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The Darkness Review

The Darkness pack shot
Developer:Starbreeze
Publisher:2K Games
Genre:First Person Shooter
Platform:Xbox 360
Official Site:http://www.2kgames.com/thedarkness/
Release Date:June 29th, 2007 (UK)
Reviewer:James Barlow (Malis)
 

Time stands still, delicately balancing itself on the tips of my pistols. My heartbeat slows to a dull tick; pulsing a rhythm that I can feel shiver across the slick metal gripped in my hands. Then they react - hot lead pouring past my ear and shattering the silence, crashing me back to reality. I take my time, coolly ducking behind the rusted machinery littering the warehouse. Even now I can feel it taking over, begging to burst out, to be released. One lamp illuminates the room. I take aim, squeeze one shot. Lights out. And the screams begin.

The Darkness is a console shooter from developers Starbreeze, that takes both name and influence from the cult comic series of the same name. Set in a world of Mafia, demons, sex and violence, you'd imagine it would make for typical FPS fare. And you'd be right - except what's not so typical is the flare and polish with which Starbreeze combine ultra-violence with engaging plot.

You play Jackie Estacado , a young New York Mafia hit man who's about to go through the mother of all 21st birthdays. Living in Jackie is a being called the Darkness, that manifests itself for the first time on Jackie's birthday - coinciding with a nasty case of double-cross, as Mafia main-man Uncle Paulie decides he no longer needs Jackie's ambitious services. It all sets the scene for a gloriously violent tale of revenge, as Jackie seeks to get even and bring down the upstart don.

The Darkness screenshot 1 The Darkness screenshot 2 The Darkness screenshot 4 The Darkness screenshot 4

Perhaps the game's strongest asset is it's fantastic narrative. As Jackie you are free to wonder around the limited subway stations and streets that serve as a sort of bridge between standard levels. It's here that you'll encounter the various characters who will fill you in on what's going on, who needs killing, and even issue trivial but diverting side-quests. The real difference though, between the Darkness and other games of its ilk, is the voice acting. Easily the best I've heard in any game, the dialogue is delivered with all the emotion and dedication of any film, and when combined with brilliant facial animation, it really serves to draw you into The Darkness' murky world. I have read that Starbreeze used motion capture for the actor's facial expressions, ensuring that the dialogue both sounds and looks realistic - it certainly shows.

And the reward for this impressive acting? Emotional investment. Although the plot is obviously rooted in traditional comic grounding, it offers a level of involvement not seen in most computer games. Moments abound where you really feel for the characters - most notably one shocking scene during the first third of the game that shapes the entire story. I won't give the scene away, but it's both gut-wrenching and frustrating at the same time. Jackie's desire for revenge is translated perfectly to the player, with every brutal kill you dole out strengthening the your resolve.

How many games do you know where the loading screens comprise of the main character delivering monologues to an invisible listener? Not many I'd wager. Confiding his mood and feelings during the story to the player, we learn more of Jackie's past, and come to understand more of what he's going through. When you enter the level with the words and thoughts of these loading screens fresh in your head, events start to take on more dramatic importance.

The Darkness screenshot 5 The Darkness screenshot 6 The Darkness screenshot 7 The Darkness screenshot 8

Despite its emphasis on story-telling, The Darkness is without question an action game that revels in death. Although you start off with just your wits and some pistols to see you through trouble, as you progress the true power of The Darkness begins to unfold. A being of dark, The Darkness takes the form of pulsing demonic tentacles that erupt from your body. These allow you to skewer and fling opponents, tear out their hearts, suck them into black holes, and summon minions (called Darklings) to rip them apart. The powers are spaced throughout the game, but when you've unlocked them all, the carnage you an unleash is truly satisfying.

