So that covers the basic gameplay, but inasmuch as The Darkness II is a fun shooter to stomp through, the series didn’t become a cult hit just because of blazing guns and flying viscera. Like its predecessor, Darkness II centers around a surprisingly strong, character-driven story that’s part mob drama, part surreal comedy and part supernatural revenge romance. And once again, the whole thing is narrated by the vicious-but-charming Jackie, who speaks to us through monologues in a dark room about his history with the mob, with The Darkness and with his dead girlfriend Jenny, who once again winds up at the center of the story.
Jackie and Jenny are the focus, but they’re far from the only memorable characters, and we’re frequently treated to lengthy conversations and incidental dialogue with his lunky henchmen and lieutenants (most of it around Jackie’s freely explorable penthouse), who end up surprisingly endearing despite being kinda moronic. They’re joined by Jackie’s tough old Aunt Sarah, a skittish occultist named Johnny Powell (who takes most of his behavioral cues from Woody Allen) and The Darkling, Jackie’s ever-present, likeably foul imp sidekick. For the most part, the characters are cleverly written and well-acted; if they weren’t, it wouldn’t mean quite as much later in the game, when the emotional hits start pounding home and the game pushes us to start questioning Jackie’s sanity.
It’s not a plot that produces anything as weirdly striking or moving as that unforgettable moment in The Darkness when Jenny cuddles up next to you on the couch and falls asleep, but it tries. Oh, how it tries. And it comes close to succeeding, delivering a fantastic narrative wedded to around eight to 10 hours of gruesomely satisfying action in the process. Sure, it all leads up to an annoying cliffhanger of an ending, but until then it’s a great ride.
If the game’s ending leaves you cold, take heart: there’s more. The four-player co-op Vendettas mode tells a self-contained storyline that runs parallel to the central game’s plot, focusing on four creepy mercs who work for Jackie (but never show up in the single-player campaign). Each of these has a weapon powered by “Dark Essence,” and each has one of Jackie’s powers. Mossad agent Shoshanna, for example, uses a pistol that fires charged shots and can use Jackie’s Darkness-powered bullets, while voodoo practitioner J.P. Dumond carries a Darkness-imbued staff and can open up black holes. Street-samurai Inugami wields a dark sword and has Jackie’s locust-swarm ability, and Scottish stereotype Jimmy can summon Darklings and wields a mean axe. And they've all got custom executions, some of which can get pretty nasty.
Their story cuts a fairly straightforward swath through armies of thugs, although it culminates with a boss fight considerably more epic than anything in the single-player campaign, and it’s an enjoyable extension that’ll tack at least a few hours onto the experience. (It’s especially fun if you can find teammates who don’t go berserk destroying the health-restoring hearts from your kills, leaving you in constant need of revival – although if things get too hot, the host can always adjust the difficulty on the fly.)
Above: Mikel Reparaz and Hollander Cooper run through 49 minutes of the game and explain their scores
The Darkness? Yes, but that comes with a sacrifice. Darkness II is unquestionably a more coherent and more focused (and also more conventional) shooter, but at the same time it loses a lot of what made the original Darkness special, like the open-world structure, unusual gunplay, gritty visuals and watchable TVs. Story-wise, however, it still presents a smart, nuanced continuation of the first game’s narrative, and fans won’t be disappointed.
Bioshock 2? No. Bioshock 2’s action, plot and mythos are more fully formed and intriguing than Darkness II, and its story is oddly more personal for not having a very clearly defined main character. Darkness II’s Vendettas multiplayer is a lot more compelling than Bioshock 2’s Plasmid-infused deathmatches, though, so there’s that.
Aliens vs Predator? Yes. It might seem weird to compare them, but Darkness II actually has a few things in common with 2010’s AvP. Sure, it’s a cut above the three-way sci-fi/horror shooter in terms of production values, writing and action, but Jackie Estacado combines traits of all three of AvP’s protagonists into one charismatic package. He can’t turn invisible or climb on the ceiling, but the gore, guns and brutish unstoppability are all there – and the overall experience is a lot better.
While it lacks some of the openness and emotional pull of its predecessor, The Darkness II is a highly polished, immensely fun shooter that delivers a stellar mix of over-the-top gore, furious action and clever, character-focused storytelling.
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