In the '80s, the comic book industry turned its back on four-color supermen in favor of dark and gritty anti-heroes. That trend continued well into the '90s, with new superstars blending the line of good and evil. No more clearly was this seen than in Marc Silvestri's The Darkness. Jackie Estacado is a man cursed with a birthright that emerges on his 21st birthday. The Darkness, a primeval force, uses Estacado as its vessel to cause mayhem in New York City. Estacado's only claim to heroism is that as nasty a guy as he may be (he is a mob hitman after all), he's killing men who are even more evil.
The macabre nature of Silvestri's comic book has been brought to life with 2K Games' The Darkness. Developed by Starbreeze AB, the same team that gave us The Chronicles of Riddick on Xbox, The Darkness is a high-powered first-person shooter that looks incredibly cool at first blush. But unlike Riddick, which becomes more challenging and deeper as you progress through the story, The Darkness is a fairly shallow FPS that never builds to any sort of spectacular finish. That said it's still a lot of fun to be a badass.
Your mission as Jackie Estacado is one of pure revenge. Your Uncle Paulie celebrates your 21st birthday by trying to blow you up. While he's certainly polite about the attempted murder, this is an act of war in Jackie's mind. As your average mob thug, you'd have no hope of bringing down Paulie, his army of goons, and the corrupt cops on his payroll. Fortunately, you attain the powers of the Darkness shortly after going kaboom. From the moment the pair of serpents (a physical manifestation of the Darkness) appears over your shoulders, you're thrust forward into a campaign of merciless murder.
The twist Starbreeze uses to keep The Darkness from being "just another shooter" is a clever battle between light and darkness. Your powers are gained from being in the dark. Despite taking place almost exclusively at night, there still manages to be lights everywhere in the city. When you are storming a building, there are multiple light sources in almost every room. In order to keep your Darkness powers from fading, you'll need to destroy these light sources quickly. Oddly enough, the light becomes a far greater enemy than the humans trying to destroy you. Often you'll find yourself walking into a room and spending a minute or two taking out all the lights, while ignoring the potshots being taken by enemies.
Starbreeze does an admirable job in creating a dynamic environment, where light is the only aspect you need to be concerned with manipulating. But by the sixth hour, it does get a little tiresome to constantly be smashing out lights. It gets to the point of being tedious, but without taking out the lights, you have little hope of beating The Darkness.
Along with a small selection of guns, Estacado has several supernatural weapons to rely on. There are four Darkness powers (Creeping Dark, Demon Arm, Darkness Guns, and Black Hole) which are sometimes more potent than a firearm. The Creeping Dark lets you send out a snake, which you control, to scout an area, destroy lights, and kill enemies. In principal, it's a great concept, but the controls are frustrating, particularly once you climb walls. The Demon Arm is perhaps the most useful tool, as you can use the long tentacle to knock out lights and skewer enemies. The Darkness Guns are a real waste. These special guns drain your Darkness meter quickly, but are often inefficient at killing enemies. A headshot from your dual-wielded pistols is a far better bet than these special weapons. The ultimate power is the Black Hole, which creates a dark vortex that sucks in anything nearby. It's the smart bomb of The Darkness and makes you just about unstoppable for the last third of the game.
To further complement your ability to kill, you can summon four different Darklings (Berserker, Gunner, Kamikaze, and Lightkiller). These little gremlins are vulnerable to light, but can also be quite useful. The Berserker tends to be the most helpful, as he can be relied on to do the job at hand -- kill any enemy he sees. The others tend to be more problematic. The Gunner sometimes sets up her Gatling gun in front of a wall or against a doorway and wastes bullets. Or (if you aren't careful) she will spray you with bullets when you are leading the charge. The Kamikaze is a mad bomber who blows the bomb strapped to his back when enemies are nearby. He will also sometimes run into a door jam and blow up in your face. The Lightkiller shoots an electrical current that shorts out lights. Useful, but again, his AI isn't the best. Sometimes he just runs into the light and doesn't "kill" any of the nearby bulbs.
The Darklings provide a lot of the humor in the Darkness. At one point, I'm certain I caught one taking a piss on a dead enemy. The little buggers offer sly comments and some good entertainment value, even if they aren't as useful in combat as one would hope.
Living in darkness isn't the only way to power your anti-hero. There's a very gruesome collection aspect to this game. To bolster your Darkness powers, you can devour the hearts of your victims. The more you eat, the stronger you become. It's a primal ritual as each kill leads to the sadistic ceremony of tearing out another heart. If only Nintendo had the balls to add this to Pokemon. Gotta eat 'em all.
Like Riddick, The Darkness has a few moments where the action dies down and you have a moment to breathe. In these instances, Estacado finds himself in the subway station, where his guns and powers aren't accessible. Instead of killing the innocent, Jackie can choose to do some good deeds. The sidequests are little more than fetch or kill missions, but they can extend the game by a good 2-3 hours if you're ambitious enough to complete them all. These side missions are where you can truly express your morality. You may need to collect an apartment key from a jilted boyfriend, for example. It's an easy enough thing to do through dialogue. But once you have the key, you also have the option to kill the poor man and eat his heart. Like I said before, you gotta eat 'em all, right?
You can also choose to wander the two sections of New York City that have been created. The level of detail in these areas is impressive, though the city itself amounts to only a few blocks. While it's usually nice to have an open exploration aspect, it's not particularly satisfying when the game world is this tiny. The limitation (along with the painfully slow movements of the lead character) is likely necessary to allow some of the attractive effects while keeping the framerate steady.
The most interesting place to visit in the Darkness isn't even on this plane of existence. In two instances during the campaign, Jackie travels to the Otherworld. This nightmarish realm is a version of hell in which World War I never ends. Zombie soldiers torture and kill the lost souls of American G.I.s. It's wonderfully twisted. And the world also features the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, though in forms that may surprise you. It would have been nice if more of these twisted and monstrous aspects had bled into New York, because the majority of The Darkness has you battling dim-witted humans who are little more than fodder for your new low-carb heart diet.
The single-player campaign ends with a bit of a thud. Rather than building to a climactic final battle, The Darkness is pretty much on an even keel from start to finish. The enemies never become more difficult. Starbreeze wanted to give gamers a sense of being the scariest mofo in the room by game's end. So by the time you have the Black Hole power, you are pretty much in charge. It's a great sensation to know you are going to waste everyone you see, but it doesn't work so well from a game standpoint. Without building to tougher challenges, the last few hours fall a bit flat. It doesn't help that the final level drops into a series of cutscenes showing you do some awesome things not possible when in control of Jackie Estacado.
But at least the single-player game will give you some satisfaction. It's certainly worth playing. The same can't be said of the multiplayer, which comes off as little more than an afterthought. Up to eight players can get in on the fun online. Rather than having eight people playing as Estacado, gamers take on the role of mobsters or Darklings (or Darklings that morph into mobsters). The Darklings are fast and can leap incredible distances. But they aren't as strong as mobsters, who can also carry guns.
Only four multiplayer modes are included, with a little under a dozen maps total. You can play Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and Survivor (one against all).
The maps are claustrophobic, which gives them a unique feel over the average FPS. But they aren't particularly well laid out. Of the modes, only CTF has really proven to be worth repeated plays. And that is mainly because the strengths and weaknesses of the humans/Darklings come into play throughout the experience.
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