In the grip of The Darkness II

, | Game reviews

“Corridor” used to be a dirty word in shooters. Time was I thought a linear corridor-based shooter was a lost cause. Thanks Calls of Duty! But then along came the Bioshocks, and games that did such nifty things with the shooting that I didn’t mind the corridors: The Club, Resident Evil 5, Lost Planet 2, Kane & Lynch 2, Fear 3. And now The Darkness II, a sequel to a game I didn’t even like, drives home the point that corridor doesn’t have to be a dirty word.

After the jump, a shooter Bill Gaines would love!

The gimmick in The Darkness is that you have sentient tentacle/snake things, one on each shoulder. It comes from a comic book, wouldn’t you know? If you’re wondering why you have these, I can explain: backstory, backstory, cutscene, exposition, cutscene, backstory, yadda yadda yadda. All you really need to know is that you’re a one-man four-armed supernatural rampaging machine. The Darkness II isn’t as soggy with exposition as the first game, so you can just go with it.

But if you like the story — and I’ll bet you dollars to demon droppings you will — you’ll find a clever combination of dark, creepy, sly, and sometimes even funny. Here are elements of Alan Wake, Fear, Shutter Island, Chronicles of Riddick, Legacy of Kain, The Crow, Hellboy, and Dark (“Take the fucking elephant!”) Man. For good measure, throw in a memorable goblin/demon/soccer hooligan sidekick who now belongs on every list of best ever videogame sidekicks for reasons that I can’t go into because it would mean spoilers. Just stick him right under Wheatley, please. Before you know it, you’re actually reading the backstory you unlocked with each collectible artifact. If you want good writing and a memorable story in your corridor shooter, The Darkness II will oblige you.

It even looks fantastic, with an emphasis on cel-shaded splatter horror. The Darkness II plays as if it were an homage to the EC Comics of the 40s and 50s. It has that same grimly colorful and colorfully grim vibe in its approach to crucifixion, torture, madness, hell, and a demon who pees on bodies and farts in their dead faces. The slightly exaggerated characters help a lot during the plasticky puppet theater cutscenes and you might not even notice the badda-bing cut-rate Goodfellas mafioso silliness, which sits in the background where it belongs.

The good writing and evocative visuals are surprising given that the first game was so leaden and awkward. The original Darkness was made by Starbreeze, and it fared poorly in the shadow of their Riddick games. But for this sequel, Digital Extremes has taken over as the developer. If you know their work from the Bioshock 2 multiplayer, which you probably don’t considering how 2K thoroughly and frequently botched it, you’ll appreciate that these guys know how to mix guns with crazy superpowers. That’s exactly what they do with your tentacles and RPG upgrades in The Darkness II. Your tentacles get lots of useful ways to interact with the environment and the bad guys. As you upgrade your powers — it’s a pretty darn good RPG system for how it encourages creative and dramatic kills, and for how useful each upgrade is — you can farm bad guys for health and ammo, earn new magical powers, improve your weapons, and so forth.

As you master the tentacles, you’ll get a really gratifying feeling of scuttling through the levels, Doc Ock style. While you’re reloading your gun, use one tentacle to whip a guy up into the air, then another to grab him and throw him at your enemies. Reach out and snatch ammo from across the room while hiding behind cover. Pick up and fling a convenient saw blade at one bad guy while shotgunning another. It’s intuitive, to boot. Meanwhile, the bad guys keep pace by learning new ways to counter you. The Darkness II is one of those smart sandbox games where your set of toys gets bigger and more powerful while the bad guys’ sets of toys also get bigger and more powerful. When The Darkness II finally reaches that point where the bad guys take away all your powers and leave you with a knife, the game has earned it. Don’t worry, it’s not as annoying as it sounds.

You may have heard that this is a short game. You heard wrong. Like Fear 3, which The Darkness II resembles for how it creatively adds supernatural powers to an already solid shooter, here you’ll find a completely different approach to multiplayer. Hardly a surprise given how well Digital Extremes did with the multiplayer for Bioshock 2. But the multiplayer here is an extension of the story, and it’s actually not really multiplayer. Vendetta mode, as it’s called, is a collection of new episodes, played from the perspective of four different characters with different powers. Each has his or her own RPG upgrades, which you can buy as you play through standalone missions and challenges set in entirely new levels, either solo or co-operatively with up to three other players. Furthermore, each character has personality along the lines of Left 4 Dead for how they talk to each other and comment variously on the action. The Darkness II is only a short game if you assume it stops with the story of the main character.

5 stars
Xbox 360, PC