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The Darkness II 360 is a more polished game than its predecessor, but also less interesting and very short-lived.
First impressions count for a lot, but they can be deceptive. There's a point early on in The Darkness II where it feels like the perfect sequel, a game that retains everything good and interesting about its predecessor but irons out any flaws in the original formula.
It's the eyes that get seduced first. The cel-shaded visuals are much sharper and more stylish than the straightforward realism of the first game, the sharp black lines reminiscent of Darkness co-creator Marc Silvestri's artwork.
Lead character Jackie Estacado has had a thorough makeover. The long hair and monochrome dress sense are retained, but Jackie now looks more like the well-groomed made man he's supposed to be than the Camden goth he resembled last time around.
While the art style has been spruced up, visual cues from the first game are carried over, most notably the loading scenes of Jackie monologuing against a pure black background.
Those monologues, and indeed the game's dialogue, are sharply written and well voice-acted, retaining the spiky language and eccentric characterisation that was so entertaining in the previous game.
Old friends like Jimmy the Grape and Butcher Joyce are joined by new characters like Darkness expert Johnny Powell, who proves to be an unstable, fast-talking delight as he rattles through a plot recap of the first game.
The Darkness II picks up the story with Jackie firmly ensconced as Don of his mafia family, while keeping the Darkness suppressed and resisting using its power. In an impressive opening Jackie is the target of an assassination attempt that leaves him wounded, and when a follow-up attack nearly kills him he has no choice but to summon the Darkness once more and use its powers to survive.
Needless to say, once he's been forced to invite the Darkness back into his life, Jackie isn't going to sit back and take the attempt on his life lightly. From the restaraunt where he's first attacked, Jackie pursues his would-be killers through the streets and into the subway.
In the original The Darkness game the subway acted as a conflict-free hub-area at the centre of the game's small open-world, a place which Jackie revisited again and again as he criss-crossed the city, stopping to chat to people and pick up sub-quests.
The Darkness II confidently rings the changes by re-casting the subway as the setting for an explosive shootout between Jackie and his new enemies, climaxing in a station-wrecking explosive set-piece. The hub of the old open-world is gone, as is the open-world itself, replaced by a very linear game structure that prioritises big, scripted moments over player freedom.
Jackie's relationship with his late girlfriend, Jenny, remains the emotional centre.
Freedom of movement isn't the be-all and end-all of course, and linear games can be perfectly enjoyable. Initially it feels like The Darkness II has enough flare to make up for the more constrained structure, with gameplay that feels like its had the same thoughtful rethink and polish as the visuals: the Darkness powers, and how they are controlled, has been thoroughly revised to create a system that's more straightforward and responsive.
There's a tremendous sense of empowerment to this system that's bolstered by a talent tree system that allows Jackie to develop his powers. Charging at a group of enemies firing two guns at once, while using one Darkness tentacle to pick up and throw objects at the enemy and another to slash them to pieces, is demented fun.
Brutal execution kills deliver bigger boosts of dark essence - which is spent in the aforementioned talent tree - as well as restoring health, ammo et cetera. Some of these execution kills are fantastically gross, but also darkly humorous - it's hard not to laugh when Darkness tentacles grab a baddie by his feet, rip him in half and the caption 'Wishbone' flashes on screen.
There's also a solid narrative to the sequel, with some creative flourishes as Jackie has visions that may be alternate realities or may be illusions. Jackie's relationship with his late girlfriend, Jenny, remains the emotional centre of the series and the reality shifts allow her presence to be felt even though she's long dead.
There's both style and substance here, then, with solid plot and character development as well as fun, creative gameplay that mixes satisfyingly heavy ordinance with sinister superpowers. Combine that with a polished aesthetic and control system, and you've got a perfect sequel, right?
Well, not exactly. As the game progresses, it becomes evident that while The Darkness II is a lot slicker than its predecessor, it's also less interesting.
For starters, replacing the open world structure of the first game with a completely linear progression between levels may eliminate some complex backtracking and repetition, but it also takes away any feeling of Jackie living in a real, albeit limited, world.
With Jackie's luxurious penthouse acting as his base of operations in this sequel, we're a long way from the petty grifts and intimidations of the first game, and it makes the action seem more abstract and less interesting.
Instead, what we get is all-out supernatural shennanigans with fantastical baddies.
Equally, while facing Jackie off against a cult with an interest in the Darkness makes story sense, the more comic-book nature of the threat removes the interesting tension that the first game had between the supernatural story elements and the largely realistic, brutal crime plot. Instead, what we get is all-out supernatural shennanigans with fantastical baddies.
If the story feels lighter, the single player campaign also feels insubstantial, mainly because its so short. Even with thorough exploration and occasionally getting lost it only took me three two-hour sessions to complete my first playthrough. There's a New Game+ mode that allows you to carry your talent progression into a second playthrough, but that proved an even shorter play time as I was skipping all the cutscenes and taking the most direct route through each level.
Disappointingly, considering the campaign's short length, there manage to be boring bits, sections which are utterly generic. A deserted fairground section could come from a million slightly spooky games, and only once offers something new, while The Darkness II's vision of hell is utterly generic and isn't a patch on the first game's World War I inspired nightmares.
Another layer of story is provided by the Vendettas campaign, which concerns a team of four mercenaries with Darkness-powered weapons, and weaves in and out of the single player story filling in some minor plot gaps.
The Vendettas are pitched as dedicated co-op levels, and are primed for multiplayer with less emphasis on dialogue and story than singleplayer, but they can be played solo too.
Disappointingly, there manage to be boring bits.
As you would expect from levels designed for online co-op the Vendettas have simple objectives and are largely concerned with the elimination of waves of enemies. Controls and skill trees are simplified, and the missions not only reuse environments from the singleplayer campaign, but revisit those places within the course of the Vendettas themselves.
The Vendettas aren't essential, then, but they're entertaining enough and do deepen the Darkness mythology, providing much-needed extra value after the short single player campaign.
It's not quite enough, though. Even combining the play times of both the single player storyline and Vendettas The Darkness II clocks in lower than a lot of far cheaper XBLA titles, and its high points aren't frequent or spectacular enough to overcome that lack of substance and justify its high retail price point. One to wait for the sales for.
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