Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Review: "The Darkness"

Life is a Lie We Shall Conquer
review for The Darkness, 1 player first-person shooter, available now

Jackie is a hitman. He's also in the mafia. All his buddies are in the mafia, also, and speak in that thick Italian-American accent that the Godfather seemed to popularize. They're about as threatening as a cliche can be, and sometimes even a little comical. Jackie's long, flowing hair makes him look more like a goth chick than a trained hitman, and his wacky one-liner's during the loading screens will be sure that you have nothing but utter contempt for him and his personality. Oh, don't worry though, he's just the main fucking character. Christ almighty, after Starbreeze studios made Escape from Butcher Bay with Vin Diesel's unlikable Riddick character, it's almost like someone said, "hey, we're on a roll!" and vowed to make Jackie as much as a whinging unlikable little bitch as possible.

On the other side of this coin is The Darkness, who is voiced by Mike Patton, and is possibly the coolest freaking supernatural entity ever to grace a videogame. His voice drizzles with malicious intent and despise, the vocal tones reaching into eerie treble and bone-chilling bass. Honestly, I don't think I can do justice in words how incredible Mike Patton's performance is inThe Darkess. Every line of dialog he has is pure gold, the characterization is perfect, and it's probably the best villain in a game... well, ever. Yes, even better than GLaDOS. Yes, even better than Arkham Asylum's Joker. Patton's Darkness is just orgasmic, and that's not hyperbole, it's the goddamn truth. Patton won a lot of awards for his role as the titular Darkness, and he deserved every one of them and more.
Anyway. The mystery surrounding what exactly The Darkness is, is the focus of the narrative. What we do know from the beginning is this - on Jackie's 21st birthday, he is possessed by the terrible yet badass force against nature and he is given amazing powers - that manifest themselves as two incredibly vicious tentacle-like serpents growing out of his back.

With this newfound power, Jackie at first uses it to further his current goal - kill his Uncle Paulie, the mob boss who put a hit out on him. Uncle Paulie has been on Jackie's grill for too long, and so, using The Darkness as his primary weapon, he sets out to impale, devour, and smash his way to Uncle Paulie, with intent to exact revenge. Of course, this is a first-person shooter, so you have access to a whole bunch of incredible kinetic gun-weapons alongside your Darkness powers, and they're all a lot of fun. Jackie has some signature pistols with patterns engraved in the side, but he also has access to machine guns, uzis, shotguns, the standard FPS line-up. It's useful, because The Darkness itself only works when under the cover of, well, darkness, and being able to kill people and shoot out lights when your tentacle sidekicks aren't on standby is a necessity.

So, it's a horror FPS with superpowers. The Darkness is based on the comic published by Top Cow of the same name, which I haven't read, but it acts as an Batman Begins-style origin tale, and the plot itself is actually quite profound - its deeply rooted comic book origins influencing the pacing of the story all for the better. The core of the gameplay - that is, shootouts involving heavy use of your Darkness powers - is insanely fun. There's something so kinetic about being so incredible overpowered, eating the hearts of your fallen foes, stabbing them through the spine, blowing off their heads as they scramble for cover. That's not the say the game is easy - in some of the later levels they learn that they can disable your power by aiming foglights at you - and even in the earlier levels, you can be easily overwhelmed if you don't watch your back. But overall, the illusion that you're an unstoppable badass is well maintained, and use of all your Darkness powers is vital to success without being a crutch. Oh, you can also summon little imps - four kinds, with varying roles - and while they aren't invincible, spawning a whole army of the gibbering little bastards results in an incredible symphony of gory death, as they leap onto foes behind cover and tear out their eyeballs. Woo!

Now, at this point you probably have a few questions. One of them will be, "surely a game set in the dark would be incredible awkward to traverse?" And the other will be, "the shoot-outs of this shooting game sound perfect, so why isn't this game 10/10 material?"