The Darkness' power is only evident in the dark - stray into the light and your demon-headed tentacles will hiss in pain as they burn away. This brings an interesting dynamic to the game, as you strive to constantly remove light sources, enabling you to unleash the full horrors you possess. Shoot-outs in the light are risky affairs - though Jackie is a competent shot, enemies are abundant, and your health is fragile. Although the AI isn't spectacular, foes will make use of cover and attempt to rush or flank you when you duck behind your own. What makes The Darkness so compelling and enjoyable is the empowerment it gives back to the player. The game truly becomes a brilliant power trip: a horror game where you are the demonic predator. The game is slightly easy once you're fully powered up, but that's half the fun. When you know you can simply enter a room and rip apart your foes in the dark, you can't help but grin.

When the action kicks in your given an array of tools to get the job done. In a brilliant touch, each weapon is pretty much as powerful as each other. This may sound like a problem, but in the world of The Darkness, it becomes a liberating realisation. You're essentially given a set of violent tools and a goal - how you reach it is up to you. You could simply blast your way through (guns have brutal instant-kill execution moves up close), or you could stealth your way though - you can send out your tentacles and control it first-person, creeping up walls and pouncing on the jugulars of unsuspecting foes. Failing that you could simply embrace The Darkness, watch bullets bounce off you, walk up to a horrified guard and impale him, dangle his gurgling body before you and toss him into a wall with a sickening thud. Before devouring his heart. There's no right weapon to use in The Darkness - the action is what you make of it, and it's a truly refreshing experience.

The Darkness screenshot 9 The Darkness screenshot 10 The Darkness screenshot 11 The Darkness screenshot 12

Steeped in atmosphere, The Darkness looks gorgeous in true next-gen fashion.. The world is crisp yet dirty, vibrant but dank. Quite simply you've never seen gritty hell-holes quite so beautiful. From subway stations to rotting apartments, majestic churches to oppressive hell (quite possibly the most brilliant interpretation of hell in any game), there is enough variety in The Darkness to ensure feasting on the heats of your foes never becomes stale. Indeed, the level of detail in the game is brilliant - TV sets, for example, litter the world and play actual cartoons, music videos and indeed, full films. In one memorable scene Jackie meets with his girlfriend who insists they have some quality time on the sofa. You settle down and she falls asleep as you (optionally) watch the entire film of To Kill A Mockingbird. Far from being a distraction, moments like these only heighten the emotional investment towards the world.

Ironically then, it's these moments of freedom away from the linear ultra-violent action that disappoint the most. Although they offset the action well - making it all the more explosive when it picks up again - there's a lack focus that can slow the game down. While areas like the subway are both detailed and packed with characters, take two steps out onto the street and it's eerily quiet. I'd like to have seen more civilians on the street, as some of the 'hub' zones really do feel quite lifeless. With a more focused approach to these areas the game could be up with the all-time greats of the genre. As it stands you get fantastic action with great stories, occasionally broken up by desolate back-tracking through empty streets.

In addition the game clocks in fairly short, which seems to be the norm for console shooters these days. Somewhat oddly the game is actually harder at the start, and gets progressively easier as you become more powerful. As I mentioned earlier, this is great fun, but doesn't lend itself to a long play-time. Normally this would be the point to jump into multi-player, but The Darkness makes it clear that it's a single-player game at heart. While there's nothing wrong with The Darkness' multi-player, what makes the game so good is the combination of unusual powers and gripping narrative. When these elements are stripped away and you're left with deathmatch, the result is fairly uninspiring.

Summary

The Darkness is without doubt the best FPS on the Xbox 360. It may also be one of the best narratives on any system, with truly fantastic voice acting. Not since Half-Life 2 have gamers been so drawn into a world, and so emotionally invested in its characters. Couple this with outrageous action and fantastic atmosphere, and you have one of the most brilliant and unique single-player experiences. If you like shooters, you should own this game. Here's hoping Starbreeze have the means and drive to deliver an even better sequel.

Lights out.

The bottom line
9.0 / 10

Good stuff

  • Beautiful graphics
  • Astounding voice acting and narrative
  • Impressive atmosphere
  • Fun and unique demonic powers
  • Unrivalled sense of power

Not so good stuff

  • Hit and miss hub zones
  • Quite short
  • Uninspiring multi-player


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