The Darkness

Starbreeze has a thing for anti-hero types, introducing players to Riddick’s escape from Butcher Bay and now as mafia hitman Jackie Estacado on a vendetta of revenge against his Uncle Paulie. The twist, though, is that Jackie’s dual gunplay is followed up with the kind of supernatural power only the Crow could appreciate. The idea sounds pretty awesome: mix together some hardcore action, a story penned by one of the writers responsible for the Darkness comic, and top it all off with some multiplayer. It’s a great trip into the shadows, but not all of them run as deeply as I had hoped they would.

Happy Birthday

Jackie Estacado’s twenty first birthday was celebrated with a gunfight through a traffic filled tunnel and a present from Uncle Paulie, one that blew up in his face and tried to kill him for not showing enough respect. See, Paulie happens to be the bloodthirsty Don of the mob family that Jackie belongs to, and he and Jackie had never really seen eye to eye. Paulie brought Jackie in from the orphanage, raised him to be an itchy trigger finger for the family, and then blew him away when he grew tired of Jackie’s inability to kiss his ass.

Happy Birthday

Unfortunately for Paulie, Jackie has a deep, dark family secret buried inside his soul, a family skeleton with razor sharp teeth and a penchant for turning human hearts into chewy gummi bears. And on his twenty first birthday, it has awakened. With Darkness comic alum Paul Jenkins onboard with a story written for the game, there’s quite a bit to expect from the title.

The Darkness is a Right Handed Bastard

Starbreeze has followed up on their experience from telling the story of Riddick’s escape from Butcher Bay by bringing the graffiti strewn walls and dark alleyways of comic anti-hero Jackie Estacado’s New York to vivid life. Thanks to the lavish detail that they’ve given the world that you’ll be exploring, such as being able to actually see your own feet so you don’t feel like a bobbing camera with guns, even those that haven’t read any of the comics such as myself will learn what the score is by those that Jackie will meet along the way to his appointed reaping with Paulie. While it might not be absolutely faithful to the source material, there’s still quite a few surprises and twists in store for players.

Although not all of the NPCs that you run into will have much of anything to say as much of the story is pretty linear along with whatever dialog choices you may have, much of it succeeds in creating a solid atmosphere that dominates the rest of the production. Enemies will swear at you, others will mock you, and for each collectible that you pick up and dial up on one of the in-game phones, you’ll hear a unique recording that will either make you laugh or worry about the person’s sanity on the other side. Even the loading screens have been filled with content, either with a random clip showing Jackie play with his weapons or talk about something from his past giving you something more to look at than a filling bar. And when you die, you’re treated to a series of eerie cuts as the Darkness seemingly brings you back to life from the last checkpoint.

There’s more. Televisions scattered around the game will even display cartoons, movies, and music videos depending on what channels you flip through. This is the kind of stuff that you can actually stop in your gun toting tracks for a few minutes in order to catch some quality time in front of the boob tube as all of it is licensed stuff. Sharp voice acting and the ability to deliver several dramatic moments of brutal violence and romantic tension play up it’s Mature rating with more than just the gunplay, even when some of it can be pretty hit and miss at the worst times. Starbreeze did went all out to create a living, breathing nightlife for Jackie Estacado and it shows.

The controls take a little getting used to and the shooting actually has some assistance for the laser pointer crosshair that will often automagically home in on baddies and light sources which FPS veterans may not like, although it doesn’t ruin the gameplay as much as you think it might since the game’s lead based action isn’t anywhere near as fun when the Darkness awakens. Jackie will dual wield pistols and be able to bash brains with rifles and larger toys later on with a blood spattering melee attack. He even has an execution move that he’ll do if you’re close enough, dispatching his enemies in a variety of Mature rated ways depending on what he’s got in his hands at the time. Jackie pretty much guarantees that whoever he executes won’t be coming back to ruin his night. And if he takes a few hits? Just run off and hide somewhere safe until you recover. There’s no health bar to worry about here.

Impaled by the Darkness

There are plenty of victims for Jackie in the game, i.e. “food” for the Darkness, from punks in the street looking to pick a fight to well dressed assassins, to some of the creepier horrors waiting elsewhere. And they are most definitely cannon fodder…for the Darkness. If you go in head first with your guns, they’ll stand and shoot at you from where they are, take cover, and do the whack-a-mole thing from behind whatever they are hiding. Don’t expect them to try and flank you or do anything fancy other than take potshots at where they think you are. But when you can use the Darkness, things get a lot more interesting and you can tell what the real emphasis is here.

