THE DARKNESS – Review
THE DARKNESS is a videogame developed by Starbreeze Studios and published by 2K Games for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. The Xbox 360 version was played for the purpose of this review. It was directed by JENS ANDERSSON.
This article contains the following types of spoilers:
The Darkness is a good game. You should play it if you find it cheap, because you won’t regret it. It counter-balances moments of near greatness with gameplay hiccups (you will get over them though). Its biggest shortcoming is an annoying moat that just stands there, attracting flies and mosquitoes, between the story and everything else.
It is also a game in which you can press a button to devour human hearts. What other justification for playing it do you need, really?
It begins on a car. Shortly, that becomes a car chase. Then you are betrayed – so there is your motivation. After this introduction you find yourself going from point A to point B shooting people as Jackie Estacado. The Darkness is a post-Half-Life FPS, but unlike Gordon Freeman, Jackie is an actual character instead of a blank avatar. And boy, what an ugly looking character he is! Because of Jackie is more than an avatar, there was no need for the developers to worry about breaking the illusion that the player is living the role of the protagonist, so you are allowed to see Jackie from time to time: in small cutscenes showing him perform actions that are not mapped to your controller (saying Fuck you, for example) and during loading times. Look down and you see Jackie’s hands, feet and shadow. While Half-Life 2 tries to break up the action with seesaw puzzles and vehicles sequences, The Darkness has only one type of puzzle: you open locked doors by finding small gaps through which your tentacle thingy can slip through and bust the lock.
This tentacle thingy is The Darkness. It’s some kind of a malevolent spirit that takes over Jackie Estacado right after he is betrayed by his Mafioso Uncle Paulie. Actually, it takes over Jackie as soon as the church clock strikes twelve, because he now is 21 years old – but I didn’t realize that on my first playthrough. I had to read the comic book they had included in the extras of the game (how nice of them) to learn that. Besides, Jackie is too ugly to be 21. He simply doesn’t look young: his voice is too worn and his leather trenchcoat is too… alien. Not only that, but the game makes a poor effort trying to link the Darkness’ appearance to Jackie’s birthday. In fact, it is very weird how underplayed the entire introduction of the Darkness entity was. Jackie doesn’t even seem surprised. It’s that moat again, never allowing story and gameplay to perform glorious intercourse. Here you will eat your first heart and become addicted because it tastes so good. The moat doesn’t allow the story to realize how you and Jackie are now addicted to the Darkness’ heart diet. It’s a delicious drug; a silent vice. Munch munch munch…
Not only is the Darkness’ introduction weird, but the entire concept seems a bit disjointed. Sure, it serves as a justification for your powers and to move the plot along, but that’s about it. I think Jeff Gerstmann hit the nail on its head in his review for Gamespot, where he mentioned how enemies and civilians rarely ever mention Jackie’s unique curse. This is a guy with tentacles coming from his back ripping these mobsters to shreds and nobody runs away scared! These guys must have balls of steel or brains of a caterpillar. It’s likely both. The best reactions you can hope to get are people screaming about your demon shit. If the game tried to make the player feel like a predator, it failed. Batman: Arkham Asylum did a much better job just by improving the enemies’ theatrics. Jackie himself doesn’t seem to think much of it. Never once he stops and asks himself if it is normal for every 21 years old man to start hearing Mike Patton’s creepy voice inside their head and developing tentacle fixation. Oh well, I suppose every man once had his own tentacle phase.
Anyways, the gameplay is tried and true and some of your powers, like the hilarious side-kicks you can summon, are a bit on the wonky side. I’m still having a blast though – and munching on hearts. That’s when the game introduces us to Jackie’s girlfriend, Jenny, in a scene that could only be done in a videogame.
You guys just sit there, watching TV.
It’s good TV too: To Kill a Mocking Bird is on and you can watch it fully if you feel like it. It’s one of the most poignant moments I’ve experienced in a game – perhaps even a movie. This is also the only time Jackie feels like a human being.
When you feel like it, it’s time to continue to hunt Uncle Paulie down. By now I wondered why the plot keeps asking me to disrupt Paulie’s operation instead of just walking up to him and whacking the fat bastard from the get-go. I certainly could do it with the powers of the Darkness at my command. Sure, there wouldn’t be a game then, but hey! I’m looking for some better justification here! These let’s make Paulie lose some money! tasks are arbitrary and give the impression that they were developed independently from the rest of the script. The script will command you to burn some of Paulie’s money, but it could have commanded you to kidnap his niece just as well. It’s not like which “annoy Paulie” scenario the designers ultimately went with matters anyways, considering it never brings any kind of distinct repercussion to the rest of the script. This is another example of the ditch between story and everything else I keep referring to.
Eventually, the game realizes you need a stronger motivation to go after Paulie (I mean, even a kid could escape from that initial trap he set up for you), so Jenny is kidnapped; and then executed – Ah… shut up! I did say I was going to spoil the story, didn’t I? – That’s also the first time the player realizes that the Darkness is more of a curse than a blessing, despite the timing of its appearance. From this point forward, Jackie will also try to take control of this creature. However, it is odd how he targets his anger only at Paulie since the Darkness played an equally big part in Jenny’s demise. In fact, this whole moment could be handled better. Because the player cannot act nor is the player given the illusion that his actions would matter during her execution, he knows that no input of his part would change the outcome. Thus, he is fully aware that this was just another required plot device and doesn’t feel the same anger and guilt that drives the main character’s revenge. This is a pity coming from such a well-crafted love scene.
