Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Review - The Darkness 2

Developer: Digital Extremes
Publisher: 2K Games
Platforms: Xbox 360.
Playstation 3, PC

I loved the original Darkness title. I loved its atmosphere, its tone, its story and its gameplay. It was a real underappreciated gem in the early days of the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. Imagine my disappointment upon hearing that Starbreeze weren’t making its sequel… But Digital Extremes were… Y’know? Digital Extremes? Responsible for the entirely forgettable Dark Sector, and a multiplayer component for Bioshock 2 that no one asked for? Yeah? Them.

At least they didn’t try to imitate Starbreeze’s take on the material, reducing the focus on grit and an almost entirely black and white landscape, and instead injecting vivid cel-shaded graphics and overhauling the combat entirely. The Darkness 2 is a better game for it.

A few years have passed since the events of the first game, Jackie Estacado is the don now, but you’ll still be getting your hands dirty – especially now that Jackie’s demon tentacle arms have come back out to play. It’s a good thing you now have even more options to deal out brutality – from picking up boxes and bins to throw at your enemies, to impaling them with pool cues, to slicing them in half with thrown car doors. Don’t worry – you can always blast them in the face with your dual-wield pistols, or pull them apart with your demon arms.

Make no mistake, The Darkness 2 is violent. But it all happens at such a fast pace that by the time you’ve initiated an execution animation, you’ll already be moving your reticule over your next victim. You can control two guns and two demon arms simultaneously, which really makes you feel powerful once you get used to it.

The enemies have gotten smarter this time though, you’re no longer just fighting rival gang muscle, but now you’re fighting The Brotherhood – the original guardians of the Darkness, who know it like the back of their hand. As such, they know its weakness – light. This makes the flashbang and spotlight-wielding enemies your biggest threat, and so the first to die. Horribly. It’s easy to see how The Darkness 2’s combat could become repetitive, if you relied on execution moves and simple shooting, but the game encourages you to mix it up – with the now industry-standard XP pop-ups front and centre telling you how you’re being rewarded and what for. It does break the immersion somewhat, and it doesn’t punish you for carrying out the same big-point moves over and over again. But it’d be a real shame to play the game in that way.

The Darkness 2 is linear this time around, which, although linearity has become an instant mark against an FPS on some of the larger review sites, it didn’t bother me here – and it’s to the game’s credit that it doesn’t funnel you from big set-piece moment to big set-piece moment like some of its contemporaries. It helps that the game’s environments and characters are vivid and full of life, with the characters being particularly expressive – impressively so, given that Digital Extremes haven’t resorted to performance capture or LA Noire-style facial mapping.

There are one or two changes from the original Darkness title that I don’t necessarily agree with, however. While the original’s memorable monologues are present and correct here, their inclusion seems strange here given the stylistic shift not only in the game’s overall presentation, but in Jackie’s character design too – it’s difficult to take his hard-hitting monologues seriously when his appearance is so much more flamboyant than his original character model. I also don’t care for the redesigning of the two demon arms, each arm has been made more distinctive, and it’s easy to tell them apart. Which I actually think works against the character of the Darkness. I liked how the arms were virtually the same in the original, it meant I couldn’t become attached to them, they were always alien – and that’s what you’d expect to feel about a demon that had latched onto you and refused to let go.

Admittedly, these are minor complaints, the deeper problem is with the game’s FOV – which is locked at around 60, obviously a remnant from the console ports that was never adjusted for the PC version. This is going to be fixed in an upcoming patch, but it’s shocking to still see PC games being released without this option, especially when it is widely-known that low FOVs on PC games can cause nausea and headaches. It’s a big omission on Digital Extremes’ part, and it’s especially embarrassing when we consider the studio’s origins as a PC developer.

Multiplayer in The Darkness 2 has also changed for the better, it’s now co-operative rather than competitive, and it’s not a wave-based survival mode – which makes a refreshing change. Instead, the Vendettas campaign plays out alongside the main campaign, with full voice-acted exposition before each mission. It’s good to see this amount of effort put into what is clearly the side dish in this package. The campaign is short, however, and the gameplay may as well be wave-based. The missions play out over small environments and killing people is the order of the day. Considering that these characters don’t have the range of choice in dealing out murder that Jackie does, it started feeling repetitive by the end of the first mission. It’s not essential for your playtime, doesn’t really enrich the story in any meaningful way – but it might be fun to blast through in a couple of hours with a group of friends.

The Darkness 2 improves on the gameplay of its predecessor in every way and introduces a vibrant new art style, that while not entirely to my taste, looks stunning in motion and really makes me wonder why more games based on comic books don’t use cel shading... Fans of the original game take note though, the story is no way near as dark and gritty as it was – but it does make up for it with truly disgusting displays of violence.

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