Uber violent games like The Darkness II aren’t for everyone, and I’m not just talking about the ESRB rating. The game opens with protagonist Jackie Estacado, already with a half blown off leg, being dragged to safety while forced to quell enemy threats with his free hand gripped around a randomly procured pistol. Thank god for mobsters that always come prepared, am I right?
In the first game, a mysterious entity known only as The Darkness consumed Jackie, helping him survive mafia attacks, but also forcing him to watch his long time girlfriend, Jenny, die. The unfortunate events leave an emotional scar on Jackie, but like someone in an abusive relationship, he can’t help but be drawn to The Darkness’ powers (mainly because of the burned off leg—who wants to live with that?).
But even as Jackie physically embraces The Darkness—he’s sprouted two demon arms that snap viciously (and playfully) at each other—it’s obvious that he has his reservations about obeying every creepy command whispered in his ear.
Jackie is effectively two characters: a mob boss, and also a host to an evil power that both heals and occasionally controls him, all the while helping him inflict savage beatings against his enemies.
For newcomers, it might take a bit of practice to get a comfortable handle on quad-wielding. But as soon as you do, you’ll be beasting through each level, shredding everything in sight. A tried and true method I found most appealing involved grabbing the nearest enemy by the leg to throw at another, while simultaneously shooting the pesky guys with guns in the background. This sometimes also involves grabbing saws, fans, and poles to chuck at unsuspecting enemies. You’ll be gifted with satisfying visuals like a half sliced or impaled man.
Your companion, a Darkling resembling a gremlin with a penchant for sophomoric humor, helps in your endeavors, as well. Latching on to their heads, the Darkling will distract enemies while you tend to the others. He’ll lead you in the right direction, and warn you of your important environmental obstacles: namely, light. As the name might suggest, The Darkness feeds on the dark and diminishes in the light. Although you’re not completely defenseless in the light—your human hands will still dual wield guns just fine—it’s distracting and makes you vulnerable to your enemies.
Navigating around the light obstacles sometimes involves taking control of the Darkling himself, and you’ll get a chance to experience the fight a little bit lower to the ground. The Darkling’s main ability involves crawling up a human’s leg to latch onto its neck. Some executions will see the Darkling stabbing his thumbs into their eye sockets, or slicing their throat with a freakishly long nail. Either way, it rivals the gruesome deaths Jackie’s demon powers can inflict.
Having a companion in an otherwise lonely game has always been a welcomed addition for me. The Darkling adds a bit of comedy where there would typically be yet another moment to pull some poor soul’s spine out from inside them. His British accent and tendency to pee on almost everything ensures that the game isn’t always just a deluge of blood and guts.
It’s especially fortunate that Digital Extremes added this rancid creature to keep you company, because your thug friends only play at adding substance to the story or to your character. They’re typical goons, carbon copies of one another who pass the time sharing crude jokes and swapping track jackets for suits, and vice versa. They’re always ready to start a ruckus, but as soon as you get into the thick of it, they stand back to hold the fort (or whatever it is they do). They gather the intel (read: beat information out of people), rack up bills with prostitutes, and leave Jackie to do the dirty work.
I tried to consider what the purpose might be of leaving out any deeper interaction with your gangster friends. Maybe it’s to signify your gradual lean towards The Darkness. But your disconnect from humanity could have been emphasized by showing your interactions with your men slowly becoming strained, proving Jackie to be more in sync with the Darkling companion than his human ones. Regardless of the direction of the storyline, I still wished that the characters involved themselves more with what should be a mob-wide effort.
While I’m always thrilled at the prospect of adding new demon arm executions to my skill tree as I accumulate murders (and therefore Essence - the currency used to build your skills), Jackie is dealing with the whole I-have-demon-arms-and-have-to-murder-people thing from an entirely different perspective. Even during loading screens - where Jackie sits in a chair, clearly mentally exhausted - you’ll learn more about what troubles him. Adding to what would otherwise be a repetitive murder spree is a storyline with psychological dilemmas and power struggles. As much as I often find myself content with a thrill ride of slashing up enemies left and right, there is more depth to the story and to Jackie than meets the eye.
Towards the end of the preview build, I came face to face with more aggressive enemies. Armed with what look like heavy axes, these guys came charging at me with an air of intent in each step. Jackie’s demon arms were more than ready for these close-range attacks, though. It was my hungry demon arms against their one, shiny axe and I wasn’t about to put The Darkness to shame. Dealing with mostly this kind of enemy and having to run to avoid bright lights was more fun than the combination firefight and melee combat I had so far experienced. Admittedly - though the light aspect theoretically adds an interesting mix to the standard FPS, and not-so-standard quald-wielding with demon arms - it grew bothersome to have to consider another factor when dealing with trigger-happy enemies.
I’ll be interested to see what other enemies we might encounter down the road, and how Jackie handles The Darkness’ attempts to control him when the game releases on February 7th for the 360, PS3 and PC.