Swedish developer Starbreeze apparently enjoys a challenge. In a time when the market is saturated with crappy games based on big franchises from other media (primarily film and comic books), Starbreeze takes smaller licensed properties and makes them better than their source material. Their last game was The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay, an excellent game that drastically improved upon the rather putrid Riddick movie. Their latest game is The Darkness, which is based upon the somewhat cheesy comic book series published by Top Cow.
The Darkness begins with a fantastically cinematic car chase through a New York City tunnel as the credits roll. You play as young mob hit man Jackie Estacado, who starts the scene passed out in the back seat. You and two of your henchmen are being pursued by cops as you race to a construction site to take out the foreman. As you slowly rouse, you can look around to watch the action, but can’t yet do anything. When you get to the construction site, one of the mobsters in the front seat tosses you a shotgun and you can start taking out the construction workers, who apparently know you’re coming because they’re all shooting back. This opening sequence ends with your car smashing through the end of the tunnel, with one of your henchmen dead and the other mortally wounded. He gives you a gun and sends you off to finish the job. This is as exciting an opening scene as you will find in most Hollywood action movies.
Early on in the game, a supernatural presence makes itself known to you. This is the Darkness, and you spend most of the game learning what it is and how you and, it turns out, your family have come to be cursed by it. In an interesting twist, you end up using the very powers the Darkness gives you to find a way to rid yourself of this parasitic evil. The Darkness is presented in a very effective, creepy way. It speaks to you in a heavily processed voice and although what it says to you is often cryptic, it can really get to you. The things it asks of you challenge your sense of morality, even as a mob hit man. And even though the powers it gives you protect you from all manner of otherwise mortal danger, Jackie never really feels comfortable using them.
After the opening car chase, the story unfolds and you find yourself being pursued by your Uncle Paulie, the boss of your crime family. Paulie seems to think you’ve double-crossed him, and he’s coming for you and those you love, primarily your girlfriend, Jenny, and your feisty Aunt Sarah. These characters feature prominently in the story, even though their presence does not add to the action in any appreciable way. This is one aspect of the game that sets The Darkness apart from most action games, in that your relationships make you feel emotionally connected to the story. But lest you worry that this means there are long, boring scenes with nothing but talking, rest assured that the game is very well paced, mixing intense action sequences with slower scenes that introduce and develop the many great characters. But these slower scenes are never a bore because the writing and acting are so good that you hardly ever want to skip through them.
It turns out that today is your 21st birthday, and early on you visit Jenny’s apartment where she has a birthday cake waiting for you. You even get to blow out the candles! It is in Jenny’s apartment that you discover one of the more interesting little touches Starbreeze added to the game: television. Anytime you find a TV in the game, you can walk up to it and change the channels. There are half a dozen channels, and each has real programs that you can watch in their entirety, including feature-length movies like Frank Sinatra’s The Man with the Golden Arm. Other channels include a music video channel with videos of Swedish bands and a cartoon channel with old Popeye cartoons. In that first scene in Jenny’s apartment, after blowing out the candles, you sit down on the couch with her and settle in to watch Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird. The most amusing of the Xbox 360 achievements is The Romancer, which you get if you decide to stay with Jenny until she falls asleep in your arms while watching the movie. It might seem that little things like real TVs and a quiet scene cuddling with your girlfriend on the couch wouldn’t add much to an action game, but these little touches make a huge difference in giving the action an emotional context that is rarely seen in games, or movies for that matter. In fact, your relationship with Jenny, voiced by Six Feet Under‘s Lauren Ambrose, is the emotional center of the game, and is the most touching and affecting relationship I’ve ever seen in a game. Truth be told, I have a bit of a crush on Jenny. Hmm, maybe I shouldn’t have admitted that. Anyway…
The action of the game sees you fighting your way to Uncle Paulie, taking out his various money men as you claw your way to the top of the organization. You will encounter a lot of mob intrigue and colorful characters along the way, but just when you think you’ve got this game pegged, everything goes haywire and you wake up in a trench in a (literally) helacious version of World War I, complete with zombie Germans and various other lost souls. I know, crazy, right? This side trip to a seriously disturbing WWI tells the story of how your family was cursed by the Darkness, and provides an excellent counterpoint to the New York sections of the game that keeps you on your toes and prevents the game from ever feeling stale. I don’t want to give away too much of the story because, unlike most games, it actually has one and it’s a darned good one at that.
