Thursday, February 23, 2012

Review: "The Darkness II"

Afraid of the Dark
review for The Darkness II (PC), 1-4 player first-person shooter, out now

The Darkness was pretty cool, I guess. The first time I heard of this early next-gen title, was in a glowingly positive review by the Official PlayStation Magazine, calling it things like "absolute must-buy" and "system seller" and "9/10". When I played it myself, I found it was a wholly entertaining - if not mind-blowingly incredible - shooter wrapped in an utterly boring and lifeless shell of an open-world. When The Darkness II was announced, fears were that it was going to ditch the open-world and be a more traditional, linear FPS experience. Everyone seemed to be really disappointed.

I, however, was happier than ever. And The Darkness II secured its place on my "must-have" list.

First things first: this game is good. Really good. Some elements of this game are outright amazing, and despite a few flat elements dragging the overall quality down, don't let anything I say about this game next dissuade you from buying this game on the merits of the amazing bits. This game is, for all intents and purposes, a stellar first-person shooter marred only by... well. I'll get into that in a bit. But no, yeah, this game is great.

Well. I think it's great, anyway. Almost 70% of the game's greatness rests on its completely brutal, gory, and impressive combat. Just like in the The Darkness, the use of the twisted powers of The Darkness (once more voiced disturbingly well by the ever-creepy VA genius that is Mike Patton) turn this game's shooting from adequately pleasing to full-on, satisfyingly visceral and awe-inspiring. Never mind how responsive the guns feel; dual-wielding in particular making you feel like you're in a Jon Woo flick. The use of your adorable Darkness tentacles is ramped up considerably for the original game. No longer do they sit idly by and wait to be commanded to eat hearts or slither through vents (yawn-a-rama). Now they are constantly at your control, adding a genuine element of "quad-wielding" to the combat. Be it menial tasks like throwing spikes at people's heads and impaling them to walls, or important jobs, like ripping people's skulls out through their anuses.

The gore is increased, too. The tentacles are (usually) the sole participants of the ferocious take-downs, of which there are countless unique kills; from aforementioned skull-anus-ripping, to tearing people in half by their legs, to just ripping their heads off. It's all kept track of by a Bulletstorm-esque score system, that feeds points from stylish skills into your upgrades. Luckily, for those who feel that hilarious descriptions and a score like "Assecution +30" popping up every time you kill someone is distasteful or immersion-breaking, you can switch off the notifications from the options menu. Nifty feature.

With increase in gore, comes the looming issue of the art style switch. Ditching The Darkness's grim, dark, noir-ish visual design, The Darkness II goes all out to emulate the source material's distinct comic book sensibilities. The payoff is that the game is really really pretty - hand-drawn and painted textures rendered with such deftness, that really makes the game pop, and providing a real flavour to the world. The skyboxes in particular are worth admiring. It feels less like the half-arsed and, as far as I'm concerned, ugly Borderlands, and more like the genuine "oh my god I've walked into a comic book" XIII. This is nothing but a good thing, I assure you.

Unfortunate side-effect, however, is that the game is much brighter. The blood is that very unrealistic bright-bright-red you so often get in graphic novels, the frequent moments in which the game is set in "pitch-black darkness" instead look like merely dimly-lit at best, and then the areas that are meant to be dimly-lit look well lit. This isn't aided by changing brightness in the options, and it leaves the game with a generic lighting scheme. Mind you, I thought The Darkness was too dark; I often couldn't find my way around in the pitch-black, and the tiny details of the levels were always lost when the lights inevitably went out. But it's one of the many disappointments that The Darkness II brings to the table.

Speaking of which, the story. I'd be rightly chastised for calling it bad. It's not. Oh my, no, it is not bad in the slightest. It's really well-written, and has a handful of genuinely effective, heart-wrenching, or even just "wow" moments that will make you think - which is a nice surprise, considering the comic books were never this well-realized. But... it is disturbingly prominent. The original Darkness felt quite open-ended and flowing; encounters didn't feel forced or scripted, they felt proper. In The Darkness II, there are just too many damn moments where you, say, feel frustrated that control has been taken away from you for more than 5 minutes, or you've had to walk down a corridor following an NPC. The original didn't not have this, but combined with the linear level progression (and level design - this isn't Crysis 2 here, much to my chagrin), these "cutscenes" are jarring and boring... despite being so well-written. They just drag out sometimes, and the intrigue and mysticism is lost before they're over. When you've moved past the "confused at events" stage the game wants you to be in, and you're in the "I just want to kill dudes again now" stage... something's gone wrong.

The game is tightly-tuned and well-crafted, but it's detrimental to the atmosphere. The game is masterful at its combat mechanics, and while it certainly excels in its script-writing and presentation, its pacing leaves much to be desired. So when it's been about 6 - 7 hours since hitting "New Game," before reaching the ending(s), you'll feel slightly cheated. It's certainly not helped by a horrible co-op mode, that wants to to be Left 4 Dead and comes off as a try-hard, tacked-on waste of development time. You play as one of four racist stereotypes with hilarious accents - one of which is, I kid you not, Professor Badass, and it's so short and redundant it might as well not be there. No - it shouldn't be there. They should have taken those co-op levels, made them a little better, and thrown them into the single-player campaign. I'd be fine with padding if it was at least implemented seamlessly. But nah, instead of injecting the single-player with much-needed longevity, developers Digital Extremes decided to make sure the game had a multiplayer component. Tacked-on multi-player; my favourite! Bleurgh.

On the whole, The Darkness II leaves... not a sour taste, but an empty feeling. One of the endings is a horribly underhanded cliffhanger, and you're left having enjoyed what you just played, but... questioning if it was worth it. Was this story worth telling in the way that it was? I mean, if the game didn't have a story... it'd be better. But it did, and it spent 6 hours telling you that story. And at the end of the day, that story was well-written, but just... not worth telling. Not in videogame form. Perhaps as an animated feature, or a comic book. There was just such disconnect between the "story" scenes and the "game" scenes that you question why either of them are there. It's quite baffling, and absolutely representative of how campaigns are treated by developers nowadays. It's the kind of mentality that makes redundant ungames like Dear Esther.

I wanted to love this game. The writing was, after all, great! The combat was perfect! But the game isn't perfect. It's... disappointing, really. I much prefer the linear level design and structure, but it is, much like its predecessor, wrapped in a shell - the original in a shitty open-world, this one, in an overly-prominent, poorly-paced story - that complete drags down the goodness of the actual shooting. ...even poor Mike Patton has less to work with here! He's brushed aside by some other villain, who is pretty cool (he's very cheesy, and he's one of the better things about the campaign), but no longer is the game even about the Darkness. Instead it's about people fighting over the Darkness. I'd have loved if Mike Patton was the antagonist in this game... but he wasn't. Yet another of Darkness II's disappointments.

It's a lot of fun while it lasts, but once it ends you won't feel fulfilled in any way. But the pure joy of the combat very much makes this a game worth playing: the very definition of "7/10," this game is both an incredibly thrilling first-person shooter experience, and a disappointing waste of a videogame. I tentatively recommend it; definitely a rental.
You may have noticed I scored this using stars. I'm using stars now. Stars are cool.