When the Darkness finally awakens within Jackie, one of those hit and miss moments in the otherwise great story comes up as he cleans up a graveyard of mafiosi in deadpan fashion in one of the more anticlimactic parts of the gameplay. I guess if you’ve got tentacles growing out of you with a hunger for hearts, that’s just one of those things that you get used to. It would have been more interesting to have actually heard some kind of reaction other than watching a monologue on listening to the voices in Jackie’s head during a loading cutscene right before he goes off to visit his girlfriend like he had just added a new gun to his coat rack.

Armed with the Darkness, the gameplay changes up in a big way as it opens up plenty of unique options that keep the title from feeling like a second rate FPS. Although there are plenty of weapons to collect, they’ll fade into the background thanks to the Darkness and soon you might have more ammo than you know what to do with as you’ll eventually be able to take down entire gangs with enough supernatural fury to call in the Ghostbusters. At first, you’ll only be able to use a power called the Creeping Dark which is a snakelike tentacle that you can send along the ground or crawl along any other surface to perform roto rooter service on someone’s face as you come up to them. It can go up buildings, into small spaces, and over walls to scare the hell out of those that see it. It can be hurt as its shot at, forcing it to retract with a very cool rewind effect as it snakes back to Jackie, but he can always send it back out to hunt after it feeds on the shadows.

You’ll even be able to summon Darklings, small, gremlin-like manifestations of the Darkness that have a variety of abilities. Small portals seen while you are the Darkness indicate the spots from which you can call one of these foot soldiers for evil. The first one you’ll be able to call up is the Berserker which, like the name implies, can be used to break things open whether its a door or a person. Hidden costumes scattered throughout the game can also improve the Berserker’s ability to dish out damage, allowing them to wield things like a baseball bat, a sword, or a jackhammer. The little critters will also say things like “I’m cured” as they electrocute the nearest corpse. They burst into a puff of darkness when they take too much damage from bullets or the light, but you can always summon more although each portal you use is restricted only to one type. So if you try and summon another Darkling from the same spot, you’ll blow up the one that came out from it from before.

Darkling wants to be your friend

To improve your chances of survival, the Darkness provides protection for Jackie by soaking damage while it’s active and while it still has the strength to do so. It regenerates as long as he can duck into the shadows, making light as much of an enemy as Uncle Paulie’s trigger happy minions, and this also feeds into the pool needed to use other abilities such as summoning Darklings. The Darkness will also grow stronger by feeding on the hearts of his dead enemies, giving the corpses that Jackie leaves in his wake a purpose other than marking his territory. Certain hearts found as you progress in the game will also unlock other powerful abilities such as new Darklings to command and certain abilities, such as a Demon Arm for impaling enemies or the Black Hole for sucking in and crushing your foes before scattering them like dead leaves.

Much of the game is set up along the two subway stations that Jackie will visit as he goes on his errand of vengeance, although it can feel extremely linear early on as some exits from the subway are simply closed off by cops due to “emergencies”. Later on, as more areas open up, Jackie can explore on his own, although most of the places that he might be able to visit won’t have much happening there unless it’s attached to the current part of the story or to a side quest that you’re working on. As a result, New York can feel kind of small especially with so many doors scattered everywhere with only a tiny fraction actually leading anywhere. There are occasional surprises, but the meat of the gameplay is found only when you follow the breadcrumbs.

On the other side of the coin, players that like to poke around and explore what is open to them will find a ton of collectible items in the game which unlock extra content in the form of comic covers, concept art, and even videos detailing some of how the game was put together. By talking to people that Jackie runs into that have actual names, he might even be asked to perform a small favor or two. In keeping with the living, breathing world that Starbreeze has put together, don’t expect these harbingers of work to have icons popping in over their heads to show you who might have something for you. If you hear someone calling out Jackie’s name, or just feel like chatting up someone with a name that you can pronounce, it pays to see what they might have, but you’ll have to do a little footwork to find out.

I Will Suck Your Soul

The Darkness is as much of a technical achievement as it is an atmospheric experience, but while the graphics look great and the audio is top notch especially with Mike Patton as the Darkness and Dwight Schultz as Uncle Paulie, there are a few things that I wished could have been done better…such as the beginning car chase. It was a really great sequence, but for most of it, Jackie rides in the backseat unable to shoot at the cars that are coming at them…even though his pals are telling him to. I tried to turn around, take aim, and start firing even though Jackie had just gotten up, but you just can’t until later on. And for a game as focused as it is on the Darkness, you really can’t sneak up on anyone other than by using one of your powers to get the drop on them so don’t expect Jackie to go Sam Fisher on too many people in the game.

