The Darkness Review (Xbox360)

Some of you may remember The Darkness. Way back in the mists of time when the Xbox 360 was initially announced, a small trailer showing off a NewYork building at night-time was sandwiched in between the major titles, and drew little more than passing curiosity from most of the gaming press. Fast forward a couple of years and The Darkness is now being released to almost no fanfare, which is more than a little strange considering it comes from Starbreeze; creators of the Chronicles of Riddick franchise on both Xbox and PC. It’ll be a shame to miss out due to a lack of press coverage though, as this is a game that continues to build the reputation of the Swedish development team by providing some of the finest single-player action yet to grace the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

Lighting and texturing throughout is beautifully realised 'Demon Arm', one of your four Darkness powers

Based on the comic book of the same name, The Darkness is set in the murky mafia underworld of NewYork. The player assumes the role of one Jackie Estacado, a go-to guy in his Uncle Paulie’s particular branch of the Italian-American crime organisation. Following a series of unexpected events (depicted in a fantastic and breathless opening sequence), Jackie is left as a wanted man, and on the eve of his 21st birthday becomes consumed by a demonic power known only as ‘The Darkness’. Hell-bent on seeking revenge upon the father figure who now cruelly betrays him, Jackie sets about dispatching his enemies to the top of the food chain, learning more about the mysterious powers enveloping his soul along the way.

The Darkness plays out as a mostly traditional FPS, with a few unique twists on the genre that provide more than enough to elevate it above the pack. It should come as no surprise that the game takes a large chunk of inspiration from the Chronicles of Riddick, but given the pedigree in both technical proficiency and artistic design of the aforementioned title, that is certainly no bad thing at all.

The most telling addition to FPS formula comes in the form of the titular Darkness Powers, which are available to activate at any point, and regenerate whenever Jackie is enveloped in the gloom. Each different power has its own unique application, ranging from a controllable and slithering tentacle through to a small-scale black hole generator; excellent for dispatching groups of enemies and watching the resulting physics-based chaos. The magic here is that you don’t strictly have to use any of the powers to progress. Barring a few specific puzzles, the combat situations are largely left to the player to determine the best path to pick, and the supernatural or real-world tools to deploy. It is entirely conceivable that no two players will get through any given situation in the same manner, and this inherent level of dynamism results in some excellent free-form combat.

The 'otherworld' sections are very atmospheric Relying on weapons alone will put you in an early grave

This focus on non-scripted set pieces is added further weight by the introduction of summon able creatures named ‘Darklings’. Each Darkling has a specific purpose, ranging from basic brawling, suicide bombing, machine-gunning and simply destroying lights in the nearby vicinity. Again, these aren’t strictly necessary to utilise, and players will undoubtedly end up choosing a favourite Darkling to counterbalance the element of play that they might find difficult under normal circumstances. For example, if you aren’t too hot with the auto-aim, then summon a machine-gunner to assist; alternatively, if you like to rush into combat headfirst then send in a light-destroyer ahead of time. None of the Darklings are invincible however, and they never unbalance the difficulty to an extent that it becomes noticeable.

Outside of the solid core gameplay, The Darkness also manages to provide a superbly compelling atmosphere; the result of some outstanding artistic design and a fantastic eye for detail. The storytelling mechanisms are unique throughout, and the starkly deserted NewYork streets and populated subway stations show off an extremely cinematic level of visual flair, which is aided by the undoubted technical proficiency of the graphical engine. An excellent original musical score also lends the game a distinct aura reminiscent of Max Payne and Fahrenheit, and special praise has to be reserved for the voice acting, which is uniformly peerless in execution. The tightly-scripted dialogue is the icing on the cake.

The story is essentially split up into five different chapters, all centred on the subway system which serves as a hub area between action sequences. Missions take place in different locations around the city, but a few plot twists also cast the player into an ‘otherworld’ realm, centred on a fictional version of the First World War. Whilst the artistic design embodied in the rambling zombified axis troops and the literally stitched-together allies is a sight to behold, these sections of the game can at times come across as little more than filler material, and that’s the only real criticism that can be levelled at the single-player campaign. The unfortunate inclusion of a couple of sub-par on-rails shooting sections in these areas also undermines their presence somewhat, and the open battlefields occasionally stretch the graphical engine a little too far, with some extremely short draw-distance hampering the sense of immersion.

Whilst the purely single-player focus of The Darkness means that co-operative play didn’t make the cut, the tacked on nature of the competitive multiplayer element also leaves a lot to be desired. There are some solid concepts here, with players able to take the role of shape-shifters to change between human and Darkling form, but the extreme amount of lag experienced in almost every game-type simply makes the game unplayable at present. You’d have to hope that Starbreeze is working on a patch to resolve some of the issues, because as it stands the multiplayer elements are dragging down an otherwise unrivalled experience.

The mischievous Darklings will carry out your evil bidding Character models are superbly detailed

Of course the real focus of the title has always been to provide a compelling single-player story, and on that level The Darkness deserves nothing but the highest plaudits. An initial run-through of the campaign may only take around 10 hours, but with the vast reams of collectable items, side-quests and the ubiquitous achievement hunting to be done, replayability is a heavy factor. To be honest, with the level of quality that Starbreeze have managed to shoehorn into the game, it’d be no chore to replay this until the remake of the Chronicles of Riddick is ready for launch. In a year that contains the release of Bioshock, Mass Effect and Halo 3, it’s nice to have such a pleasant surprise on our hands, just be sure to play with the lights off.

Top Game Moment:
The final five minutes of play, for reasons I'll leave up to you to find out.

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By ScythSoulces (SI Core) on Sep 11, 2008
This was the best dang game I have ever played. Please come out with another game like this(but with a free rome like spider-man 2 and 3).