The Darkness is in town, and it ain`t no Charlie Murphy!
With the success of 2004`s smash hit The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, Swedish videogame developers Starbreeze Studios made a name for themselves, not only creating a great movie-based game but also mixing first person shooter, fighting and adventure into dark and violent game. Now, for their first current generation entry, Starbreeze has developed another FPS – but this time based on comic book series of the same name - “The Darkness.”
Some people get cars for their twenty-first birthday. Others get a wristwatch or a visit to a brothel. Jackie Estacado got gut-eating tentacles growing from his back and a creepy voice in his head. Now, perhaps it`s not so bad if you work as a mafia hitman –as Jackie actually does – but sh*t gets real when his uncle Paulie gives Estacado another unpleasant gift – a bomb which explodes into Jackie`s face because of a deal gone bad. Now those tentacles don`t seem such a bad present after all, eh?
The story of The Darkness is an exceptionally good one – not only it is full of unexpected twists and turns, but it also introduces you to characters with actual personalities – something that seems to matter only to sentimental ladies and me. The writing is also very well done – it is often clever and witty which gives even minor NPC`s a feeling of genuineness. However the game starts out slow and is paced inconsistently – and that`s where gameplay is to be blamed.
At first you`ll be thrown into an intense car chase through New York City`s underground tunnels and eventually crash into a construction site. Here, finally, you get to go shoot someone and the realization comes – WTF is this! Indeed, the movement – apparently meant to be “realistic” – more feels like walking with a couple of beers in your stomach – the movement is wonky and imprecise. When you get to the action part, things get worse – auto-aim is not always at it`s supposed heights and after killing the first few dudes you`ll most likely be dry on ammo thanks to that the strafe-and-shoot simply doesn’t work. Now, here I am puzzled whether the developers tried to implement the first first-person-only cover system in history, because when pressed against an obstacle, Jackie will move his gun outside the obstacle area allowing you to stay partially safe from enemy`s gunfire and being able to shoot yourself. Although it isn`t working that well, this feature comes in handy quite often and sets the shooting mechanics a little different from other FPS`s.
I already mentioned that the pacing isn`t too well and the marriage between open world and linear gameplay proves this. When you pass the first few sequences, Jackie will enter the subway where you can accept quests from various NYC folks – find an old ladies’ jewelry, break someone’s face and stuff like that. These errands may involve staying in the subway or running around parts of Manhattan. The main issue is that the game is quite buggy – mostly in the secondary objectives area. The guy who you`re supposed to kill simply may not be where he`s supposed to be, a person who, supposedly, gives you an important hint will refuse to talk to you etc. Anyway, these quests add barely an hour or two to overall gameplay time and the reward is phone numbers – you can also find pages with them – to whom you can call from payphones to listen to often humorous messages and unlock bonus content, such as artwork, The Darkness comics and so on.
Another problem fleshes out, whether you choose to run errands or not. Navigating through the streets on NYC is often puzzling, especially during a sequence where the whole NYPD is after your ass. Of course the game won`t tell you that you have to turn into an alley and climb a difficult-to-see ladder. Instead you can wander around other parts of the city for hours, trying to figure where to go, as I did. Also, you can never be sure if it is the right way you`re going because there are no hits that you do. It`s just bad design. The developers could have at least seal off the unnecessary areas during combat sequences, but no, let the player get sick of the tedious traveling and give up on the game.
The first hours of gameplay create mainly bad impression of the game – thanks to the poor balancing. You`ll constantly be out of ammo, outmanned and outgunned. It should change when you get your first Darkness power, right? WRONG! Instead of giving you something useful, all you get is Creeping Dark – an extension of one of the tentacles. It is meant to be used to scout the area ahead and stealth-kill some of your foes, but the movement is so awkward and clunky that you`ll go nuts even before getting to kill someone. The problem is that the tentacle treats anything, from an empty gun shell to a mailbox, like objects of size of an interstellar cruiser, often putting you in absurd situations – you see an enemy in front of you but you can`t get to him because you`re stuck on the edge of sidewalk. However there are particular sequences in game where using this power is absolutely essential and you`ll be grinding your teeth in frustration to do so.
To mess your nerves even more, The Darkness powers cannot operate in the light. Makes sense, right? Well, yeah, it does. But until you get the rest of the powers, this concept will be an unbearable pain in the ass. Since ammo is too valuable to be spent killing lights and Creeping dark will make you twitch in horror, the gameplay rapes itself. Thankfully, after the first really big twist, you`ll find yourself into Otherworld – something so unique and alien that your thoughts of the game will turn 180 degrees. That is, until you get to fight. You see, in Otherworld you just don`t kill enemies as you used to – you also have to devour their hearts so they stay dead. And the best of all this – enemies can kill you in two hits over an extremely long distances so - *gasp* - you`ll have to use the Creeping Dark unless you are a gamer god with Neo-like reflexes.
