From the outset of The Darkness it’s clear that developer Starbreeze wanted to create a game that rivalled the best action movies Hollywood has to offer. This ambition to mimic films has been achieved with great aplomb, with The Darkness mixing intense action, dramatic storytelling and more than a few twists. But for all it does well there are moments where you’ll be wishing things could have been that little bit smoother.
You play as Jackie Estacado, a hitman from New York celebrating his 21st birthday. As it turns out, it isn’t really a birthday to remember, and you’re soon after your Mafia boss uncle Paulie, desperate for payback and revenge. The reasons for this are essential to the story so I won’t go into details, but it’s safe to say that what unfolds is dramatic in the extreme, brutal and well worth seeing. This is a game that wears its 18 BBFC rating on its sleeve for all to see, so expect plenty of content that isn’t suitable for kids.
Instead of giving you mission after mission, The Darkness uses two New York subway stations as hubs for the game. In these two stations you’ll be able to catch the tube from one station to the other, speak to NPCs, use the payphone to get new game objectives, unlock bonus content and more. They’re both beautifully realised too, full of people and character; character that is sadly lacking in the other areas of the game where human contact is far rarer.
A first-person shooter at heart, you get hold of plenty of fire-power, often in dual-wielding form, and taking down enemies feels great. There’s a looseness to the action that makes things feel far less clinical than many other shooters, and up close and personal attacks trigger some nasty execution moves – although these do feel a tad clumsy at times. Guns are really only half of the story though, with the titular Darkness playing a huge part in the gameplay.
The Darkness comes in the form of tentacles that overcome Jackie and allow him to perform numerous special moves that aid in the frequent battles that take place. As the name suggests, the Darkness likes darkness, so lights are a big no-no. Activating your powers in a brightly lit area will cause your Darkness energy to drain, so it’s essential that you take out all the lights that you can – either by shooting them or smashing them with the long tentacle arm that you gain pretty early on in the game.
The powers vary considerably and there’s every chance no two players will approach things in exactly the same way. Your first power, Creeping Dark, allows you to send off a tentacle and use it to eat the faces of enemies, eat enemy hearts (something that can be done outside of Creeping Dark mode and increases your Darkness level) and carry out simple tasks – opening doors and the like. It doesn’t like light either, meaning your time with it is limited, so it doesn’t help that it’s a right pain to control. It can scale walls, which is neat, but you’ll often find yourself disoriented and struggling to get past obstacles that shouldn’t pose a problem.
The aforementioned tentacle arm is most useful to take out lights but also doubles as a way to spear enemies and move heavy objects. For the most part this works well, but at times you’ll wish that the arm would take out lights a little more freely even if your aim isn’t quite accurate enough. Throwing things feels clumsy too and these tossed objects don’t harm enemies as you’d expected them to. The tool was there but it just hasn’t been used in the fullest.
A pair of Darkness guns dispatch foes with ease, but they’re soon outdone by the black hole power. This ability allows you to cast black holes into the environment, which suck all enemies in the local area into it before tossing them back out. It comes in incredibly handy when large groups of enemies are attacking you, but does change combat substantially due to its immense power.
You also get to summon darklings, which are violent minions that are supposed to do your bidding. They come in four flavours and appear from designated spawn points in the environment. One is a machine gunner, one just attacks people with brute force, one explodes on impact with an enemy and the final darkling you acquire takes out lights. When they do their job and move where you tell them to the darkling mechanic is great, but they frequently act stubbornly, get stuck on things and generally act in a clueless manner.
Gameplay on the New York streets and inside buildings is generally of the highest calibre, with plenty of great set-piece fights and lots of moments to use your abilities. Aside from the lack of NPCs, this play area is also quite stunning at times, even if the game engine seems a little rough compared to what Epic has created. Sadly you spend a good chunk of the game in another world entirely. This Hell-like World War location is full of zombiefied Germans and patchwork English soldiers, and the gameplay here occasionally touches on infuriating.
While the New York setting is clearly signposted and easy to navigate (thanks to a clear objectives screen and a helpful travel guide), this dark other world is often a nightmare. One particular section sees you wandering around hoping you’re going in the right direction, without any real sense of where you are in relation to anything else. Somehow I found my way to the required destination, but it wasn’t without a lot of circling around.
What’s more disappointing than anything else though is the fact that you never feel like you’ve used your powers to their maximum potential. The conclusion to the game is action packed but most of the best moments are nothing more than cutscenes. It’s by no means an unsatisfactory conclusion and hopefully points to more from the series in the future, but there’s a distinct feeling that we haven’t seen it all yet – either deliberately or due to the limitations of the controls.
When it’s all over (something that’ll take ten hours or there abouts) you can look over the various pieces of content you’ve unlocked throughout the game and you can dive into the online multiplayer mode. You get the usual Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag game modes, plus Survivor mode, with support for up to eight players; a slightly low number, but without vehicles it’s more than enough for entertaining fire-fights.
Although you can choose to play as either humans, darklings or a mixture of both as a shapeshifter, the gameplay is largely what we’ve seen before. The Survivor mode is the most unique and the numerous player and darkling skins add some variety, but it’s hard to see The Darkness gaining a huge online following. Xbox 360 owners also get a nice selection of Achievement points that are spread over the single-player and multiplayer game, and could be enough to give the 360 version the edge of the PS3 game.
Even with its faults, it’s impossible to dislike The Darkness. It’s such a stunningly put together game that succeeds far more often than it fails, with storytelling and direction that puts many other games to shame. With a little more time in the dark we might have seen a more rounded end product, but hopefully the guys at Starbreeze have already started work on what could be a brilliant sequel.