The Darkness II is a direct sequel to the 2007 FPS developed by Starbreeze Studios. Digital Extremes took the reigns this time around and their story starts two years after the events of The Darkness. Let's shed some light on this Darkness, shall we?
For players that have no idea what The Darkness is, or who didn't play through the original, fear not. When you go to start a new campaign, you can optionally watch a video that catches you right up to the opening night of The Darkness II. In this video, which is actually an in-game cutscene, ultra-nervous guy Johnny Powell (reminded me of Kramer) explains what The Darkness is, where it came from, and how it manifested itself on Jackie's 21st birthday. We learn (or are reminded of) the tragic mob hit death of Jenny, Jackie's love interest who was killed in the first game, and we are shown that Jackie has gone from low-level hitman to the don of his mob family.
So, this new adventure begins with Jackie taking a night on the town, meeting with many mob buddies at a favorite restaurant. An attempt on his life in the opening minutes that nearly kills him gives ample cause for The Darkness to uncage itself. It heals its host (Jackie) but instantly yearns for human hearts and souls that Jackie must feed it. Jackie obliges as he tries to figure out who put out the hit, following a trail that takes him around town.
When The Darkness is active, it controls its hosts via manipulation and deception. The Darkness knows Jackie wants nothing more than to be with Jenny again, to relieve himself of this infinite burden he has placed on himself because Jenny died due to Jackie's involvement with the mob. The Darkness needs a host, it needs Jackie, to continue to survive, and so you have an interesting Jekyl and Hyde sort of symbiotic relationship between the two entities.
Paul Jenkins, writer for The Darkness comic, did a good job with the story, which is one of the stronger aspects of the game. In light of the gameplay being pretty mediocre, although admittedly different due to the special powers and conditions of The Darkness, the story fortunately keeps the game interesting for it's very brief five to six hour stay. I honestly felt like this game could have been even shorter if not for a few drawn out sequences in combat or other areas where you must slow-walk your way around and talk to different people (like in the mansion). I will say that for as brief as the story mode is, it does stay pretty entertaining. I never found myself invested in Jackie or his mob buddies though, but I was intrigued by the numerous mind-games The Darkness submitted Jackie too and also what the mysterious Brotherhood was all about.
Story details are revealed primarily in conversation with friendly and enemy AI, through conversations that are both interactive (and by that I mean press Square when prompted) and passive. This gives ample opportunity to hear the great voice acting, from the screechy, hissy words of The Darkness, the British accent of the Darkling, the curse-word-riddled Italians, and the soft spoken Jenny. No matter who is talking, the voice acting is certainly commendable. Visually, The Darkness II gets a lot right as well. Digital Extremes used their in house Evolution Engine to pump out a colorful comicbook or cel-shaded look. At first this seemed too cartoon-like for the very grim and violent atmosphere, but it ultimately works out. I thought the copious amounts of blood was a minus though, in that it's just too shiny and unrealistic looking ala the old Mortal Kombat games. Furthermore, the narrow diversity of areas doesn't do a great deal to creating interesting environments. However, most other visual details in the world, from the animations of the demon arms to the lighting effects, look quite nice.
Lighting is a huge part of the experience but I thought the execution here could have been more profound. Maybe I should have turned my brightness down to below recommended levels, but I thought that the game-world was too well lit, even in the absence of nearby light. Just as well as anyone else, I don't want to play a game in the dark, but for the type of atmosphere this game was going for, I thought the darkness (lowercase d there) could have been more profound. Additionally, the lights that you shoot out as you traverse the city didn't have as dynamic of an effect as I expected. On the other hand, when the Brotherhood start bringing their own super bright lights to the battles, things get more dynamic and interesting. Their lights will literally blind you if you stare into them, while simultaneously forcing The Darkness to take cover inside of you.
The Brotherhood is armed with light grenades as well as shoulder mounted light "cannons" that blast bright beams great distances. In addition, there are some special Brotherhood fighters that use a whip to snatch weapons out of your hands. Others carry armored shields and can also teleport short distances. Things can get fairly challenging if allow yourself to get even partially surrounded -- if there is light on you, The Darkness abilities are gone, all of them (including regeneration and heart eating), and if they snatch your weapon from you, you better hope you have another or can pick one up quickly because there is no melee or grab attacks.
When fully equipped, both with guns and The Darkness, Jackie has a variety of powerful attacks, many of which are unlocked from the Talent Tree. You can purchase various upgrades from Talent Spires, these black and purple floating objects that are spread out pretty regularly. Players spend Dark Essence at these that is earned from killing enemies and finding Relics (twenty-nine total). You can earn additional Dark Essence through creative kills involving your Demon Arm abilities (like smacking a foe up into the air, then hitting them with your gun). It's not quite as involved as Bulletstorm's creative kills, but along the same lines. Different upgrades yield varying attacks, some of which net you more health or ammo. My personal favorite unlocked ability was the Black Vortex. When you kill an enemy with the Demon Arm (R2 and RS to aim), there's a chance a small black orb might appear next to them. You can snatch this with your other demon hand and then throw it, creating a temporary but powerful black hole that sucks in all nearby enemies... super cool.
Other unlocks give you more ammo per clip while The Darkness is enabled, or additional armor, or even the ability to see-through walls for a short period of time if you upgrade the Gun Channeling ability. Without these additional unlocks, the story would have been very bare, so I'm glad they're included, but I will say that around the halfway point of the game I started having a hard time figuring out what skills I actually wanted. Many of them just weren't appealing and I didn't know what might best suite me by the time the game ended. Ultimately, I don't think it matters much, as the difficulty level is very linear and workable. You can adjust the difficulty between four settings at anytime from the Pause Menu, by the way.
As far as some more specific examples of mediocre design, I will start with the levels. Each level in The Darkness II honestly felt like something out of a game several or more years old. You usually start off outside or in a corridor of some sort with only one viable direction. In fact, the vast majority of the time, there is only a single path. The levels had a tangible old school feel to them -- lots of hallways, some big, multi-tiered rooms, more hallways and plenty of invisible walls. Usually your objectives match the level design in terms of repetition and their basic nature -- find a way into the building -- track down this dude -- defeat said dude -- things like that. In other words, this is a very straight-forward shooter. There are no puzzles or keys to find and it's hard to get lost. If you go off exploring in the least, you're likely to find one of the twenty-nine collectibles, aka Relics, which give you a lot of Darkness universe backstory if you read through their lengthy descriptions.
After clearing the short story mode, you can start up New Game+, which allows you to carry over your unlock abilities and Dark Essence levels (this does overwrite your old save-game though). There is also a multiplayer component called Vendettas that's actually pretty neat. Digital Extremes decided to make the multiplayer mode a co-op only affair, with support for up to four players. The main characters have a bit of a backstory and all share one common trait: they are possessed by The Darkness, or at least have Darkness-enhanced abilities. The diversity of the characters is pretty cool, with one character yielding a samurai sword while another tank-like character has a shotgun. The missions in Vendetta are inspired from or take place in between main events of the actual campaign mode. For passionate Darkness fans the multiplayer mode definitely adds at least several more important hours of play, but I can't go as far as to say that it completely makes up for the short, ultimately mediocre campaign.