Despite a wealth of mobster clichés, it doesn’t take long to realise that lead protagonist, Jackie Estacado, isn’t your everyday goodfella. Sure, he has the slick aesthetic, worn charisma and gravelly pitch of a Mafia don, but that’s not what gives our conflicted anti-hero his supernatural edge.[boxout]As explained in a brief yet comprehensive introduction, the simple life has never been an option for Jackie; taken straight from the orphanage in which he befriended love interest, Jenny Romano, he was forced to work as hired gun for the Franchetti crime family until his true coming of age.
Since his twenty-first birthday Jackie Estacado has played host to an immortal being of immense, chaotic power known only as The Darkness, not exactly an ideal time for Jackie’s “uncle” Paulie Franchetti to put a hit out on his adopted protege. However, even with his newly-manifested powers, Jackie couldn’t prevent the execution of Jenny at Paulie’s hands and, after destroying the crime lord’s empire, Estacado seizes control of The Darkness, or at least he thought.
Now head of the Franchetti family, Estacado finds himself facing an even more formidable threat after narrowly escaping an assassination attempt. Surrounded by the flames of a burning restaurant and looking down the barrel of a gun, Jackie has no other option but to let The Darkness take hold once more. What appears to be a mob hit however soon evolves into a sinister conspiracy as Jackie learns of the motivations behind the attack; an age-old cult known as The Brotherhood is gunning for the New York king of crime with the intention of taking The Darkness for themselves.
In a genre where even the lead characters tend to be one dimensional, transparent and completely forgettable, The Darkness II engrosses you in the mobster family culture. Despite not having much in the way of substance, you’ll find yourself caring about a number of secondary characters who would otherwise be “throwaways.”
The change of hands from Starbreeze to Digital Extremes has also meant a change in design philosophy for the series. Where the former studio may have focused on open environments and even side missions, The Darkness II is very much a linear affair, the gunplay having been refined and modernised. That’s not to say that Digital Extremes isn’t without any tricks of its own, in fact the developer has brought plenty of unique and innovate gameplay concepts to the table, the most prominent of which being quad-wielding.
Instead of being awkwardly crowbarred into the sequel, The Darkness is integrated with purpose and ease; the left demonic arm being used to pick up and throw objects, whilst the right arm stands in as a dynamic melee weapon. The term “quad-wielding” is wholly appropriate as you don’t even need to lift your finger from the trigger to use your secondary attacks; it takes getting used to but after a while you’ll be simultaneously cracking headshots and launching javelins on the fly.
Jackie also has two abilities to fall back on which are assigned to the spare face buttons; Swarm temporarily incapacitates foes, whilst Gun Channelling allows for a brief period of enhanced weapon damage and infinite ammo. Both abilities are powerful and can easily turn the tide of battle, though need to be used sparingly due to the presence of cooldown timers.
Jackie’s health guage is split into four rechargeable portions which can be restored by eating the hearts of fallen enemies with a single button press or performing executions. Enemies which have their backs turned or who have been stunned can be grabbed with the demonic arms and either hurled into the distance of tortured for one of four rewards including health and ammunition.
Harvesting helpless adversaries can also shorten the cooldown time on your Darkness abilities, but the most creative way of recycling your opponents is by turning them into demonic, chitinous shields which double up as a lethal thrown weapon. If you’d rather go for the brutal option, then executions are probably your cup of tea. These are disturbingly visceral; the aptly named “Assecution” making for an efficent, optically-ingested alternative to Immodium. We’ll let you figure out exactly what that means.
Fortunately, the Darkling command system has been scrapped since the first game, Cockney hellspawn, Knobby, standing in as a humorous and tactical AI substitute. Donning a Union Jack vest and a dead cat headwrap Knobby is able to pin down an enemy, and if thrown, can also kill them. A few gameplay sections give players direct control of your Darkling companion, though these segments are fairly basic despite injecting a degree of diversity.[drop]No matter how you dispatch of your opponents each one will yield Dark Essence (an in-game currency which can then be spent on a variety of talents), though creative kills will tend to dish out bigger scores in a mechanic that’s somewhat similar to Bulletstorm but not as comprehensive. The talents available are categorised into four branches, each one catering for a specific gameplay concept including executions and weapon upgrades.
There’s a healthy stock of talents on offer and it’s more than likely that you won’t knab them all in a single playthrough. To that end New Game+ is on offer, allowing players to import their partially-completed talent trees, something that’s near-essential for those playing on Don difficulty.
In terms of visuals, The Darkness II lies somewhere between your highly-polished AAA shooter and the cell-shaded aesthetic of games such as Borderlands and Prince of Persia, clearly influenced by the faded, portrait-esque comic art of Dale Keown and Matt Milla. A few character models and textures look odd in places though fail to blemish the overall presentation; animations are dynamic and flexible, and even when at the heart of the action, the framerate never chugs in the slightest.
On the audio side of things the game’s soundtrack and voice work are just as impeccable. On a number of occasions I found myself thrown by how seamlessly the music syncs with the action on-screen (or lack thereof) switching from restless to smouldering and, in some parts, calm and incredibly touching.
Kirk Avecedo did an impressive job of bringing Jackie to life in the original game and it’s easy to see why fans were worried after it was announced the Fringe actor wouldn’t be returning for a second instalment. The role was cast into safe hands however, with Brian Bloom (the former half of Kane & Lynch) injecting an added degree of passion and desperation into the character. As a matter of fact every role in The Darkness II is voiced superbly without a single foully-spoken passage of dialogue throughout, a rare sight, especially in a genre where the occasional grunt of “Oorah” typically manages to suffice.
- Sublime story-telling from start to finish that doesn’t require previous knowledge of the games or comics.
- Quad-wielding is just as fun and intuitive as it sounds.
- Comic-inspired visuals never fail to impress.
- One of tightest voice casts your going to hear in 2012.
- Talents and collectibles add considerable replay value.
- The closing scene of the game may draw a negative response from some.
The fact that The Darkness II is a sequel to a game with its roots entrenched in a fairly-twisted comic-book canon is irrelevant. There are no barriers to entry here, no homework to catch up with, just a fantastically pieced together tale coupled with a refreshingly creative take on the ever-staling FPS formula. It handles well, looks great, and sounds even better; The Darkness II is 2012’s first home console must-have and marks a promising start to the year for 2K and its upcoming onslaught of beautifully-crafted titles.
With the game’s online servers currently unpopulated, we have decided to omit any mention of the Vendettas co-operative portion of The Darkness II from our review. We’ll be returning to the game post-launch for a look at the multiplayer options.