Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The Darkness

Post-Launch Review
The Darkness
Developer: Starbreeze Studios
Released: June 2007

About

The Darkness is a first-person shooter (based on the comic book of the same name) where you play as Jackie Estacado, an orphan now working as a mob hitman for his uncle Paulie. When Paulie orders Jackie's execution on his 21st birthday, an evil power awakens, and Jackie wrestles for control as he uses it to take revenge against his uncle. The situation escalates, drawing in friends, family, competing mob factions, and a corrupt police unit, and Jackie struggles to finish what he started before the Darkness takes control.

No screenshots. PS3. Argh.

At Launch

The Darkness earned average review scores of 81%. Reviewers praised the story, gameplay, and graphics, as well as its dark tone and atmosphere, and unusual mix of genre. Negative reviews cited poor AI and some control issues. A common complaint among the lower-rated reviews was that the gameplay and genre elements don't come together very well.

Post Launch

I haven't seen any evidence of patches. Doesn't mean there weren't any, but I didn't find anything.

The Good

The Darkness
You get some pretty cool powers to play with. You can detach a snaky tentacle for stealth kills or pressing buttons; a powerful tentacle attack; darkness-powered guns; and a miniature black hole. These only function when you have darkness energy, which you gather by being in darkness (surprise!) and which burns off slowly in the light or as you take damage. On top of that, you can also summon four types of darklings, little minions that help you out in combat by attacking in melee, shooting a chaingun, destroying light sources, or just exploding. And all of these are in addition to your usual guns which function as you'd expect.
I didn't use the melee tentacle much because all the enemies have guns, so it seems kind of counterproductive to get in close. But all the other powers were very handy, each with their own uses. When I first got black hole it seemed overpowered, but by the end the game compensated by throwing enough enemies at me that it didn't really matter.
My only complaint (which isn't really much of a complaint) is that it's fully possible to hang back behind a corner and just send out tentacles and black holes, seldom firing guns.

Story & Writing
For what's essentially a revenge story, there's a lot going on in The Darkness. Since it's a mob thing, there are of course themes of family, respect, and the old ways vs. the new ways. Jackie's struggle with the Darkness runs parallel to the revenge story, and there are some neat twists as to how Jackie learns about the power within him. And the ending is melancholic but with just a little tweak of uncertainty at the end. Good stuff.

Side Quests
Sometimes you run into named characters who will offer you a reward (a collectible phone number) for accomplishing a task. These can be things like "go kill some guys", but there are some more interesting ones - like grab 4 quarters off the subway tracks without getting run over, or go beat up the guy who won't let the busker play his harmonica. They're all quite short and optional, and therefore tend to be fun little distractions that don't get boring (unless you let too many pile up and have to deal with loading screens all the time).

Dark
The atmosphere is incredibly dark and gritty. While some outdoor environments aren't as dark as I'd like (even after destroying the lights), the texture of the game is very dirty and shady, and it contributes a lot to the feel of the game.

The Neutral

Levelling Up
To increase your Darkness ability, you must tear out and consume the hearts of the people you kill. It was neat at first, but after ten or twenty or fifty or a hundred guys, it gets annoying to have to manually pick up your "experience" instead of automatically collecting it from kills. 

Loading
Loading screens feature a little cutscene where Jackie talks about how he's feeling, tells a personal anecdote, or details a location. Each of these are framed as Jackie speaking to Jenny (his girlfriend). Some don't feature any voice, instead showing Jackie inspecting his weapons or something. These are cool.
What's not cool is how long it takes to load anything. These short scenes tend to be five, ten, or fifteen seconds (approximately, just guessing post-play), but often the level is only half loaded by the time the scene is over. It's entirely possible for the game to start repeating scenes, and then the wait gets really noticeable.
You'll also see a LOT of loading screens if you're doing side quests, and sometimes even when you're doing the main story you'll be required to hit three or four loads before you can start your mission.

Collectibles
Collectibles are found throughout the game as phone numbers. To unlock the bonus content, you dial the number into in-game phones (automatically, not manually) and listen to a short message (typically an answering machine) which has nothing to do with the story but is often funny. The content is then unlocked in the Extras menu. Some of the extras are entire comic books - since The Darkness is based on a Top Cow comic, I guess they figured they'd let you sample some of their other books and get you hooked. It's a neat idea, but it can get a little annoying to have to go through each message to unlock the content, rather than getting it when you find the hidden number. You don't have to listen to the phone message, but you still have to call each phone number to unlock each piece of content.

The Bad

Facial Animation
Facial features hardly move at all when characters speak. Surprisingly, it seems worst on Jackie, whose lips barely even part when he talks. Usually the model for the main character, when visible, is the best-looking and best-animated. Faces are well-rendered, but the animation is poor.

Enemy AI
As I was playing through the game I often noted that combat didn't really feel intense or dangerous, and I eventually figured out why: the enemies never do anything. They'll grab cover and just sit there, shooting at you if they see you. The problem is that your very first Darkness power is a crawling tentacle which you can use from behind cover, or even a completely different room. So the fact that enemies don't move from cover doesn't mean that you'll have to find a way to flush them out; instead it means they pose zero threat if you have cover of your own. I mean, I know Jackie is all possessed by a bloodthirsty demonic power that eats hearts, but you'd think someone would go "gee guys, our goons keep dying no matter how much cover they have, maybe we should try something else".

The Verdict

Recommendation: play it.
The Darkness presents an interesting blend of genre: supernatural horror, crime/mafia, and occasionally World War 1. The story is pretty good with some depth and a lot going on, and it's reinforced by the dark and gritty atmosphere. There's a lot of variety and options in gameplay for an FPS. I had fun with The Darkness

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