It seems that on remaining half of the game developers suddenly realized: “Oh crap, we totally messed up the difficulty!” and messed it up even more, making Jackie nearly invincible. When you get the Demon Arm, you can finally use the advantage of the dark since with this whip-type weapon it is easy to smash any light sources without being driven crazy. Also you can impale foes and toss them around (Side note: it`s AWESOME!) but the aiming can be a bit crappy since the arm cannot prioritize it`s targets – even if you have an enemy in front of you, the arm may hit a light or another dead body and instead of sending someone to a better world you get shot in the face instead.
You`ll soon get Darkness Guns as well. Unlike human produced weaponry, they don`t require ammo – just stick to the shadows. And finally, the mother of all things Darkness, – the Black Hole – will create a portal which sucks in nearby enemies and small objects, however you can use it every ten seconds or so as long as you stay in the dark.
Not only tentacles are your friends, you can also call 4 types of small demons – Darklings - from depths of Hell to do all the wetwork for you… if they choose to do so, that is. The artificial intelligence, both to your allies and enemies is rather poor. Sometimes your little creepy buds will stare blankly at a random point of the Infinite Universe while their master is being used for target practice. Uncle Paulie and NYPD seem to hire their guys from “Rush-Towards-You-In-Masses” and “Stand-Frozen-Then Shoot-You-In-The-Back” offices. There are some minor bugs in NPC`s behavior as well which helps to break the immersion. These issues, while not game-breaking, they sure tend to ruin the atmosphere which The Darkness creates. So, yeah, AI is definitely not the better points of the game.
Now, for another thing that bugs me is the worlds` reaction to Jackie. Jackie’s` dark side that is. While enemies have some cool remarks about your “weird demon sh*t”, they never run, ask for mercy or simply go nuts by seeing the power of the Darkness. Sure, New York is one tough place to be, but I can simply adore those chaps who calmly gaze upon Jackie`s weird demon sh*t. And you know what Jackie has to say about that devil inside him? Nothing. Nothing at all. Creepy voices inside the head? Pshhh. Gut-eating tentacles? Seen worse. Visceral slaughter? Whatever man, I`ve read Twilight. But all jokes outside, Jackie never even *talks* with the Darkness nor does he comments his own – pretty brutal – actions. I can understand he`s a pretty silent guy but demonic intervention would make even Gordon Freeman talk.
To sum it up, The Darkness is a very inconsistent game in terms of difficulty – for the first half is frustrating struggle for survival while during the other half you`ll be dancing though masses of dudes gleefully with your favorite Celine Dion`s song playing in your head.
To give you a reason to eat people`s hearts out, The Darkness has implemented RPG elements… poorly. You`ll get new powers and Darkling types exactly where the script tells you to so I am not sure if the “leveling up” actually does anything.
There is multiplayer element in The Darkness but all I can say is that no one`s ever online so… *awkward silence*
The first thing that sold me was the graphics. The preview screenshots spoke of unbelievable beauty and The Darkness holds to that premise… somewhat. New York and its inhabitants are rendered beautifully; the lighting is some of the best I’ve ever seen in a videogame and the level of interactivity is very surprising for a game which relies on its own physics engine rather than Havok. Also, during load times you`ll see Jackie saying some witty remarks or simply posing, however load time in the PS3 version are slower than on Xbox 360 and when the animation is over, you`ll see a load screen regardless.
On the bad side, character`s facial expressions are flawed and lip syncing isn`t always doing its job properly. Textures, in fact, are standard definition, so when standing close to a wall you`ll notice slight pixelization. The framerate can be a bit unstable in some intense sequences and the first impression of the game is quite unpleasant because of very poor antialaising. However The Darkness is a remarkably well looking game for a 2007 title.
The sound is a mixed bag here. The voice acting is simply marvelous and reminds of Hollywood gangster movies, such as Goodfellas. The Darkness itself has a voice of its own and when you hear it, you`ll poop bricks. The sound design is also done very well and leaves no room for complaint. However the red-headed stepchild is the music. While there are some amazing melodies, like those of the Otherworld, the usual combat soundtrack is a bunch of generic heavy metal.
Perhaps, after reading the paragraphs about the gameplay, you may be thinking: “Hmm, this must be the worst game ever then?” No, not at all. The Darkness is dark, mature tale with over-the-top violence, and with flawed yet satisfying and gruesome combat. It actually surprised me that I had completed the game in eleven hours because it felt I had played it for a lot longer. And unlike most of today`s games, The Darkness leaves a lasting impression for its memorable – and often unique – situations. It is a bit difficult to get into it, but when you do, you`ll be constantly be amazed with what The Darkness has to offer.