"Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it." - Terry Prachett
The Darkness seems like really poor idea for a game. You step into the skin of Jackie, a young Italian mobster who, on his 21st birthday, is overtaken by a demonic force that wants to control his body and soul in exchange for tentacle powers that would make an anime school girl blush. Trying to shoehorn a supernatural story into a Sopranos-style mob family should clash, but coming off the surprising Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay, game developer Starbreeze Studios deftly draws you into the world established by Top Cow's original The Darkness comic series.
Along with the usual FPS standards like pistols akimbo, shotguns and machine guns, The Darkness slowly ramps up the supernatural powers so it's not all just spitting bullets at countless enemies. Right from the start you can detach one of the tentacles from your body and go slithering along the ground, ripping off enemy faces and devouring their hearts. Running up along the walls and leaping out at the bad guys in this mode is very simple, but all the more satisfying for it. Their screams are delicious.
Eating hearts in all their slick, bloody, high-definition glory is how you become more powerful. It's not unusual to have watched over 140 hearts pass by your screen as your tentacle monsters messily devour them. If that's not enough, the M For Mature rating is earned with the constant swearing, cop killing, torture and brutal executions on display. Most definitely a game for adults, the ruler-wielding nuns at the ESRB will be organizing man hunts to track down anyone selling it to minors.
The other powers like the black hole, the tentacle skewer and the guns that run on shadow energy are fun and easy to pull off. Unfortunately, the goblin-like Darklings hold back what would otherwise be an excellent roster of exciting new ways to kill enemies. These little scamps are meant to add even more variety to the combat experience, providing you with allies who act on your behalf by brawling, shooting or blowing up enemies and innocents alike. This is where the game stumbles, because the path finding and A.I. are horrendous for these creatures. In a straight hallway or open room, they do fine with the basic 'move here' command. As soon as you go up a flight of stairs or around a couple of corners, you'll often find them standing still and ignoring the mobsters shooting at you. To combat this, Starbreeze made sure there was no cost to summoning them, you just have to be near a pre-determined spawn area to call them up. Even with this allowance, they are only useful as the occasional humorous meat-shield.
Sadly, the multiplayer is also a complete bust, a bullet point to go on the box rather than any real effort to bring a fresh experience to online battles. The handful of maps available are horribly laid out and boring to look at. You won't find any of the city areas or the subway from the single player game to hold you interest here. Even the Survival mode of gameplay, where one player is a Darkling while the rest are humans fails to provide much fun thanks to the fact that killing fellow humans will still net you points as if it were simple deathmatch. What should be a tense conflict between one Darkling player hunting a band of humans fighting to stave off becoming Darklings themselves ends up being a routine 'shoot everything that moves' yawner.
The game is flawed. But as I finished it, I found I didn't care. I had spent hours watching a story unfold. A story that involved me enough that I was shouting invectives at characters performing despicable acts in the name of pride and power. Long over now, I find it still comes to mind in the quite spaces of a day, in the way few other games have. The Darkness is very good despite some flaws that stand in stark contrast to the excellent overall presentation and gameplay found in the gun battles and Darkness powers. If they ever do a sequel, they won't have to make many changes to have a true classic on their hands.
I'd like to take a moment to welcome those of you who skipped to the end to read the concluding paragraph. I bet you don't wash you hands before you leave the bathroom and you cut in line.
- Shawn Andrich