When Swedish Developer, Starbreeze palled up with Tigon Studios and trotted out their franchise-based First Person Shooter: The Chronicles of Riddick - Escape from Butcher Bay, they set the Xbox world alight and ushered in a game that looked pretty much Next Gen before its time. Using a brand new engine and boasting both the vocal talents of Vin Diesel and his likeness the game was short but packed with adrenaline soaked action as well as sneaky stealth based gameplay.
Starbreeze are back and this time they have their claws firmly planted in Top Cow comics: The Darkness. Taking several lessons learned from Riddick, Starbreeze have pushed their engine further and added a few brand new tricks. Having played both Riddick and The Darkness (the former after the latter) I was able to see the changes first hand.
I am a huge fan of the Darkness so I was curious to see how Jackie Estacado translated into the Next Gen depths of the Xbox 360. We were promised a non-linear First Person Shooter where we could delve deeper into the seedy underbelly of New York. Of course non-linear only goes so far when you want to experience the game's story, no matter what any developer tells you. You have to have some kind of progression else you become hopelessly lost and stuck on what to do next.
The Darkness has a definite story line, you're Jackie Estacado, Mafia Hitman and (in the comic, a bit of a ladies man as well) you've just turned 21. Unfortunately for you, things are about to go to Hell in several different ways. Your Uncle Paulie, a man who has treated you like blood for most of your life, turns on you after all this time.
Fortunately Jackie is also the inheritor of a strange supernatural power, the Darkness, a power that begins to manifest on the 21st birthday of this young Hitman.
The stage is then set for Starbreeze's FPS romp through the events that surround this mysterious power. Jackie is quickly embroiled in a fight against his Uncle Paulie and certain events push him further and further into the shadowy arms of the Darkness.
You can either follow the story, via a map and journal, performing various missions that will take you closer and closer to the game's climax (probably about 10 hours without side-quests) or you can talk to various NPC's around the city and engage in simplistic missions, such as retrieving objects and a whole lot of killing.
We've seen it done before in Riddick, so it's not as special this time around. Fortunately, Jackie is endowed with the power of the Darkness, this manifests as two demonic tentacles (leftie and rightie, we call them) and a smattering of other abilities. When you are in Darkness mode you take less damage from bullets and other sources, you can scare the crap out of people and feast upon the hearts of downed enemies.
As Jackie consumes more hearts, the Darkness grows in strength and the power can manifest for longer. The power is also useless in the light, so you have to shoot or break various lights in the game (which respawn when you return to an area most of the time) drawing upon the shadow to bolster your strength.
There is a limited HUD; most of the game's indicators are built into leftie and rightie, the colour of their eyes and pattering determines what power you have selected and the length of the pattern shows how much power you have left. Some abilities drain the power and you must find darkness or shadow to recharge it.
Jackie can use firearms, complete with up close and personal excellent execution moves. His Darkness powers that include, Creeping Dark, a slithering tentacle head that can move along walls Alien-Style and break locks, stealth kill, knock out lights. A demonic tentacle arm that you can use to lift heavy objects out of the way, impale enemies and break lights.
Jackie can also summon Darklings, demonic servants of the Darkness. These are brought in from spawn points, they should have been cool, but I felt quite let down by the Darklings actually. You have four types and they don't actually help out all that much. I found myself relying on Jackie's gun skill as well as his other powers later on in the game.
The command system for the Darklings just lets you press X and point where you want them to go, there's no way to jump between the Darkling types or control them directly (which would have been fun), especially if another player could jump in split-screen, over Live or System-Link.
The Darkling AI (which should have been pretty spot on) is actually fairly dumbed down; they're not the brightest sparks in the box of fireworks. They will run towards lights, sometimes just stand there, die for no apparent reason or completely ignore the enemy to focus on someone else further away. Even the Darkling that is supposed to knock out lights will often ignore the light that's busy frying him to get a pop at the light further away.
The game loses points from me for these problems right away.
I also have an issue with the spawn points for the Darklings. In the comic you can manifest a veritable army of these things, but baby Jackie is stuck with specific locations and they're about as useful most times as a chocolate fireguard. The only real fun use of the Darklings comes when the game's almost over.
The Darkness is packed with unlockables, doing side missions and picking up phone numbers (then dialling them on a game phone) unlocks a funny audio clip in game as well as some concept art and so on, out of game. You can find new costumes (weapons too) for your Darklings and they'll randomly appear with one of the unlocked costumes.
Starbreeze didn't quite match this game up to the gameplay of Riddick, it's almost there but the problems with the Darklings actually mar the gameplay slightly and it becomes almost frustrating. Jackie's other suite of powers is pretty much spot on and the later powers allow you to let rip against your foes true Darkness style.
New York is fairly well designed, linked by a Subway Hub system that allows you to visit various parts of the city. The city itself feels empty, vacant and lacks the life that it really needed to bring the game alive and suspend your disbelief. The respawning lights I can forgive this time.
The Darkness game looks nice and the character models are really well detailed, Jackie looks a little different to his comic self and takes some getting used to. The graphics and animations are spot on and the manifestation of the Darkness looks cool from a FPS perspective. I wasn't so impressed with how he appears in reflections, you can pop-out the Darkness suddenly and it looks a little false compared to turning off the power, where the tentacles and stuff slip away gradually.
There's a real feeling of character to the actual left and right tentacles, though rightie always seems to get the action (and the hearts) compared to poor old leftie. I would have liked to have seen more done with those two, especially if you could actually use them in hand to hand combat. The Darkness is a pretty gory game but its comic-book violence and nothing to write to certain Florida based Lawyers about.
The animations for the NPC's are excellent, they talk a lot with their hands which takes some getting used to. But the range of motions and the expressions on their faces is some really top notch stuff. Especially when combined with the gorgeous graphics engine that delivers some superb visuals and effective lighting/shadows.
The Darkness TV is another excellent addition, it reminded me of Max Payne and having some of those old shows on the game TV's was an inspired bit of lunacy, especially Flash Gordon and some of the older cartoons. Yet it shows what the technology can do.
Starbreeze added a bit of a knock-about multiplayer mode, but it's nothing that hasn't been seen before. It's pretty run-of the mill and generic, with the ability to shift between Darkling and human forms added to spice it up a little. I can't see there being much mileage in the mode but people will play it to rack up a few achievements they can't get from the solid singleplayer.
The music and sound in the Darkness is top quality, there's a deeply creepy atmosphere to some of the tracks in this game, especially some of the down-time music when you're moping around the Subway looking for answers. The voice acting in the game in superb, with the likes of Dwight Schultz and newcomer, Mike Patton (Frontman: Faith No More) to provide the dialogue. Mike plays the voice of the Darkness and a top quality job he does of it too, scratchy, creepy, vindictive and thoroughly evil.
All in all the Darkness is a step in the right direction, if Starbreeze removed the multiplayer and added more story it would be a really top-notch game. But against the likes of Riddick it still falls a bit short, not even Mike's creepy Darkness portrayal and demonic overtones can save it from the cruddy Darkling AI. The AI in general is passable except for those little buggers, who end up acting like tools rather than being tools the player can use to help them accomplish a mission.