It’s quite ironic that Starbreeze, creators of perhaps the finest movie adaptation in The Chronicles of Riddick that we’ve ever seen have, and excuse the pun, returned from the darkness with a comic book license to thrill us all again. It’s been 3 years since Vin Diesel’s epic action adventure on the Xbox, and although Microsoft really need a kick in the gonads to make it backwards compatible with the Xbox 360 (What do we want? Chronicles of Riddick! When do we want it? NOW!), The Darkness goes some way to easing the pain. Underneath all the gloss and glamour is a very basic shooter, but it’s the incredibly detailed environments, Hollywood-esque storyline and amazing attention to detail, amongst many other little bits and bobs that require superlatives outside of my immediate vocabulary, shine extraordinarily well to make The Darkness like no other.
Like any decent film, you’re thrown right into the action leaving you dazed and confused but also intrigued. The Darkness follows Jackie Estacado, a man about to land head first up shit creek as he and two goons drive right into the heart of Mafia territory to make a hit. At first there’s not much to do besides sit and listen to the other characters argue, but soon you’re in a car chase with the police, and after a high-speed shoot-out, you’re in the front seat riding shotgun as Jackie’s friend gets chopped in half leaning over the side of the car. It’s immediately apparent how detailed The Darkness is as you accidently shoot out the windscreen testing the shotgun, and the screen cracks up before falling in on itself. Shortly, after landing with a bump and seeing the driver pass away abruptly, it’s time to finish the job.
“What do we want? Chronicles of Riddick! When do we want it? NOW!”As previously stated, the core mechanics of The Darkness are little more than average; levels are incredibly linear and straight forward, and besides the excellent AI, encounters with enemies are no brainer slug fests, usually resulting in backtracking to lure them in and devour them one by one. Out in the open they dive for cover the second a shot is fired, peek out quickly to survey the scene and fire short bursts in an attempt to keep you at bay. To make these battles more interesting are the powers of the Darkness, growing stronger and adding in variety as you eat the hearts of the fallen, until you can eventually rip them out of the living as they stand before you. From the start you’re given access and control over darklings, much like those seen in Overlord. These little yet ferocious creatures scurry around the immediate area and kill anything in their way, from fist punching to sawing the heads off of enemies. Unfortunately, for all their humourous comments, brutal executions and customisable attire, darklings are rarely essential nor strategic and serve merely as slaves for your enjoyment, especially since one stands in the way of a train early on in the game, sprays the front with bullets and brings it to a stop, but only after being mown down under the wheels.
As the name portrays, you’d be best sticking to the shadows. Shooting out light sources enhances your darkness powers, allowing you to run amok with the snakes for longer and take out enemies easier. There’s a vast array of weaponry available for when there’s little shadow, although all are quite inconsistent. One minute your shotgun will feel like taking out an entire army, the next like it wouldn’t hit a cows arse with a banjo; therefore they’re best used when you need to make a quite dash into a dark corner to recharge your powers.
“So much time, effort, love and care has been spent on the tiny things that drag you unknowlingly into the story”The action plays second fiddle to a powerful and engaging story, with the Don wanting you dead. Early on it becomes apparent that you’ll have to wade through the entire Mafia reserve to exact revenge on Uncle Paulie, and there’s numerous storylines and content to unlock along the way. Players are rewarded for hanging around and taking their time, with humourous posters hung around in subway stations, phone numbers scribbled on papers to ring for extra content and detail right down to being able to switch channels on TV’s to watch another programme. The relationship between Jackie and his girlfriend is particulary interesting as she doesn’t know that her boyfriend is a contract killer for the Mafia, nor about his sub-human powers. There are plenty of avenues to go down with her when conversing, as you can either come clean about your ordeals or put on a brave front. Time spent with her also reveals some of the outstanding attention to animation. You can join her on the sofa in her new home for a cuddle in front of the TV, the longer you sit there the more she fidgets to get comfortable whilst hugging you, eventually turning into her kissing Jackie, tongues and all. She’s also played to be incredibly vulnerable, especially in the very early stages of the game when you learn that you’ve just pissed off the entire New York City Mafia. In a phone call between the two it becomes clear that she’s blissfully unaware of the deep shit that Jackie is in, and has a fairly callous approach to Jackie’s request to lock the doors and windows. It gives players a sense of urgency to rush through the next part of the level and generally get frustrated when bogged down with bad guys to go to her rescue. Even when seeing her hanging out of the window that she was asked to lock on your arrival telling you to go round the back of the block, the fantastic musical score has you convinced that her blood will be sprayed across the walls of her new apartment right up until the point the door opens and she falls into your arms unharmed. Incredible.
There’s a real sense of purpose and meaning in The Darkness, as for once we’re not some floating, faceless pair of hands that can also carry and shoot a gun; we’re Jackie Estacado, former member of the Mafia. The way he interacts with interchanging environments is incredible, with guns raised up when in cover and a single arm leading you round a corner. Purely cosmetic, but it’s these details that suck you into The Darkness and change day into night in what seems to be minutes. Loading screens have Jackie talking about random tidbits of his life, which usually centres around Uncle Paulie, and keep players jostling to find a position on the twisty and murky plot.
“A great example of how licenses can work in videogames”The Darkness is an exceptional piece of work let down by basic flaws. It’s pretty obvious that the story was written and laid bare, then wrapped around the shooter engine. It’s solid, let’s make that clear, but it doesn’t break new ground. It’s hard to criticise Starbreeze for that either, because so much time, effort, love and care has been spent on the tiny things that drag you unknowlingly into the story, from the use of lighting to watching TV, character animations to outstanding level design and detail. It’s those things that give it the rare distinction of authenticity unseen in many other games, and whilst at some points you do feel as if proceedings are dragging along somewhat, you’re only a corner away from something even more spectacular both in experience and opportunity than the last.
Perhaps an anticlimax then that the multiplayer tacked on for God knows what reason goes against everything that The Darkness stands for, with run-of-the-mill first person shooter action that doesn’t rely on sneaking in the shadows or tactile use of the Darkness powers. That aside, you’ve a great example of how licenses can work in videogames when given time and devotion, something that you can give in return for this brilliant piece of video gaming.