The Darkness hides its blemishes under the cover of graphical and story elements that are legitimately awe-inducing. Neither wholly shooter nor wholly adventure, The Darkness never quite hits a balance. But sometimes being unbalanced is an adventure in itself. Case in point.
[image1]The Darkness draws its story from the graphic novel of the same name. Oddly, the story is not only the game’s strongest point, but it is also the weakest, and for the same reason: in combining wildly disparate elements, it achieves originality but sacrifices coherence.
You play as Jackie Estacato, a mafia hitman who has just learned, in the night of his twenty-first birthday, two things. On one hand, your Uncle Paulie, father-figure and mob boss, has put a hit out on you. On the other hand, you have giant snake-like tentacles growing out of your back that eat human hearts, endow you with super-powers, and call themselves “The Darkness”. It’s a bad night in most respects, what with the assassination/betrayal and the hideous deformity/evil parasite, but at least you’re legal to drink. Party on!
Sure it sounds like Christopher Moltosanti’s half-baked idea for a mafia/monster movie, but The Sopranos-meets-The Crow storyline presents itself soberly and miraculously manages to stay afloat due to outstanding voicework, character models, and writing. For a long time, you won’t even notice that the monster story has nothing to do with the mafia story.
But you will notice eventually, and the giant gaps that the game straddles eventually are just too wide. The Darkness weds some RPG-like adventure elements with standard FPS action, but they seem to occupy wholly discrete spheres. And never the twain shall meet.
The shooting is obviously geared down a few notches from the tactical military shooter standard. The aiming reticule automatically sticks to nearby targets, making it easier to pick off bad guys at a distance. And though there are quite a few weapons available, there is no real impetus to manage your guns or their ammo. Even the slick (or budget?) no-HUD display testifies to the non-technical nature of the gunplay.
But you’ve got other tricks up your sleeve as well. Two of them, in fact, in the shape of nasty demon barracuda snakes. You can use them to grab and move heavy items, scout out difficult to reach places, or eat the hearts of your defeated enemies. The last is the kind of spectacular display of violence that puts the gratitude back in gratuitous.
[image2]Not simply a cute circus trick, devouring hearts also increases your “darkness level.” Your darkness level determines how long your snake creatures can bear being in direct light. In order to keep your special monster powers, you must stay under the cover of darkness, and in doing so the action and the story meet in a smart way.
All of the lights in the levels of the game are destructible, so as you proceed through levels, you shoot out lights, turn off switches, blow up fuse boxes, and do just about anything else to stay in the dark. Pacific Gas and Electric would be proud.
The adventure elements are restricted to a few mini-games and some easter eggs. In some areas, mainly subway stations, your guns and monster moves are turned off and you can take on some easy side-missions. These are less exciting than they sound though, because the rewards are as slight as they are numerous. There are near a hundred unlockable rewards, each triggered by a phone number you actually have to call, that amount to more concept art than you can shake a concept stick at.
But for how slick and exciting the story seems to be at first, things slow down quickly due to constant backtracking. The game’s environments are exciting the first time you see them, but then the game pushes you from one end of Manhattan to the other, over and over again.
And unfortunately walking also is not this game’s strong suit. The graphics are pretty astounding when you stand still, but frame rate starts to drop faster than uncle Vinny in cement boots when you get moving. It looks a little better on the 360 than it does on the PS3, but both versions end up looking choppy.
For all the little problems about coherence (the enemies, for example, seem oblivious to the fact that you have toothy tentacles growing from your back) there are still a few big wow moments.
The first are the several televisions that you will encounter. The TVs play actual movies and television shows within the in-game engine. Not only can you change the channel, but you can simply sit back and watch a show until you’re bored. And then you blow the TV up.
The other big wows are in the story, and I can’t give them away without spoiling the surprise. But I can say that one of the most brutal moments I have ever seen in a video game is in this one, and it doesn’t need a lot of gore or torture to work. Instead, the superb story and characters magnify one small event into a moment rife with, of all things, symbolism.
That the story can do this probably says a lot about Paul Jenkins’s graphic novel from which it was drawn, but it also has something to do with the incredible detail of the environments and the characters. Conversations with people may not be necessary to the story, but you’ll find yourself talking to people just to watch their expressions and their mouths.
[image3]And to hear their voices. While Mike Patton’s (Faith No More) screeches and effected groans as “The Darkness” are a little overdone, the rest of the voices are spot-on. Although the music is nothing to mention, the sound overall is technically excellent (like the difference in the sound of the TV when the door is open as opposed to when it is closed).
But don’t expect all this detail to carry over into the perfunctory online game. The games online are obscenely laggy, spray-and-pray, fragfests with little or no strategy. Even worse, although the manual trumpets the Area 51-inspired “Last Man Standing” game mode, it doesn’t actually exist in the game as shipped. Where did it go? Into the darkness, one supposes.
And, just to be exhaustive, I should mention the summonable “Darklings,” little evil creatures that perform tasks in the single-player game. While not much of a factor in the single-player campaign, in the online game, you can transform into these gun-less speed demons at will. It sounds cool on paper, but in practice it seems more like frog hunting.
There’s quite a bit to recommend The Darkness, the beautiful interactive environments and the dynamic characters not the least of them. But the handicapped shooting elements, the inconsequential mini-games, and the lack of connection between them will probably turn off diehard shooter fans. It’s not the biggest game, nor the most technical, but it is original—absurd and effective despite its faults.