Considering that it’s a tale about demonic possession, mental illness and a sleazy organised crime syndicate, The Darkness II is a surprisingly subtle videogame. It’s ultra, ultra violent and on occasion literally takes place in hell, but when it slows down and focuses on the central relationship between possessed mob impresario Jackie Estacado and his deceased girlfriend Jenny, it becomes something else entirely; tactful and daring, these sections feel like as much of an “arthouse” distraction as comparable sequences from this month’s phenomenal Catherine.
Which isn’t to dismiss the shooting, which is fantastically satisfying. As it was developed by Swedish developer Starbreeze, The Darkness II’s predecessor was built on the team’s proprietary game engine and was also their very first FPS, and consequently it didn’t feature particularly satisfying gunplay mechanics. The story – as written by Paul Jenkins – engaged effortlessly, but that first title was most notable for its ability to find favour with people who didn’t normally tend to gravitate towards first person shooters.
And although the team behind The Darkness II – the well-respected Canadian outfit Digital Extremes – are far more au fait with the nuts and bolts of FPS development than Starbreeze ever were, the unorthodox narrative devices used (invented?) by the trendsetting Swedes are augmented beautifully in the sequel. A couple of gloriously fresh narrative stunts are pulled during the game’s extended climax, and they’re so unexpected that they end up being doubly effective; and emblematic of a deep love for the property, and palpable respect for the first game’s legacy.
But The Darkness II is still a first-person shooter, and it’s a very bloody good one indeed. You truly feel all-powerful when you’re able to fling debris directly at one enemy in the distant background whilst simultaneously popping caps in one standing in front of you, and for all of its brilliant flourishes the game always knows exactly what it is; literally taking you for a ride at one point on a carnival ghost train. Combat is precise, fluid and moreish, and multiple playthroughs (even if you don’t take one important third act choice into account) are all but mandatory.
Enemy AI is frequently unpredictable, and an expansive skill-tree further encourages extended play. Unlike its forebear it’s a totally linear experience, but the sheer momentum of the narrative’s relentless drive means that constant options and multiple pathways would almost certainly damage it. The co-op multiplayer missions are similarly straightforward, but the underhanded humour is ramped right up; particularly if you choose to play as the uncouth Scottish brute named Jimmy. The co-op mode is nothing ground-breaking, but is a great excuse to spend more time in such a flavourful world.
The slick cel-shaded visuals are the icing, paying lip service to the story’s comic book origins, and creating a disorientating, fever-dream perspective in the process that couldn’t be any more fitting. The Darkness II is far more interesting than any big-budget franchise sequel has any right to be, and even if the less polished original left you rather cold, you should probably check your pulse if this one doesn’t leave you hankering for a follow-up. Just a shooter then, but what a shooter.
The Darkness II is available now for the Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC.
Watch the trailer for The Darkness II below: