Hands-on / The Darkness II

The decision to change The Darkness II’s art style from the original’s gritty realism to the comic book-friendly cel-shaded approach we see now is definitely more than just a simple facelift. Sure, the game manages to set itself apart from other shooters thanks to this new look, but it also compliments the story of the game far more than Starbreeze’s original effort.

Take the opening few moments of the game, which places players back in the shoes of mafia man Jackie Estacado. Anyone that’s taken a look at anything Darkness-related will know that Jackie holds a dark secret within, but even if you were to strip away his demonic ‘other half’, this first section feels like playing a comic book. Not just because of the art style, but because of how the action escalates following an attempted hit on Jackie’s life.

Had this been a realistic gangster game, the thrilling restaurant shootout that kick starts the experience would satisfy, but The Darkness II is far from done there. This ‘organised hit’ soon spills out onto the streets, down into the subway and – in true video game fashion – ends with train wrecks and a pile of bodies. No, it’s not realistic; it’s an exaggerated, explosive affair that would go hand-in-hand with a comic book. Thus, the game’s art style cleverly promotes the tone, not just the prettier graphics.

Let us not forget that demonic side to Jackie exists though, and provides the game’s true hook. Not far into the opening (I’d rather not shed too many details on the explosive start), the lead character unleashes The Darkness, an ancient evil force that has found a line of hosts in the Estacado family. When called upon in the game, The Darkness takes shape as two demonic, snake-like arms on either side of the screen.

In the original Darkness, released all the way back in 2007, these happy little critters opened up a playground of death, allowing Jackie to rip apart enemies and eat their hearts in spectacular fashion. The Darkness II – judging from segment played – takes much the same approach, though its environments are smaller, more focused than the original game’s hub world-like design.

This linear approach helps emphasise the use of The Darkness as a weapon, rather than an aide. One section sees the snake-arms impaling metal poles on unsuspecting gangsters, while later on they act a little a bit more like their primitive appearance, tearing one poor soul in half. Expanding their use throughout the game is going to be key to keeping the action fresh in The Darkness II, but the tricks on offer right from the start are more than enough to get players comfortable and empower them like few shooters can.

The appearance of a Darkling, the game’s minion-like helpers only adds to temptation to toy with enemies. These delightful little guys will shred apart enemies and *ahem* ‘dampen’ their corpses, shall we say. It’s light hearted fun, if you have the kind of mind-set that can call pissing on bodies ‘fun’, that is.

At any rate, there’s the safety net of the game’s rock-solid shooting mechanics should devouring people’s organs not appeal to you. A simple pistol can prove surprisingly vicious in The Darkness II, given the strong feedback from each shot met with deadly accuracy. It’s as satisfying to line-up a headshot here as it has been in any Call of Duty title, thought the focus admittedly isn’t on the accuracy.

Instead the real gunplay starts when Jackie gets his hand on a second weapon for dual wielding, something that’s been retained from the original game. Here the game lets loose more than other shooters, allowing Jackie to riddle enemies with bullets in similar fashion to that famous death in the original Godfather. It’s clear from the off that action is a sharp, exciting aspect of The Darkness II, it just needs to fully utilize the titular monster for it to elevate to greatness.

The final piece of this bloody jigsaw is story, something that gets off to a strong start. The rush of the opening set-piece is cut up into segments showing a cultist group trying to steal the Darkness from Jackie. Constant references are made to one of the most shocking events of the original game, getting inside our hero’s mind and playing games with him.

Not much is known about where the plot will go and how it will all play out but the mix of gangsters and the super natural definitely gives The Darkness II’s tale one thing; enormous potential.

In fact, that’s a term best used to describe my feelings about the title as a whole so far. Given a short, sharp glimpse of the game, everything seems on track. Let’s just hope that it hasn’t played all the aces up its slimy, grotesque sleeves straight away, because in a world of evil monsters and hardcore gangsters, that would be a real crime.

The Darkness II hits PS3, 360 and PC on February 7 in the US and February 10 in the EU.