The Creeping Dark takes some getting used to once you have the ability as it has a tendency to get spun up on corners and tight turns. It also can’t go everywhere as I found out when I tried to snake it through an open door, only to find that it couldn’t go through it probably because the story wouldn’t let me. There are invisible walls like this in certain areas to curb your snaking and keep it from potentially breaking things, but you really have to look around to find out where they are.

The game also keeps track of your progress with a checkpoint system that automatically saves you at certain spots. This isn’t so bad, but some of the checkpoints can tend to be scattered far enough apart that it can be a pain in repeating certain fights just to get to where you died. One was particularly nasty, as it saved you in the middle of a gunfight.

There was also the occasional oddness with the graphics, as some people getting up from a bench would get a twitchy head, or how some characters would eventually lose their lip syncing. I’ve also gotten stuck in certain areas. In one spot, I jumped atop a broken chair to get at a collectible that I could pick up and found I couldn’t move anywhere and had to restart from the last checkpoint.

When the last bullet casing drops to the concrete floor and the Darkness is all but sated, it’s all over before you know it because of the ending that leaves you hanging. Given the atmospheric story and the detailed world that Starbreeze has put together, the surprisingly weak ending calling out for a sequel feels like it should belong in an episode than in a full blown game, especially after it feels as if it has railroaded you into a corner that gave you little choice but to do what the script is asking.

And that’s where the ending disconnected with me, when it actually gave me the illusion of a choice that I wasn’t entirely convinced of taking. I tried to walk away, to be the better man, leaving Jackie’s final victim to beg and bleed to death in his own home, to defy the Darkness. Unlike the conflict between Zeus and Kratos, I really didn’t feel that strong of an urge to do what needed to be done at the end after all that Jackie had seen and done. But the door was literally locked on that count as it set itself up for a possible sequel.

Multiplayer

I hate to say it as I was looking forward to this part of the title, but the online multiplayer is probably the worst that I’ve ever experienced on a console. The Darkness’ online offering suffers the kind of lag that I remember from my modem days on the PC and I’m on the broadband connection that I use to pay CoD3, Gears of War, R6: Vegas, and Lost Planet with.

There’s no split screen or co-op, which will probably disappoint some would-be disciples of darkness. Up to eight players can slug it out by linking 360’s together, though. As expensive as that sounds, it’s probably ideal since the online portion over broadband is where a lot of the problems seem to be…especially with games attempting to host a full eight on one map. If you can get it to work and actually find a low populated game that won’t lag out or send you teleporting all over the place in unplayable bliss, you’ll get to experience several gametypes which include the basic deathmatches and capture the flag modes. There’s also a survivor mode in which the last one standing is the winner along with infection variants such as “Last Darkling” where one person starts out as a Darkling and kills the other players who are humans. Killed humans turn into Darklings until there’s only one human left alive who automatically wins. “Last Human” does the same thing, only in reverse.

One twist is in allowing players to be Darklings. They move quickly, are small and hard to shoot, and their attack consists of jumping forward and eviscerating whatever is in their way. Their attacks are pretty fatal, but that’s the only kind of attack that they’ve got as a trade off to not being able to wield weapons.

You can even set most of the gametypes to allow what players can enter the game as. You can go Humans only, Darklings only, or Shapeshifters which allow human players to change into Darklings. Some game types are preset, like CTF’s Darklings vs. Humans or Last Darkling, and there are plenty of other basic options to choose from such as allowing players to join the game is progress, randomizing teams, or toggling auto aim on or off. The maps do look good and and there’s also a leaderboard for competitive minded players to sink their skills into.

When I managed to actually play multiplayer without skipping everywhere on the screen, much of it still felt a lot like your basic shooter, only now its modded with Darklings and shapeshifting. It’s not terrible, but it’s not exactly as much fun as I thought it would be even without the lag. It simply doesn’t compare to the single player.

The End of the Road

The Darkness offers a strong single player experience by pulling the player into Jackie Estacado’s supernatural world of mafiosi honor and blood vendetta vengeance. With gameplay that can feel like a cross between the Crow and the Godfather, it’s anti-hero angle is a lot of fun as long as you stick with the single player. A weak ending and the awful multiplayer will probably make this a rental for players looking to get a little more out of the title, but fans of the comic and achievement completionists might find enough of a reason to take the plunge. The Darkness has enough going for it to root for the bad guy for either camp.

- World 1-1
The screenshots above can be found on the main site here:
Main site for The Darkness

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