Have you ever felt a rage so powerful and consuming that it seemed to be operating under its own control? That's the Darkness. That's the ancient, elemental creature that nests deep in the consciousness of Jackie Estacado, which grants him extraordinary power but demands his soul in return. This comic-book premise inspired 2007's The Darkness, still the high-water mark for storytelling in a first-person shooter.
The Darkness II arrives with its share of red flags: development duties shifted from Starbreeze to Digital Extremes, most of the original voice cast is gone, and nearly all the advance press has focused on how many guns Jackie can carry at the same time. Yet even as it tweaks the gameplay for greater goriness and a slicker feel, The Darkness II proves mostly faithful to the vision of the original. Here is a first-person shooter that gives meaning to its violence, and that bothers to acquaint us with the people pulling the trigger — and those on the other end of the barrel.
A few years after the events of the first game, Jackie has risen to become the head of a powerful crime family. Still haunted by the memory of his lost girlfriend, Jenny, he has managed to keep the Darkness in check — that is, until a religious cult, hell-bent on stealing the Darkness for itself, launches an all-out war. The Darkness re-awakens, and once again Jackie is stalking the streets of New York like a nightmare, dealing pain and punishment to the many unfortunate souls who cross him.
Despite the many powers of the Darkness, the meat-and-potatoes gameplay is less than invigorating. Gunplay is par for the course, with responsive controls and your usual assortment of pistols, automatic rifles, and shotguns. The Darkness itself manifests as snake-like creatures that can slash, grab, and rend anything they touch. The level of violence may be appropriate, given the elemental hatred the creature is supposed to represent, but it's numbing through sheer repetition. There are only so many evil henchmen you can rip apart in front of your eyes before you get it.
Still, the careful storytelling is worth wading through the gore. Jackie is nominally the hero, but his unquenchable rage and lack of judgment lead one to wonder if the cult leader might not have a point. And as Jackie's perception flits back and forth between the blood-drenched streets of New York and a mental asylum, where the doctors assure him that he's suffering from severe delusions, it's not so obvious to the player which is the real world and which is fantasy. A climactic choice between the two settings proves to be wrenching.
Given the success of the narrative, it's puzzling why Digital Extremes implemented an arcade-style scoring system. Shoot an enemy in the head and you get 20 points; slice him in half and earn 30. Your totals are displayed onscreen as fast as you rack them up. The points you earn can be used to upgrade the Darkness's powers, but it's a jarring, off-key implementation. When you should be involved in the story, up pop these intrusive scoring elements to remind you that The Darkness II is, after all, just a game. To truly meet the standard of its predecessor, it should have been more courageous than that.
You’ll always earn more points for killing a foe with a darkness power than with your gun.