Now, to the game's credit, it deals with being primarily set in pitch-black rooms really well. Whenever you have your Darkness powers "on," the world is covered in a gold-yellow highlight, so even when the environments are darker than your eyes can strain to see, you can still walk around without, say, bumping into furniture, and you can still see your enemies as they line up to be turned into iddy-biddy blood-stained pieces.

But, why isn't this game perfect? The shoot-outs are fucking awesome, and they elevate the combat of first-person shooters to a previously unseen high. It's the parts between the shoot-outs - namely, the incredibly broken delusion that the game wants to be set in an open-world, and a handful of environmental puzzles that will have you scratching your head as you ponder what should be tutorial-level solutions, that drag down this game's overall experience. Typically, any puzzle whose solution is so vague that I've had to look up the walkthrough on GameFAQS, is a terribly done puzzle. Actually, the level design is pretty crappy all-around, even in gunfights you can find yourself lost as you wander around trying to find the exit door. But I digress; annoying puzzles aren't the major gripe with this game, it's the terrible world traversal, and the incredibly broken "open-world" system that makes a mockery of what should be a completely linear game.

Let me explain. The logic behind the decision to make the game an "open-world" is probably because Starbreeze wanted to increase immersion. It isn't a Grand Theft Auto-style sandbox, it is - and I wish I was kidding - a few blocks. A few blocks of samey New York city streets, with only only one subway route connecting two sections. As such, when you have to go to a mission to start, y'know - the actual "game" bit - it'll give you instructions like "go to High St". But, the level map only points out the suburb names, so if you want to find High St, you have to search for the right subway train that goes to High St, then find the subway exit that goes to High St, and if you got it wrong you'll have to go back and do it all over again. It's confusing, both in design, and in the decision that the game needed it. A little bit of the game sort of leads towards there being branching mission paths - there are side missions, and, should you choose, you can watch television with Jackie's girlfriend (which creates the Grand Theft Auto IV dilemma of why you'd need to entertain yourself within a game while you're playing a fucking game, but whatever). But eventually she dies (oh, spoiler alert, The Darkness lets her die because Jackie isn't allowed to have nice things, I think), and the side missions trickle down to a halt, and you're left with what should be a linear progression of levels, marred by a... problematic subway system and a map that's about as helpful as the word "map" scribbled on a toilet wall.

So, is The Darkness any good? ...I want to reinforce the fact that yes - it is. As much as the open-world fails on almost every possible level, the set-pieces are what drive this game, and they all deliver. There's a montage near the very end that is utterly jaw-dropping - and while I'd usually say that a montage delivered in first-person just shouldn't work, The Darkness' unique approach to in-game storytelling works so damn close to perfect it's painful. It's just too bad no-one mentioned this to the designers, because if they knew, y'know, how much the game works without the subway traversing and how the open-world utterly breaks immersion instead of providing it, maybe the game would be the best shooter of this generation.

It doesn't help, then, that it's also short - take away all the bullshit and the actual shooting parts of this first-person shooter run for about six hours. Which is pretty standard nowadays, but the gun-fights are so good, so grin-inducingly fantastic, so kinetic and action-packed and brilliant - the stench of the crap that mars this game is made even more distinct. However, if you do see The Darkness and you haven't played it - somehow - it's probably in a bargain bin somewhere for Xbox 360 and PS3. Just try to pick through the crap and you'll experience the awesomeness this title has to offer, but no-one will blame you if you throw down the controller halfway through in frustration when you get another vague map direction you barely know how to follow.

The best action sequences of any first-person shooter released this generation, but annoying level design and immersion-breaking subway traversal takes the experience from "great" to simply "good". Regardless, it's worth buying for the set-pieces (and Mike Patton's performance) alone.

All screenshots for PC games are now taken by myself thanks to the recently implemented Steam Screenshots feature! If you want to see more amateur videogame screens, why not check out my Steam Screenshot gallery? There are funny captions, I promise.

1 comment: