The Darkness II
There's nothing quite like videogames for presenting you with some odd contrasts. One minute you're ripping out the hearts of gangsters in a New York City alleyway and the next thing a sweet little old lady is telling you to "man up" in an elegant and ornate penthouse apartment.
We should never want games to change in this respect. The Darkness series has always been about contrasts. The continued contrast between dark and light is heavily linked to the internal struggle between the forces of good and evil and there are few games that are more overt in their exploration of this idea. Embodying this is Jackie Estacado in the heavily stylised sequel from Canadian developer Digital Extremes, The Darkness II.
Continuing on the theme of contrasts The Darkness II is a very different animal from its Starbreeze-developed predecessor. In the first game the emphasis was very much weighted towards Jackie's inner torment and how he deals with The Darkness inside him and the loss of his girlfriend Jenny. The Darkness II retains this element but shifts the balance in favour of the action side of things choosing to expand and improve the game's mechanics and action gameplay instead of playing with the narrative form of the series.
In shifting the focus of the game to the action instead of the philosophical angle of the storytelling Digital Extremes has also implemented some stylistic changes including a new cel-shaded look which really evokes the comic book roots of the series.
The main change is in the gameplay and of that there can be no doubt. Digital Extremes have overhauled the way Jackie can use The Darkness and created a new quad-wielding mechanic to make the action much more fluid. The other consequence of this is that the game has become much more brutally gruesome. A series of games where the main character's powers require him to devour the hearts of his enemies in order to heal and sustain himself is never going to a light-hearted and gentle affair but there The Darkness II has definitely pushed the limits of the sheer visceral nature and volume of violence that can feature in one game.
Using the Darkness, Jackie can carry out executions by grabbing an enemy with his left Darkness limb. Push the execution button and the enemy is slaughtered in one of several ways depending on how he has been grabbed. Grab him by the ankle, for instance, and the Darkness will grab his other leg and rip him apart like a wishbone. Grab the enemy from the front or from behind and the Darkness will snake around him like and burrow into his back and out of his chest like he was John Hurt at dinner time.
Describing these executions helps to emphasis just how gruesome The Darkness II can be but there is more to it than that. There are several execution options opened up as Jackie upgrades the Darkness (more on this in a minute) that allow him to gain health, ammunition or recharge special powers by performing these power executions.
Jackie also gains essence points for killing - the more impressive (ie gruesome) the kill, the more essence points he earns. The essence points can then be used to upgrade his and the Darkness's abilities to make him even more resilient and formidable in battle.
It does verge on getting scored on killing with brutality and serves to reinforce the game's heavy emphasis on slaughter which straddles a very fine moral line between entertainment and just being violent for the sake of it. Then again, as I mentioned before, it is a game about a mob boss possessed by a bloodthirsty demon whose diet is exclusively the still-beating hearts of men.
If there is anything that can be said about The Darkness II it is that it has certainly earned its 18-rating with the blood of its NPCs.
In contrast, the new cel-shaded visual style of the game serves to soften the frequently and graphically explicit violence and encourages a certain amount of revelry in what is verging on an over-the-top orgy of gore helping to shift the emphasis of the game to the fact that it is very much a pulpy comic book story rather than a gritty and realistic examination of the New York underworld. And, for what its worth, the cell-shaded visuals do compliment The Darkness II far better than the more traditional looks of the first game.
There is no escaping just how brutally violent The Darkness II actually is but Digital Extremes have actually managed to make it work beyond giving the impression that it is just violence for violence's sake. The achievement is all the more impressive when you consider that The Darkness II uses as its core the very old-school run-and-gun FPS mechanic that was behind FPS classics like Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM and actually manages to build what is a very modern title out of it.
The Darkness II truly is a revelation and the first pleasant surprise of 2012 although it is definitely not for the faint of heart.