The Darkness. You work best when you're in the shadows, it's a grisly and occasionally gruesome tale, and it also happens to be the name of the demon festering inside of you. Yes, for multiple reasons, The Darkness is a perfect name for this first-person shooter from 2K and Starbreeze, the developer responsible for The Chronicles of Riddick. Based on a comic book from Top Cow, The Darkness weaves an interesting and authentic tale of mobsters seeking revenge together with an otherworldly force with an insatiable appetite for human hearts.
The game opens with an amazing set piece that gets things moving right away. You play as Jackie Estacado, a New York-based mob hit man on his 21st birthday, and you've just woken up in the back of a speeding convertible. A money-collection deal has gone wrong, your two buddies are attempting to get away from crooked cops, and you apparently got knocked out somewhere along the way. As you're speeding along to a construction site to take out the foreman, you're tossed a shotgun to help defend the car from incoming fire. The car crashes, you end up on foot, and the story begins to unfold. Your Uncle Paulie, the leader of the crime family, has gone off the deep end, suspects you of foul play, and puts a hit out on you. So it's on you to tear apart his operation by taking out key moneymakers and money movers. As you do this, Paulie starts to hit back, sending thugs not only in your direction, but also in the direction of Jenny, Jackie's girlfriend and the only person that really matters to him. Luckily, you won't have to fight it out all by yourself.
Early in the game, Jackie is possessed by The Darkness, some sort of parasitic creature that speaks to you as a demonic voice in your head and manifests itself as two demonic snakelike appendages that shoot out of your shoulder blades and appear on the sides of the screen. They snap and growl when you whip them out, and over time you'll earn new abilities. For starters, revealing The Darkness gives you a shield against damage, better vision in low-light situations, and a move that lets you plant one of the snakelike creatures onto the ground and take control of it. From there, you can crawl into ventilation ducts, sneak around, and kill enemies with a bite attack. You'll also earn a demon arm attack, which causes a big, sharp appendage to thrust outward and through your enemies. Eventually you'll get guns that use The Darkness' energy as ammo and a black hole attack that lets you open up big vacuums that suck enemies in, killing them quite easily in the process. The catch is that The Darkness has a limited amount of power, and all of these attacks drain it. It's restored automatically when you're standing in shadows, making shooting out light sources wherever you go a pretty big part of the game.
You'll select your darkness powers much like you'll cycle through your conventional weapons, with a touch of the D pad. There aren't very many different types of guns in the game, and what's more, the dual pistols that you start with are also the most effective weapon from start to finish. You'll get a shotgun, assault rifles, and an auto-shotgun that isn't accurate enough to be of much use. The game's auto-targeting seems to make your aim naturally gravitate toward the heads of your foes, and one shot from a pistol is almost always enough to take care of them. Considering the artificial intelligence isn't always swift enough to duck and cover, the game usually isn't too much of a challenge on its medium difficulty setting.
Most of the game takes place in New York, and despite its world being reasonably open-ended, the story itself is strictly linear. You'll always know where to go next, and you'll have a good idea of how to get there. If you end up lost, an objectives menu will point you in the general direction, and a map will show you which sections you'll have to travel through. Along the way, particularly in the game's two active subway stations, you'll run into people in need of a little help. This gives you some side missions to play with, and most of these seem to involve going somewhere and shooting and/or talking to someone. They're usually not very difficult, and there isn't really much of a payoff, either. You'll usually get one of the 100 pieces of bonus content, which gives you a few issues of the comic books, as well as plenty of concept art. Unless you're a sucker for concept art or an Xbox 360 achievements fiend, most of the extra stuff can be safely skipped, though the world looks so nice that you might find yourself wanting to complete as much as possible just to spend more time with the game. The main storyline definitely has some length to it, though, so even if you ignore all of the extra little elements, you'll still feel like you got your money's worth out of the game. Thanks to a handful of especially mind-blowing sequences and well-crafted plot twists, you'll feel like you've covered a ton of ground by the time you reach the game's final confrontation.
