The Darkness Review
When we first heard Starbreeze was hard at work on another dark, semi-free-roaming FPS with plenty of gameplay diversity and a compelling storyline, we were very much intrigued. After all, this is the same team that brought us the stellar Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay back in 2004, and we've all been wanting more ever since. Riddick combined elements from several genres, including FPS, stealth/action, and even RPG, thereby providing a singular and engrossing experience. And from what we'd heard regarding The Darkness, it sounded like they were following a similar formula, although the concept itself was very different. Of course, given all this previous information, the expectations for this one were quite high...but does this atmospheric and intense title translate to Riddick-caliber goodness? We were just itching to find out.
In terms of graphics, we see a great deal of detail and sharp clarity throughout, despite dealing with a minimal color palette. Much of the game, as you might've guessed by the title, is shrouded in heavy greys, browns, blues, and yeah, a lot of black. The most impressive aspect of the visuals revolves around the character designs, intricate and subtle depiction of even the simplest of objects, and the overall atmosphere. Easily the best part of the game is the presentation, and the graphics go a long way towards fulfilling the developer's complete vision. Everything from the large amount of graffiti in the city streets to the dankness of ancient sewers is nicely portrayed, and if you have the capability of viewing this bad boy in 1080p resolution, well...you're in for a treat. The only drawbacks center on the surprisingly frequent clipping issues that pop up here and there (especially with your dark arm), and lips not moving in unison with words. But other than that, The Darkness looks great.
The sound, in some ways, is even better. First up is the fantastic voice acting, which is some of the best we've ever heard, and easily the best on the PS3 thus far. Even the random NPCs seem to be voiced by professionals, and all the main characters, especially the superb actor used for Jackie Estacado, are shockingly excellent. We say "shocking" just because we're not used to hearing such high-quality voice acting in games, although it's very clear they're getting a lot better. The sound effects are also top-notch, although they do tend to get muted and muffled beneath the soundtrack at times. This causes a problem with the balance and general volume, but it's nothing to complain too bitterly about. The music certainly fits the mood and style of the game, and there's only a very small lack of diversity. The kickin' rock beats heard during intense combat at the start gets repeated a little too often, as do the low, intimidating, classic tracks (as appropriate as they are). But overall, the sound in The Darkness is either the very best on the PS3, or a close second to Resistance: Fall of Man.
The gameplay, much like Riddick, is a blend of FPS, a little stealth and adventure, and a less linear form of exploring. You can either rain death upon your enemies from the shadows or you can run ‘n gun (although it's not advisable, most of the time). Furthermore, when advancing from Point A to Point B, there may be numerous routes to take, and the game will change a bit depending on which direction you choose. The story doesn't change and your destination is always the same, but you generally have free reign to explore your environment, which adds a great deal to the experience. You often have the option of being a law-abiding civilian and ignoring those who don't attack you, or going all nuts with your special power. You can take this only so far, though, as certain characters are essential for the continuation of the plot, which is both interesting and well-written. And speaking of the story, Starbreeze sets the tone right from the start...and it's a tone of brutality, evil, and of course, darkness.
You play as Jackie Estacado, a hitman who works for his uncle, Paulie Franchetti. But you're all screwed up from the start, as it's painfully obvious that relationship has soured. Other main characters you meet along the way include your childhood friend at the orphanage and current girlfriend, Jenny Romano, and Aunt Sarah, the "figurehead" of the Franchetti family. On your 21st birthday, you become aware of this dark power seething within you, and basically, it sets itself free very early on. As you progress, you'll attempt to stay alive by dealing with Paulie's goons, and at the same time, trying to sort out what's happening to you. How can you control the Darkness that partly controls you, and above all, how can you stop it? Your past is a little cloudy, but things are explained at a pretty decent clip. The action doesn't impede the story and the story doesn't impede the action, and that's a big compliment.
Now, we'll clear this up quickly- The Darkness is absolutely a Mature title, from front to back. The language is loaded down with f-bombs, the gore is frequent and significant, and the subject matter isn't exactly comprised of raspberry scones and Starbucks lattes. When you get up close with your dual pistols, shove them under the chin of your enemy and pull the trigger, you'll quickly realize you're playing a game designed specifically for gamers 17 and up. But this isn't to say the developers get obsessed with shock value; they simply use the mature content to enhance and solidify the story and presentation. Whatever exists inside you isn't pretty, and it's not nice. It bites people's faces off and eats their hearts. And on top of that, you play as an individual who kills for a living, even though he's not really a horrible monster. At least, he doesn't think he is.
