Video Game Rentals Delivered

The Darkness

David Yun (Xbox Live Gamertag - Vawce) David Yun (Xbox Live Gamertag - Vawce): (contact-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2008-12-21 14:52:35

The Darkness - Rank B

Developer: Starbreeze Studios
Publisher: 2K Games
Date: 6/25/07

Also available for PlayStation 3

From the New Mexico landfill overflowing with copies of E.T., to the self-loathing required to play Superman 64, to the recursive atrocity that was Street Fighter: The Movie The Game, videogames based on licensed properties have a long and shameful history. The contemporary glut of offal like Iron Man or Prince Caspian does little to stem this relentless tide. However, a few years back, Starbreeze somehow managed to develop a dubious science fiction film property into an outstanding game: the massively overlooked The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay. For an encore, they took on another potential stinker with The Darkness, a comic book starring a mafia hitman semi-possessed by a demonic force of chaos which manifests by sprouting shadowy tentacles. Seriously.

As a first person shooter, The Darkness is solid, but not extraordinary. There's nothing particularly striking about the gunplay, physics, audio, or enemy A.I. The controls are a bit loose and swimmy. It's abundantly clear that Starbreeze made a deliberate decision to place the bulk of their energies elsewhere. You don't even need to reload your pistols; the main protagonist continually picks them up and discards them as he mows through the legions of enemies.

Instead, the emphasis of the action is on Darkness powers. Normally, a few enemy bullets are sufficient to drop you. When The Darkness manifests, toothy tentacles erupt from you, and you're protected by a rather clever implementation of the standard "Halo shield". The strength of The Darkness is represented by a meter, which will decrease as it absorbs damage. The same meter also fuels the various Darkness powers. You can send the tentacles creeping to stealth attack or manipulate objects, summon imp minions, lash out with an impaling demon arm, or create swirling vortexes of doom. If the conventional firearms aren't flashy enough, you can also sling bullets of pure darkness.

While these unique abilities are a welcome change in this tired genre, they can be frustrating to control. The tentacles are cumbersome beasts that are finicky about traversing corners or edges. The demon arm's aim is way too vague. And the imps are so idiotic (albeit amusing), that it's typically simpler to do without them. Add in the fact that The Darkness is fueled by shadows, and you'll spend an inordinate amount of game time shooting out lights in order to refill your Darkness meter.

What makes The Darkness worth playing, however, is the implementation of the story. Unlike most first person shooters, you do not continually mow down wave after wave of enemies. There are lengthy portions of the game involving exploration and chatting up characters. Some of them will offer you optional side quests. The Darkness makes a strong attempt to immerse you in its world, featuring music, voice acting, and a narrative that are a noticeable cut above the standard shooter.

The heart of the story focuses on the protagonist's girlfriend. You first encounter her by visiting her apartment. The two of you curl up on her couch to watch To Kill A Mockingbird. You can actually watch the entirety of this classic film (other watchable programming is also peppered throughout the game). Your girlfriend falls asleep on your lap, and you carefully let yourself out to go deal with business. There's no sexualization here, just a common but tender human moment that anyone who's ever been in a relationship can relate to. This simple scene creates a profound sense of attachment and romantic friendship that drives the rest of the game's narrative. The gravity of every following crisis point feeds off of this subtlety. Scenes that would be passe or absurd in other games, somehow work as emotionally charged experiences in The Darkness. I also appreciated that the lead character never descends into whiny emo-ness as his world falls apart, but fosters a hard, cold, implacable anger. In another nice touch, load times are papered over with intimate moments wherein the protagonist shares little anecdotes that offer insights into his character. I wish there were more of these, as they'll start to repeat, especially if you engage in the backtracking of the optional missions.

Unfortunately, there are moments when this sense of immersiveness and storytelling falls apart. Other characters don't seem to notice your demonic appendages. If I were a gunman who just witnessed a tentacle-mouth rip my buddy's heart right out of his chest cavity and devour it, you'd best believe I'd be freaking out and screaming obscenities about it. The protagonist's moral ambiguity is also tested to the extreme. I understand having no qualms about killing Mafioso, or even crooked cops who employ extortion, torture, and murder. However, several action sequences require you to butcher an endless stream of cops. Slipping away isn't an option. The protagonist will kill the homeless, but get all sentimental about an orphanage. He'll help a diabetic get his insulin, but will kill guys simply for playing music too loudly. You have some degree of control over how you handle these issues, but The Darkness doesn't offer the ethical decision-making range of the modern role-playing game, and these moral inconsistencies can be distracting.

Also, he carries a pager, which is employed throughout the game. Other than this, there's absolutely no indication that the game takes place in 1994. The Darkness features the typical nonsensical collectathon that compels obsessive-compulsives to scour every nook and cranny for hidden pickups. I abhor these Easter egg hunts, but at least they are entirely optional, used for unlocking bonus materials. An adversarial multiplayer mode was also tacked on, but you won't miss anything by skipping it.

There's no significant difference between the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions. I do recommend playing it on the Xbox 360 because I much prefer the 360 triggers for shooters. The usual amenities of Achievement Points and controller rumble might also sway you, but the PlayStation 3 version is entirely serviceable.

The individual elements of The Darkness are riddled with flaws and mediocrity, but the unique thrust of its narrative and presentation manage to craft a cohesive whole that's well worth playing. By no means is The Darkness a "must play", but still wholly recommended for gamers that enjoy under-appreciated gems that provide distinctive experiences.

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