Previous Review: I Am Alive
Preface: As with my previous reviews, criticism of my opinion and my actual writing is welcome - it's nice to see people feel it's worth their time to write a response, especially as this is so far my most comprehensive review by far. As someone who decidedly hates spoilers of any kind, I always try and avoid them as much as possible; at most, I will reference plot setups.
The Darkness II was played on a PC. This review will cover the game's single-player aspect only. I have not played the first game, nor have I read the comics.
Prefer Call of Duty? Jackie'll eat your heart out.
For a game about the relentless, bloody struggle over the control of a man's inner-most demons, The Darkness II is a surprisingly well-measured experience. Pacing, both of a story and gameplay, is a skill which is seemingly lost on a lot of developers, but The Darkness II handles it expertly, and is not afraid to take you out of the fray so that it can focus you on the more serene, thematic elements of it's story. Crucially however, as the game squarely takes aim at considering the duality of man (in this case, the 'man' being one Jackie Estacado, head of the Franchetti crime family), The Darkness II refrains from obnoxiously wrestling control from the player. Instead, its segues from action to more story-oriented sequences (and vice versa) are both effortless and welcome.
In part, this is owed to the game keeping you in Jackie's head for much of the game's duration, preventing the experience from feeling fragmented; bizarrely, however, the game abandons this at the last hurdle, awkwardly cutting you out from the game's final cutscene. Occasionally, Jackie will deliver exposition relating to his past, or to past experiences with his deceased girlfriend, Jenny, in the form of a 'talking head' monologue: imagine The Office mixed with The Godfather, and throw in some ground-up goth kids to sprinkle on top.
Bake for 40 minutes. Whilst these sequences do their job of relaying a little more information about the kind of guy that Jackie is, they're somewhat workmanlike, and it would have been preferable to see them integrated into actual conversations between characters, or into the environment of Jackie's explorable (between missions) penthouse.
Remember kid... always use your shampoo and conditioner separately, for maximum shine and volume.
A better demonstration of Jackie's character is seen when you are unleashed into the heady mixing-pot of bullets, blood, and ruddy great demon arms that comprise The Darkness II's combat. Gunplay is frantic, with every weapon seemingly set to 'Blow Your Load' mode by default, whilst almost everything but shotguns can be dual-wielded. The pistols in particular feel superb, making the popping of caps into all-manner of bum holes a real joy. Your demon arms meanwhile allow you to grab and hurl objects (including people - dead or alive), eat enemies' hearts to restore health (segments of your health bar will regenerate after a few seconds, but you'll need the hearts to refill it), and smack anything that moves upside the head. For the most part, these demon arms of mass destruction are implemented as best they can be, although the premise inevitably leads to the occasional, desperate attempt to keep your arm-arms and your evil-arms functioning simultaneously. At it's best though, the whole shebang can look rather balletic, as you whip enemies out of your way and have your bullets occupy their friends' brain-space.
Somewhat annoyingly, in what would seem to be an effort to maintain the combat's hectic pace, weapons seem to run out of ammo constantly. Whilst the intent is understandable, it's a problem which is compounded in later stages of the game, where you often won't even be fighting guys carrying guns, but axes and blades instead. At points, this becomes an even greater aggravation, as enemies carrying industrial lights (suppressing Jackie's Darkness powers until destroyed) and others carrying whips (allowing them to pull your guns from your hands), are introduced. This can occasionally result in situations where your gun's been pulled from your hands, your ability to heal and to deal melee damage are momentarily gone, and your back-up weapons don't have enough ammo to let you do anything about it.
At these times, the death that's delivered to you is both unceremonious and unfair; the result of an imbalance in The Darkness II's enemies which doesn't work in your favour. Even so, the prevalence of these moments should not be overstated, with the majority of combat allowing you to revel in it's mayhem as you spear enemies to walls with metal poles, bisect them with fan blades and rip the riot shields from their hands for your own protection. Suffice to say, behind those glorious black locks is one mean son-of-a-bitch.
Thankfully, The Darkness II often affords a few moments of respite prior to, and during, combat, permitting you to soak-up the sumptuous art-style; it's wonderful to see a game which is so stunningly violent, as well as being a first-person shooter, which isn't afraid to make use of actual colours. (Having gone through and counted, I can in fact attest to all the colours of the rainbow being present.) Characters and objects are encased in bold black lines, whilst pencil lines are added to textures to give the sense of a hand-drawn comic book panel.
Great effort has also been devoted to implementing imagery which is cohesive with the game's primary themes (namely: the age-old struggle between good and evil, their inherent need for one another, and the struggle within Jackie himself) at multiple levels. Jackie's clothing is perhaps an obvious example, with his black jacket and waistcoat smothering his white shirt, whilst his penthouse his peppered with similar imagery (most obviously, his uhh... bedsheets). Even gameplay elements, such as the ability of light to suppress the Darkness' power, reflect Jackie's want for his own humanity, which - as he tells us - he used to find in Jenny. Most impressive are the themes' representation in the alternate reality which Jackie finds himself in from time to time; a reality which is calm, and which Jackie is completely uncomfortable in, standing in contrast with the vicious and violent world in which he's extraordinarily powerful and completely at ease with. It's a well-implemented and thought-provoking side to the plot, and begs the question of whether or not living in reality is all it's cracked up to be. There are enough elements shared between Jackie's two existences (characters, objects, the weather) to make you question which 'reality' is actually Jackie's, and even as the credits roll, the game remains delightfully ambiguous on the matter.
At the game's conclusion, Jackie forgoes his life of supernatural, violent crime to pursue his dreams of entering the box-making industry.
Perhaps wisely, the same level of complexity is not woven into the The Darkness II's secondary characters (primarily consisting of the Franchetti family), whose writers and voice actors have nevertheless imbued with a warmth and 'likability factor' which compensates for the fact that Jackie himself is inherently a bit of a dick. (Thankfully, his motivations during the game are particularly understandable, and humanly flawed.) This leaves most of them erring ever-so-slightly on the side of cliché, but not in a way which is annoying or offensive. And let's face it, what violent crime syndicate is complete without a wise old aunt who swears more than the actual Mafiosos? Of particular note however is the character of Johnny Powell, who disturbingly stutters his way through insane ramblings about the nature of the Darkness itself, and who is helpfully given narration duties to the video at the beginning of the game, explaining the previous game's events to new-comers.
Ultimately, The Darkness II proves to be a compelling, intelligently-crafted game; one which isn't afraid of the fact that it has a story to tell, with actual, human emotions involved. It's greatest failing comes at it's conclusion however - not in the game's final scenes, but when you exit back to Steam and see you've only been playing for five or so hours. Whilst I'm not in the habit of taking a dollar-value-per-hour view to games I've particularly enjoyed, it's hard to recommend anyone buy The Darkness II at it's full price.