The Darkness powers lie at the core of the game, and you'll unlock different abilities as time goes on. You'll always have the ability to send out the Creeping Dark, which is a snake-like thing that separates from your body and creeps around seeking victims. You can control the thing, and it can reach places you can't. For example, you can send the creeping darkness up a wall, through a vent, and out the other side to snack on a foe. It can even collect items (including ammunition and Collectibles) and unlock doors for you; it can go a long way, too, depending on your Darkness Energy. If the snake gets shot, it will automatically retreat, though, so you have to try and be stealthy...with a snake head. You can also retract it at any time with the R1 button, but having full control over this creepy (pun intended) "arm" is awfully handy. Even if you're only using it as a scout, it's extremely effective and even essential throughout the game.
You'll also unlock the ability to use the Demon Arm (to jab and grab; good for moving big objects out of your way), Ancient Weapons (handguns that use Dark Energy), and the Black Hole (can suck in surrounding enemies). All of these are pretty useful, but that seems to be in contrast to your Darkling friends. You can summon Darklings to assist you at Gateways, and you will unlock four different kinds as you progress: Berzerker, Gunner, Kamikaze, and Light Killer. While these little guys can be effective, they are often difficult and cumbersome to use, primarily because they're very fragile. All of them - except the Light Killer - disintegrate from being in the light too long, and that's not very long. They are also killed easily by enemy fire, which makes using them a somewhat tedious and often unrewarding process. You can't control them directly in the same way you control the Darkness powers, but you can direct them by simply aiming somewhere and pressing the Square button. If you can get the Kamikaze into a group of foes or the Gunner out in the open for enough time, they can do a lot of the work for you, but you don't have that opportunity enough.
Jackie may have all kinds of underworldly power, but he's almost as fragile as any other human, even when he has summoned the Darkness. Getting shot four or five times in quick succession will mean death, which means you can't really attack this game the same way you would a typical FPS. You need to take your time, scope out the area, and create a plan of attack. Sending out the Creeping Darkness will normally be your #1 option, primarily because it's so easy to eliminate just about every enemy at virtually no risk. If you're nowhere near the gunfire, and send out the "snake," the worst that can happen is you don't have enough Energy (or he gets shot) and he slithers back automatically. Most times, though, you can clear out a room without much effort, and that's preferable to running in guns a-blazin'. In fact, that's usually the best way to get yourself killed. Take it slow, utilize as many of the powers you have at your disposal, and you'll be richly rewarded.
There are a few problems, though. First of all, the AI is somewhat competent but very erratic. Many times, when rushing an enemy from the side, they won't react to you until it's far too late, and they'll often run in bizarre and random directions. They will take cover and dodge, making their movements less predictable, and they're also good shots. So that provides a significant challenge, but their actions and movements simply aren't reminiscent of an intelligent individual, and it gets almost comical at times. "Where the hell are you going?" is a question you'll ask multiple times. Also, we encountered several glitches during the gameplay; for instance, the Creeping Darkness would disappear from view at times, and the camera would go all crazy, too. Lastly, while the frame rate remained rock solid throughout, the game could get a little jumpy on us from time to time.
The Darkness also doesn't deliver entirely on all the promises your powers provide. They come very close, but the game boils down to a simple formula far too many times: find a decent place to hide, send out the Creeping Darkness, and search and destroy. It's just something you can abuse, and while still wicked cool, it takes away from all the other great skills you have. Well, at least until the last few hours, where things like Black Hole suddenly become immensely useful. Oh, and the multiplayer just seems superfluous; we understand it's a supposed essential these days (something we can't disagree more with), but this is clearly a single-player adventure, first and foremost. It just doesn't lend itself to being a massively popular multiplayer game, so the option probably won't appeal to too many owners. But despite all these preceding complaints, The Darkness never ceases to be entertaining even for a second, and here's why:
The pacing and atmosphere make the game great. You'll always want to see what's next, and that includes both the story and action. You're continually dragged into this foreboding yet oddly curious world due to the supreme voice acting, fitting visuals and effects, engaging storyline, and nearly flawless presentation. The controls are about as solid as they can be, and while you may fight the camera with the Creeping Darkness, you'll always feel primed and ready to take on the next challenge. You will die quite a bit if you're not careful, the enemy AI isn't very good, one tried-and-true formula tends to dominate, but all of that pales in comparison to one very important fact: it's fun. The Darkness is almost always fun to use, regardless of which power it is, even if it's watching your Darklings die way too often. The story grabs you from the start (unbelievable intro sequence, by the way) and never lets go, coming to a very satisfactory climax at the end. You often don't find stories this good in such intense and well-made action games, so savor and appreciate the effort, here.
And that's the way it is with The Darkness. It's one of the best games of the year so far, and it's certainly one of the best on the PS3. For all its drawbacks and shortcomings, this title makes good on its initial promise - seen right at the start - to deliver a unique and beautifully paced action quest. If only they would've built on the superb foundation just a bit more... But hey, we're not about to quibble. It'll only take you about 8-12 hours (closer to 12 if you wish to find all 100 Collectibles that unlock extra content), but it's very much worth your time and money.
6/29/2007 Ben Dutka