Boxes are scattered around the apartment, evidence that your girlfriend Jenny has only just started moving in. She's surprised you with a birthday cake and - even though you've tried to warn her that you kill people for a living and your former boss is out for your blood - she shrugs it off as a bad joke. Motioning you over to the couch, she kisses you, leans her head on your shoulder and gradually falls asleep as the two of you watch TV.
It's not what you'd expect from a hyperviolent shooter, but it's calmer moments like this - fully playable and wedged in between the dual-pistol executions and power-drill torture scenes - that help elevate The Darkness from a simple action game to something much more engrossing. Sure, you'll spend a lot of time blasting your way through legions of gun-toting thugs and using dark powers to tear them apart - but The Darkness isn't all action, and the parts that aren't make the rest seem more real.
As Mafia hitman Jackie Estacado, you'll spend most of the game wandering around a big, semi-open mockup of Manhattan, talking to people and trying to stay one step ahead of your ex-boss, who wants you dead for failing to collect on a debt. Surviving means you'll have to take out all the goon squads and small armies of corrupt cops he sends after you, as well as doing favors for other family members in return for them helping you out.
The game gets much, much more complicated and compelling than that initial setup, though, beginning with Jackie's lucky-but-troublesome possession by a demonic force called The Darkness. Having the demon on his side puts all sorts of cool diabolical abilities at Jackie's disposal, but it doesn't have his best interests in mind, as the story - which packs merciless emotional punches - will soon reveal. In the meantime, though, The Darkness manifests itself as a pair of dragon-like heads on either side of you, but they don't last long in the light - any light - so when you're in a fight, you'll need to shoot out every lightbulb you see if you want them on your side. And you do, because those twin serpents are the other thing that elevates The Darkness above being just another pretty shooter.
When The Darkness first manifests, you'll get a glimpse of its full power, as it takes over Jackie's body and mutilates a Mafia hit squad. Once you're back in control, though, you'll have just a few basic powers, although you'll earn back the rest of them as The Darkness powers up over the course of the game. The only catch is that The Darkness powers up by eating human hearts - which, as it turns out, is extremely gruesome (but endlessly satisfying), as one dragon head tears the love muscle out of your dead enemies and then messily gobbles it while staring at you.
In return, The Darkness will protect you from bullets, as well as enable you to send out one of its heads as a tentacle (good for exploring tight spaces, crawling up walls and performing stealth kills), and that can last for a pretty long time as long as you keep it out of the light, which drains its power. Later on, you'll be able to send out a whip-like tendril that can impale and grab enemies, enabling you to effortlessly slam them around or just hurl them into the air for your own amusement. It's also good for grabbing random objects - garbage cans, dumpsters, and even cars at its highest power level - and either stacking them in creative ways or bashing enemies to death with them, which makes for some hilariously creative opportunities for murder.
You'll also eventually earn a pair of Darkness-powered pistols that never run out of ammunition, and - near the end of the game - you'll get the power to open up black-hole voids that suck in everything nearby and kill anything that touches them. These don't always work, but at the very least they'll distract your enemies long enough for you to get a clear shot. Speaking of distractions, you'll also be able to summon stunted, imp-like helpers called Darklings from strategically placed spawn points. Whether you summon a fierce Berserker, a chaingun-toting Gunner, a dynamite-strapped Kamikaze or a self-explanatory Lightkiller, your control over these is limited, and they're useful mainly for buying you time and drawing enemy fire. It's also fun to watch the Berserkers run around in the outfits you find for them, which come with weapons (saws, axes, jackhammers) that make your creepy servants just a little more gruesome than usual.
Darkness powers aside, the shooting action is great, if not particularly revolutionary. Auto-targeting makes aiming in the heat of a firefight a relative breeze, and you'll eventually have a wide array of weapons to choose from, starting with a pair of pistols and working up to automatic shotguns and assault rifles. Most of the weapons can be used for close-up execution moves, too, which deliver a random visual payoff - like, say, a gun shoved into a bad guy's mouth and fired, or a quick rifle-butt followed by a spray of bullets to the face - while cleanly killing a target in one move.
That's assuming you can get close before being drilled full of holes, of course. Your enemies aren't smart enough to do things like flank you or fight as a team, but they'll frequently shoot from behind cover, and they usually won't rush you if they know you're hiding around the corner. Later on, some of the cops you'll fight even carry riot shields, meaning you'll either have to distract them with a Darkling or fire up a black hole to get past their defenses. Nearly every enemy can kill you in a second if you're not careful, though, especially if you don't have The Darkness - and its automatic shielding - activated.
Whether you're fighting mob goons, wandering through the streets or just helping old ladies find lost jewelry in the hub-like subway stations, The Darkness packs some jaw-dropping production values. The environments look fantastic and are packed with destructible objects, the characters are extremely detailed (right down to faded facial scars) and even Jackie's gun-toting hands bob, move and aim realistically according to his movements and surroundings. If you want to take a break from the adventure, you can even sit and watch any of the in-game TVs, which play hours of low-res video that ranges from music videos and old cartoons to Flash Gordon shorts and full-length versions of To Kill a Mockingbird and The Man with the Golden Arm. You can even change the channel.
The script and acting (in the game, not the movie) are absolutely top-notch as well; surprisingly, some of the best parts are the loading screens, during which Jackie delivers monologues about his current situation and what's about to come next. Or maybe he'll just play with his guns for a little bit. Either way, these sequences do a lot to make him an extremely likable guy, and they're a hell of a lot more entertaining than watching a progress bar.
The Darkness' deeply involving adventure is complemented by a multiplayer mode that trots out a handful of the usual modes - deathmatch, capture-the-flag, etc. - but with a twist. Multiplayer matches in The Darkness enable you to play as either gun-toting humans or wall-crawling Darklings, and the Shapeshifter matches - in which you can instantly transform from human to Darkling at will - are a thing to behold.
It's difficult to find serious fault with The Darkness; while we loathe its draconian just-one-save system, it's a stunning achievement that'll keep you riveted from its startlingly realistic opening car chase to its final, epic massacre. It's enthralling, darkly comic, shockingly visceral and able to bring you close to its characters in a way that few games do. Easily on par with greats like Condemned: Criminal Origins and Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, this is one of the best examples so far of what next-gen gaming can and should be.