It's fair to say that Jackie Estacado is not a happy man. Consumed by an all-powerful, dominating force known as the Darkness which he has managed to control for now (you'll never guess what happens), he is in constant mourning for his girlfriend Jenny, murdered during the last game. Now the don of the Franchetti crime family, Jackie is attacked in a well-organised hit and, after unleashing the Darkness to defend himself, he sets out to avenge himself upon the attackers and find out who is behind it. So begins a fantastically paced adventure of intrigue and illusion, tightly harnessed into a terrific storyline. The only shame is that, like Jackie's ability to keep the Darkness in check, it ends too quickly and is lacking any real replay value.
It is difficult to describe without verging into spoiler territory just how refreshing and effective the storyline of The Darkness II is. Written by British comic book veteran Paul Jenkins, the story oozes quality; well-paced, shocking, gritty and always interesting, it's fantastic to see a game built around a story rather than a story built around a game. Consequently, everything from the graphical design to the gaggling, potty-mouthed minion (now a sole central character) through even to the way the combat mechanics play out are built around the concept and world so well held together by the narrative. Dark, twisted, often hilarious and with a brutal body-count, The Darkness II's narrative is a credit to the imagination and drive of 2K and Jenkins. Continuing the intrigues of the original and its undertones of despair and confusion, now with added psychological disambiguation, it's still really built around the tragic relationship of Jackie and Jenny. Not since Shadow of the Colossus has a relationship been depicted so sympathetically, so humanely; as you waltz with her shade slowly around a café, gazing into her eyes as they share the meaningless words that make a relationship so effective, you, like Jackie, feel your heart-breaking.
Of course, this is a video game, not a psychological noir gothic-horror film, and all this would be nothing without the gameplay to match the narrative. Thankfully, The Darkness II is an absolute blast from start to finish. The gameplay has changed since the original in-line with the storyline; the confusion and adventure of the original is gone, replaced by the expected violence and assuredness of a hit-man harnessed by a force of darkness out for revenge. Combat is sharp and effective; each shoulder button corresponds to an arm, i.e. two guns on the triggers with the two bumpers for the Darkness powers. Ammo is scarce, meaning that you rely on the far-more-fun abilities of the Darkness. The left arm is used for grabbing, which can mean anything from picking up car-doors to use as shield to flinging them at your unwitting enemies. It's also used for eating the hearts of victims to regain health, a useful but disorientating move during the heat of battle. The right arm is used for a more basic slash, used for mutilating enemies and slashing control panels. As such, there is a great deal of variety in what you can do, although most enemies are pretty thick, wading out like lambs to the slaughter. And my, is there a lot of slaughter.
Violence is gratuitous and gratifying, a satisfying mix of gore and extravagant executions, with heads, limbs and enough body matter to confuse an anatomist spraying across the screen. Levels are basic but effective, but have a decent amount of environmental interaction to aid the massacre (impaling with a snooker cue never gets old). Jackie gains experience points when he gets a kill, which can then be spent on an extended skill set selected from an intuitive skill-wheel. These add depth to the gun-play; although some are the obvious extended clips and the like, others are far more imaginative. For example, you can unlock the ability to explode projectiles on touch, including your hilarious cockney minions. Others allow you to send swarms after enemies, vital in tight situations. These upgrades are well thought out and entirely necessary; without the Darkness powers, the game would be a pretty average shoot-fest, but with them it becomes a frantic and fun blast.
Unfortunately, the pace of combat has its downsides; it allows little time for consideration of the rich universe it's based in, effectively rushing you from scene to scene. Because of this and the two 'hub' areas (Jackie's mansion and a spoiler area), the game plays more like a series of stages rather than the continuous narrative that they were perhaps aiming for, a la Half-Life 2. These areas, although full of characters, feel mistimed and seem to break the pace. Of course, someone else could argue they add to the universe and are entirely necessary to building a believable world, so it can work two ways. What cannot be defended however is the length of the game; as a pretty average and untalented gamer, I still beat the game without breaking a sweat in around 8 hours, and that's including the hub-packing, so realistically you can strike an hour off that at least. Although a multiplayer co-op mode is included, Vendetta, it's pretty poor. Without the intrigues of the central plot and without really adding anything to the main event it becomes a pretty dry experience quickly, which is surprising considering how fun the combat is in single-player.
Whilst the original had a more straight-forward artistic style, 2K and new developers Digital Extremes have gone for a cel-shaded look more tuned to its comic book origins. The experiment works well; the style is detailed and vibrant, with lots going on and real character to boot. Character models are firm and individual, although lip-synching suffers on minor characters. Lots of the game is unsurprisingly dark, but this is well considered; Jackie loses the Darkness when he emerges into light, justifying the chiaroscuro lighting and making it a key gameplay mechanic. The sound, meanwhile, is deep and controlled; all the sound effects, cries, bangs and crashes are over-the-top but not out of keeping with the tone of the work. The voice-acting is fantastic; believable and in character, they add a lot to the narrative, whether it be the grit of Jackie, the soothing Jenny or the tough but encouraging Auntie. Minor characters chatter in the background, revealing details or troubles when they think their boss is out before standing to attention and enthusing his health when he makes his presence known; a little, but crucial, touch to make the world believable.
The Darkness II is a fantastic, even brilliant, video game, with one of the greatest and best realised noir narratives ever on a console. Tender and brutal, violent but serene, it's a mass of paradox which, nine times out of ten, works perfectly. The graphics are extravagant, the characters believable, the fighting fun and the story fascinating; for six hours, it's gripping. But it's only for 6 hours, and has little replay value and poor multiplayer. It's a real shame, a crying shame, but it is perhaps the price to pay for such a tight, well-ordered narrative. Is it worth it? Probably. My heart breaks every time I think of that dance; that is a type of value that cannot be measured in hours.
This review is based on an Xbox 360 copy of The Darkness II, provided by the publisher.