I’m sorry. Right now I caught myself into one of the biggest reviewing fallacies. I’ve just realized that so far I was reviewing not the game I played, but the game I wanted to play and did not.
Despite those complains The Darkness is a very well paced game altering between a dark and claustrophobic New York City and possibly the best interpretation of Hell around. This is a game where slow travel is fun, mainly because the different neighborhoods and subways in the game’s NYC are so well integrated. It’s a game with a very strong sense of place. The subway acts as a hub world of sorts. It is the only location where you cannot kill NPCs, but then again, why would you want to? The people roaming around the subways don’t seem to be going anywhere. I call them my Subway Gang. They are like the strangers you meet everyday in your way to work. You don’t know these guys… and yet you kind of do. I even found Tobey Maguire roaming the subways as a NPC once. No joke!
Like Jackie, these people are the oddballs, the excluded. The game views them in a very forgiving light. Drug users, hobos, old people, bored tourists, war veterans, gang members and con-men, all trying to reach some kind of connection. They gesticulate a lot as they ask Jackie for favors; and Jackie will be more than happy to oblige. Not because Jackie is a good Samaritan, but because he is the one that longs for this kind of connection the most. His rewards are phone numbers of random people. Jackie calls them to hear their voices perhaps just for nostalgia’s sake. These voices tell him about problems that are simply not part of his reality anymore. In Jackie’s world, human lives are feedstock for the Darkness’ lust for blood and his own revenge.
These are all intercalated by monologues that act as pretty smart loading method. Some are reminiscences and anecdotes that give a better perspective on why Jackie is the guy that he is. Others relate directly with the plot. My favorite ones are about Jackie silently playing with his guns like a little boy, or his handling them with psychopathic mannerisms. These monologues lose their charm as soon as Jackie tells us about this crazy cab driver he knows for the 11th time, and it is a pity the developers simply didn’t use more of the silent monologues instead Jackie repeating stuff. Also missing are monologues of Jackie’s trying to figure out why the hell there were black tentacles coming from his armpits.
I love how the game handled things that would normally annoy me. Loading screen are still so poorly handled nowadays that I feel ecstatic when someone presents a good use for them. I also love that I can actually see Estacado’s shadow as he walks and how the guns interact with walls, making the player’s interaction with the game’s physical space more believable. The voice acting is phenomenal and it was what ultimately turned me into a non-believer of the Uncanny Valley theory for videogames. Although NPCs provide a lot of hand gestures when speaking (and even if exaggerated, I still prefer this approach than the static NPCs from The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion), their mouths barely move, and yet the voice were good enough for me to eventually start overlooking that. I believe that as long as good voice work is added, we can always fill whatever gap there is between reality and photo-realistic graphics/animation and abstract the hell out of that silly valley. It’s not weird animation or eerie template skin that matters in the end. What kills immersion and makes you stop suspending you disbelief is poor voice acting. It’s all in the acting!
Then the game ends. How does it end? You kill Paulie, of course. This was almost foretold considering Paulie is disliked by simply everyone in town, his own henchmen included (how a guy like that kept his position as the Don is beyond me). Killing Paulie, a shallow and downright mean character, never feels satisfying. But then again, this kind of revenge is not meant to be satisfying. Now Jackie has nothing to live for and the Darkness has completely taken over his soul.
Hilary Goldstein from IGN agrees that The Darkness has an anti-climatic ending, but complains about Starbreeze Studios’ choice of wanting players to become all-powerful at the end, saying: It’s a great sensation to know you are going to waste everyone you see, but it doesn’t work so well from a game standpoint. I find it troubling that reviewers rejected any closure that does not contain some kind of spectacular last boss fight, despite always professing to want something more. When they got exactly what they asked for, they whiffed on it. Although the ending was flawed, I don’t believe it was because of the reasons defended by Hilary. In my opinion, the game’s biggest problem was that it focused too much on the trivial revenge plot, while forgetting that the hunt for Paulie was merely the drive for an ultimately more interesting story: how Jackie Estacado ultimately surrendered his humanity to the Darkness.
The game merely touches on points I wished they were more fleshed out. Under its surface, this is a game about relationship with the dark powers and its consequences rather than revenge – after all, Uncle Paulie’s fate is already sealed from the very beginning. It’s a game about a guy that grew by violence, whose destiny is to be taken over by violence. The game, however, robbed this violence of meaning by not allowing Jackie’s victims to be unique and by making Jackie himself apathetic towards the Darkness’ acts of violence.
Finally, Gabe Graziani from Gamespy touched on an aspect I completely forgot: the multiplayer. He states that the multiplayer is so bad you could easily skip playing The Darkness online and come out all the more satisfied with the game because of it. I followed his advice only because I don’t have a Gold Account for my Xbox Live. Had I played the multiplayer, I would probably rate this game lower – especially considering the achievements make it clear that playing the multiplayer is part of the game’s experience. Still: what the hell!? I have 2 controllers and a couch! Why not add a split-screen multiplayer? Since when does the word multiplayer imply online exclusively? Why can’t I access content I’ve paid for? There is simply no excuse for this oversight. Any studio that has resources to spend on Jackie Estacado’s disgusting hair has also enough resources to spend on split-screen multiplayer.
I doubt that hair was ever washed, by the way. Jackie doesn’t seem much like a fan of personal hygiene if you ask me. Hmm… I suppose that the Darkness choosing him as its host actually made perfect sense after all.
Other reviews mentioned: