The Darkness: In the shadows of Riddick
TomChick - News - 06/25/07 - Link

I was pretty excited to get to review The Darkness, the new shooter from Starbreeze, the folks who impressed us all with Chronicles of Riddick back in 2004. But having played through and finished the review, it occurs to me that one of the problems with The Darkness is Chronicles of Riddick. There are three important things missing in The Darkness that I might not have noticed if I wasnít such a big fan of Chronicles of Riddick.

1. Vin Deisel added a lot to Chronicles of Riddick. His presence was familiar and welcome. You could hear him mutter during the game, and you could see the silhouette of his smooth bald head every time you walked in front of a light. You watched him climb ladders and you enjoyed the goofy cutscenes of him playing his bad-ass-itude against a handful of other notable characters: bounty hunter, evil warden, hardened cons. Plus, his characterís background lent Chronicles two of its core elements: he was a criminal, so he was in prison, and he could see in the dark, so the game had a built-in rationale for its stealth dynamic.

In The Darkness, Jackie Estacado is an unknown quantity. He looks silly, decked out in bad hair and a long black duster that recalls Columbine more than The Matrix. His voice actor, Kirk Avacedo, is terrible. His character motivation is right out of Zelda or Prey -- cherche la femme -- and his story is told erratically. Early on, he suddenly acquires his demon powers and barely notices. You spend a lot of time during the all-too-frequent loading screens watching him deliver bad monologues.

I read up a bit on the comic, and there are elements that didnít make it into the game. For instance, in the comic, itís spelled out that the Darkness is passed down from father to son, and that the father dies at the moment his son is conceived. So when Jackie has sex, itís always potentially fatal. This presumably introduces quite a bit of sexual tension into the story. Thereís no sign of this in the game. Instead, there is regret about killing a frog as a boy, flat anecdotes about the subway system, and limp revenge vows.

2. Chronicles of Riddick came out two months before Doom 3. We hadnít yet been jaded when it came to shadowy space dungeons and shiny plastic people. It looked spectacular. It was something to call your friends over to see.

That was then. Three years later, the engine doesnít seem like itís changed much and there are areas that could have been lifted directly from Riddick. The character models are awful. The environments are only conspicuously interactive at the places youíd expect.

But the game world is full of sloppy oversights. Knock a police car aside, and itís lights hover in the air. At one point, you walk into the ruins of a building shortly after itís been destroyed by a bomb blast. There are bottles standing upright on tables. As you play, your personal map of the world fills in with the locations youíve found as you search for Paulie, the Mafioso uber-villain. But in the subway station, the completed map is posted on the walls, with ďPaulieís MansionĒ clearly labeled in the upper right corner. Itís a pretty crappy secret hideout thatís posted on a public map in both stations of the New York City subway system.

3. Chronicles of Riddick was set, quite literally, in a space dungeon. The prison setting was a perfect justification for corridors, linear levels, ever-locked doors, and discretely placed NPCs. A prison, like a first person shooter, is a carefully controlled environment.

But The Darkness takes place in New York City. Itís one of the most anemic and forced representations of a city environment since Deus Ex. The quick back-and-forth you could do in Riddick turns into long empty treks through a handful of loading screens.

These three things might not have bothered me so much if Starbreeze hadn't done such a great job with Chronicles of Riddick. Sometimes, success is a developerís own worst enemy. In the case of The Darkness, a not very good game doesnít help.

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