Not every single aspect of the story is a winner, though. There are a few weird spots that stick out, given the high quality of the rest of the game. For example, enemies rarely even make mention of your unique curse, making you wonder if it's invisible to others for a good third of the game. How would you react if you saw some guy with glowing eyes and a bunch of demonic tentacles sticking out of him running right at you with pistols in either hand? Then, you run into a cutscene where a storyline character specifically references "that demon s***," making it apparent that it's totally visible to all. Shouldn't some guys be running away, screaming like banshees when you reveal yourself and eat the hearts of their friends? Even civilians don't freak out very much if they catch a glimpse of your power. This makes some parts of the game feel slightly disjointed, though all in all, the action and the story are both very satisfying. It's especially fun to eat the hearts of every enemy you take out, which occasionally causes the two demon heads to fight over the heart. Weirdly enough, the head on the right always wins, but it's cool moments like this that help give The Darkness a unique feel.
In addition to the single-player mode, there's an eight-player online mode that gives you the basic first-person shooter modes, like deathmatch, team deathmatch, and capture the flag. You can do some configuring from there, such as turning on one-hit kills. You can also morph from human form to that of a skittering little demon called a darkling, which is weak and unarmed but has a powerful melee attack and can crawl on walls and ceilings. Modes like survivor play off of this; your goal here is to be the last human standing, and death from a darkling makes you join the darkling side. The online is mostly functional, though the game really falls apart when one player is lagging. Your movement becomes erratic and the game becomes basically unplayable. When it works, it's a decent diversion, though it does feel tacked-on. Being able to actually call upon The Darkness and use the powers you get in single-player might have been cool, though having eight players use a black hole at the same time might have been a little too crazy. Either way, it's immediately clear that the single-player is the star of the show.
Visually, The Darkness looks superb. It's got a very smooth frame rate and a large, nicely detailed world. It goes up to 1080p on both the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3. The texture clarity is such that there's a secret sequence of phone calls you can hear by reading phone numbers off of billboards and flyers put up around town and calling them from the nearest pay phone. It also has a great art style to it. New York looks appropriately grimy and urban, with a lot of graffiti. And the Otherworld, where you'll spend a bit of time, has a nicely hellish look that applies to both the environments and the enemies you face. Most of the animation is good, and you have to give it up for any game that features motion-captured break-dancing for no reason other than to provide a bit of flavor in one of the subway stations. About the only disappointing aspect of the game's look is that people's lips don't move very much when they speak, which makes some of the dialogue-heavy sequences look slightly off; but that's minor in the grand scheme of things.
The voice acting in The Darkness is universally awesome. You'll encounter plenty of raspy-voiced old-school mobsters who sound like they stepped right off of the set of Goodfellas. Jackie himself comes across perfectly as the tough-guy hit man that he's supposed to be, but he still shows flashes of vulnerability. And then, of course, there's the voice of The Darkness, which is supercreepy and perfect at giving you a case of the willies. Even the random people you run into on the street have believable voice performances. On top of that, the script is really something, so these great voices have solid dialogue to work with. The rest of the sound effects are appropriate, and as you take damage and near death, things slow down and start to sound as though you're underwater, which is a nice effect. The snapping and chomping of The Darkness' twin heads is pretty cool, too. Most of the music in the game is ambient background stuff that helps set the appropriate mood.
The Darkness is available on both the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3, and the differences between the two versions are pretty minimal. The PlayStation 3 version seems to have slightly better color than the 360 version, but the 360 version looks a bit sharper. Also, the Xbox 360 version has achievements, and the PlayStation 3 version gives you the same tasks, but calls them accomplishments. Regardless of what you call them, they're evenly spread, with a few that come from winning more multiplayer matches than you'll probably be willing to endure. Overall, both versions are equally recommendable.
The Darkness' appeal comes from its many different parts coming together in a really great way. The believability of the characters mixed with this hellacious demonic force fits together in a really interesting fashion; the gameplay is very satisfying, even if it isn't especially challenging; and the presentation is top-notch. If you're a sucker for M-rated action--and really, how can you pass on a game with a human-heart-eating mechanic?--you'll definitely want to play The Darkness.