanced on two chicken drumsticks standing around like God gave them a vicious Chinese burn around their waists.
Opening into darkness awakening into nightmare: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
I like to imagine Jackie in his spare time knitting little woolly bobble caps for his back tentacles
I wish they'd make a game where you play as Dr Octopus