Review: Three heads are better than one
Swedish developer Starbreeze became a household name to Xbox fans 3 years ago with the outstanding Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay. A moody, gritty, and atmospheric first-person adventure/shooter, it cemented the company as one of the more talented development houses in the world (and made up for the terrible Enclave they forced on us early in the Xbox's lifespan). With new-generation gaming in full-swing, Starbreeze has unloaded yet another moody, gritty and atmospheric first-person adventure/shooter, in the form of The Darkness, a title based upon a popular comic from Top Cow. A combination of plausible reality and supernatural impossibility, The Darkness is both unique and familiar, but never this pretty or this well-told. It's the perfect summertime time-waster, the sort of game that will never be remembered when marking down the best games on the Xbox 360 platform, but something you'll fondly recall as a sleeper hit.
The Darkness is actually, when you get down to it, your typical Mafia-style story. Jackie Estacado is a hitman in the Franchetti family based out of New York, working for his ?Uncle? Paulie Franchetti, the don of the family. When the game begins, Jackie and his fellow family members are returning from a botched collection mission (on Jackie's 21st birthday no less), and because Paulie is a total scumbag, he rewards their failure by putting a hit out on Jackie. In the midst of running from his now-enemies, Jackie unexpectedly is joined by an evil supernatural force known as The Darkness, which grants terrible power...but in truth The Darkness (who is voiced by Mike Patton, yes that
Mike Patton from Faith No More) wants to control Jackie rather than simply give him the powers manifesting within him. So while the basic plot is revenge ? a revenge that grows as the game progresses ? and payback, Jackie also has to deal with this Darkness and find a way to control it before it controls him. The game takes many twists and turns along the way, especially about a third of the way in, when things totally change and you see a familiar clich? done in fashion you probably never thought about ? but still the theme of revenge and payback permeates.
As opposed to being a linear first-person game, The Darkness actually has a bit of an open feel to its world. Being based in New York, the subway system is the main means of transportation, and there's two main hubs Jackie can take to reach all the areas you'll need to visit. When not following the story Jackie can go anywhere he wants and look around for the 100 collectibles scattered (granted that a good amount of them are one shot chances), which unlock bonus goodies, hunt around for weird phone numbers to play a weird little quest, or handle about a dozen side-quests for various people hanging around the subway. These range from simply finding a bracelet that fell onto the train tracks to taking out a series of assassinations for some prominent allied family members to figuring out how to outhustle a subway hustler. In a touch of realism if you want to take a subway train to the other station in the game, you have to wait for it to arrive ? but in truth simply walking alongside the tracks will summon one.
One can't really consider the game to be a true first-person shooter, as there's a complete de-emphasis of standard FPS conventions. Early on in the game, the mechanics are pure FPS, with a wide assortment of weapons for which to defend yourself, but once The Darkness powers manifest the standard combat takes a backseat. At first Jackie has just one Darkness power, dubbed Creeping Death because it summons one of the Darkness heads (which pop up along Jackie when you press the Left Bumper to bring them up) that, when there's suitable Darkness Power, will slither on the ground or up and over walls to covertly take out enemies, one hit kill style. And then to keep it going, you can devour their hearts to increase the Darkness powers to last longer and be more effective. There's 4 Darkness powers in total ? a Demon Arm to impale, Darkness Guns which are the most ?FPS? style of the powers, and the awesome Black Hole which sucks almost anything up in the nearby radius of where it's summoned. By the end of the game this will be your go-to power.
Adding to the fun are the bizarre and amusing Darklings. Like the Darkness powers themselves, as you progress more of these little critters become available. At first you just get the basic Berserker type, that'll melee kill enemies until they themselves get whacked. Later on, a Gunner type appears which is a berserker type with a gun and become one of the more handy Darkling types. Kamikaze Darklings have multiple purposes, as they can not only run into a crowd of enemies and suicide bomb them (in a sort of way), they also can detonate themselves to blow up weak walls for Jackie to progress ? it happens a few times. Last but not least are the Lightkiller types, which also have multiple purposes. At ground level these guys can electrocute enemies with their lightning powers, but more importantly, they will attack and destroy almost every light source in the game ? because the Darklings will die if exposed to light for too long.
Light plays a crucial role in the game, which for some might be a bit tedious. While shooting out lights is a cool visual effect, it has a more vital purpose, and that's Darkness powers. Like a Gremlin, light weakens Darkness, and thus when under light you'll hear a burning sound when exposed under a light, draining Darkness powers. To recover the powers you have to reach a dark area and let The Darkness do its thing to return to full strength. Because this is a necessary mechanic to survive the game, it becomes a habit to take out lights as quickly as possible, whether its by using regular guns, the Demon Arm, or a Lightkiller Darkling. Meanwhile, you may be getting pumped with lead; and while you're in good shape with Darkness summoned since it acts as a shield, without it, you're dead in just a couple hits. This is why the long-range Black Hole is so useful later, as you can hide in a dark spot, recover power, step out, activate the hole, and clean up the mess afterwards, or hide again to repeat the process.
Though The Darkness is clearly a unique and fun game, it does have some annoyances. That is, other than having to shoot lights out all the time while trying to not get killed. Though the AI can put you down fast, they're not really too smart since they rarely take cover and tend to freeze up when being attacked with a Darkness power. On the other hand with a regular gun they take a lot of shots to go down unless you nail them in the head. Loading is frequent especially if you're taking a train to a different part of the city ? while its handled in a unique way, with Jackie usually dishing out some (repetitive) anecdotes and stories, they're somewhat lengthy. At least once you enter an area there's no loading until you leave. Most importantly, the game uses a checkpoint system that has a tendency to hand them out like it was a yearly birthday present. This results in having to repeat parts of a game multiple times if you die towards the end of a sequence. It really doesn't matter if they didn't want to go with a save anywhere system, but having a Halo-style checkpoint system would have been a good way to go. Finally, the ending is very ambiguous, and may leave some a bit annoyed because of this.
Chronicles of Riddick was reamed by some for having no multiplayer, so The Darkness almost had to include it. This is despite the fact that Riddick was clearly a story-driven first-person adventure game and not designed for MP (though the remake coming to PS3 and 360 will have MP). However, its clear the single player campaign was the focus, as the multiplayer is basic and probably tacked on to appease the critics. It's got your basic deathmatches and team modes along with capturing flags (and plenty of Achievements on 360, which means in time most Xbox Live games will become a nightmare with 10 year old kids complaining that someone stole a kill that would have given them an Achievement), and its done with a novel take on the Darkness universe explained in the main single player game.
The Darkness shows its visual chops in a rugged, beat-down NYC. There's not a single ?clean? location in the game, as everything is very greasy, grimy, and dirty. The subway is just as dirty as you'd expect, with graffiti and grime everywhere you look to create an uneasy feeling about simply being there even though you can't draw any guns or summon The Darkness while there. Areas like Lower East Side and Chinatown seem normal but yet dangerous all the same ? while going through Lower East Side a mugger actually tried to rob me. It's all done in exquisite detail, with in-jokes on walls and street signs guiding you, and even NY tourism markers showing where you're at. Not that a tourist would be in one of these dirty areas. The voice cast is outstanding, giving the game a serious tone all the way through. The music ranges from moody when wandering around to intense metal-style rock during battles with enemies. It fits.