As strong as the storytelling side of the game is, the gameplay isn’t especially difficult. Enemy AI is not always so bright, which makes the game pretty easy on normal difficulty, except for a couple of particularly challenging set pieces. You have the option to use either weapons or your Darkness powers in most encounters, but you will probably want to use your powers most of the time because they are so much more potent — and fun — than guns. However, when you do use guns you will notice that the auto-aim is quite liberal and tends to pull strongly towards your target’s head, so head shots are fairly common. Mostly, though, you’ll find yourself using your guns to shoot out lights, as darkness is, not surprisingly, the source of your power. As you use your Darkness powers they weaken, but standing in darkness for a moment will replenish them. This definitely adds to the ambiance of the game as you spend most of your time literally lurking in the shadows.
The Darkness manifests itself as two snake-like appendages that sprout out of your shoulders and squirm around on the edges of the screen. Your powers include “creeping dark,” which enables you to send one of these tentacles out in front of you to climb up walls, crawl through tight spaces, and kill unsuspecting saps. You also have your “demon arm,” which is a large tentacle that shoots out and can impale enemies, killing them in a single hit. You can also use the arm to pick up objects and throw them. Later in the game you will acquire your “demon guns,” which are two powerful guns that draw their power from the Darkness. They run out of ammo when you run out of Darkness, but they can easily be recharged by hanging back in the shadows for a moment. The last power you get is the “black hole,” which is a ridiculously powerful ability that opens a spinning void, sucking nearby enemies to their doom.
You also have access to demon minions called Darklings. There are different types of Darklings, which can be summoned from glowing holes in the ground called Gateways. Berserkers are unarmed little dudes who can really tear enemies apart, but are susceptible to gunfire; Gunners lug around a huge chain gun; Kamikazes run at enemies and explode; and Lightkillers use an electrical charge to destroy nearby lights. Darklings, being manifestations of the Darkness, are susceptible to light, so you have to make sure to keep them in the shadows or they will dematerialize. You can direct them towards targets, but I found the targeting to be rather inconsistent. I ended up not using them all that often because they so often did not follow my commands. Sometimes they will simply stop and not go any further, or even disappear altogether for no apparent reason. Darklings are one of the more frustrating aspects of the game, but given all of your other abilities they are not necessary to complete your objectives. You increase the potency of your Darkness powers by devouring the hearts of your victims. Stand over a body and direct one of your tentacles to devour the heart and it will plunge into your victim’s chest and rip its heart out. Sometimes the two tentacles will fight over the heart, which is a gruesomely funny sight.
The Darkness is a tremendously immersive game. The environments are extremely detailed and evocative. Being a New Yorker, I was especially impressed by their recreation of the subway system, which is fully functional in the game, although it only has a few stops. The subway is the grimy version most often seen in movies, complete with authentic graffiti designed by the best graffiti artists in Sweden, based on photos Starbreeze took on a research trip to New York. The developers again added little touches like motion-captured break dancers who will do more advanced moves if you tip them, and a guy playing the old “find the ball under the cups” hustle in a dark recess of one station. Once you leave the station, you navigate the same way any real New Yorker would — by the verbal directions given to you. There is a very basic in-game map, but it doesn’t show street names, just neighborhoods and a handful of landmarks. You have to listen carefully to the directions you are given (“Turn left on Mott St. and take the alley on the right.”), read the street signs, and watch for landmarks. This sometimes means that you will get lost, but that’s part of the New York experience. There are even information kiosks in the subway stations that give directions to certain destinations; but again you have to pay attention to the directions they give, they don’t do the navigating for you.
There is one attempt at immersiveness that is not quite so successful. Throughout the game you will find phone numbers, sometimes given to you as rewards for side missions, sometimes found on bathroom walls or billboards. You can punch these numbers into the pay phones found in each subway station and you will hear an often humorous recording. This is the game’s version of collectibles, and they each unlock special features in the bonus screen such as making-of documentaries, production art, and even the first issue of the comic book. While there are some cool bonus materials, the idea that Jackie would keep calling these random numbers that have nothing to do with his primary objective is a bit silly. It could have been a cool way to convey more information about the characters, but instead just becomes a mini game that detracts from an otherwise very immersive experience.
The Darkness is rated M (Mature), and it should be — it’s dark, gory, and frightening. As what the industry calls “core” gamers — those for whom gaming is their primary hobby — become older and more numerous, the industry will have to release more games like this — smart, richly detailed, with complex stories and engaging characters. Starbreeze is well on its way to making a name for itself in this emerging segment of the market, and The Darkness is an excellent addition to the genre.