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The Darkness (Xbox 360) artwork

The Darkness (Xbox 360) review

"At the beginning of 2004, Starbreeze Studios was an almost entirely unknown developer. When word got out that they were at the helm of a game based on the movie, The Chronicles of Riddick, the response was one of almost complete indifference. Yet, when the game was released later that year, it was heralded as one of the best games of 2004, and with good reason -- Starbreeze had created an FPS that that was far more than a mere corridor shooter. Riddick was an extremely polished ..."

At the beginning of 2004, Starbreeze Studios was an almost entirely unknown developer. When word got out that they were at the helm of a game based on the movie, The Chronicles of Riddick, the response was one of almost complete indifference. Yet, when the game was released later that year, it was heralded as one of the best games of 2004, and with good reason -- Starbreeze had created an FPS that that was far more than a mere corridor shooter. Riddick was an extremely polished FPS that was infused with RPG elements that could shine even with Vin Diesel in the starring role. So it was with bated breath that fans awaited Starbreeze Studios' next effort, The Darkness, based on the comic of the same title. These fans can breathe a sigh of relief: it was worth the wait.

The Darkness is the story of New York mafia hitman, Jackie Estacado. The game begins on the night of his 21st birthday and things go wrong almost immediately. Uncle Paulie, the leader of the mob, and the man who raised Jackie, suspects him of foul-play and puts a hit out on him. Sickened by the countless injustices Paulie has committed over the years and fearing for his own life and the life of his girlfriend, Jenny, Jackie sets out to destroy his organization, piece by piece. This is the beginning of a typical crime story, save for one major element: The Darkness.

That same night, Jackie is possessed by a demonic force known to him as The Darkness, which takes the form of two snake-like tentacles that appear on Jackie's shoulders. They augment his abilities dramatically and provide him numerous methods of wreaking havoc on the surrounding environments. Yet, this parasite is in control of Jackie's actions, and as if taking on the mob boss wasn't enough, he's also forced to find out exactly what this fiend is and discover a way to rid himself of it. It's an interesting twist to a plot that would otherwise be a fairly standard crime story.

As a whole, the storyline is excellent and surprisingly prevalent for an FPS. The plot isn't necessarily complex, but there are a number of twists that make for a very entertaining ride. What's most impressive is how the story is told. Rather than being forced to sit through an endless sequence of cinematics, you control Jackie as the events unfold through scripted sequences. These scenes are all very well put together and make you feel as though you really are a part of the story that's happening rather than passively watching it reveal itself. Jackie is easily one of the most fleshed-out characters in an FPS and his backstory is told through short, 15-second sequences where he stands in front of a pitch-black backdrop and recalls a moment from his past. It's simple, stylish, and goes a long way in explaining who he is as a character and making him more interesting to play as. These brief movies take the place of loading screens, so it's especially impressive how seamlessly they were integrated into the game. The story truly feels like it's a cohesive part of the game and avoids the common pitfall of feeling like a tacked on concession to those who require a story. As such, The Darkness has one of the most finely crafted storylines of any FPS and one that melds seamlessly with the gameplay.

The gameplay is quite similar to that of The Chronicles of Riddick, which, as fans of that game know, is a very good thing. What makes The Darkness compelling is, ironically, that you'll spend less time in gunfights than you will with most games in the FPS genre. Rather, there's a smattering of RPG elements in the game that break up the shooting segments, and these all blend in seamlessly. The game isn't broken up into a series of levels and is instead composed of a single New York with multiple areas that you'll gradually gain access to. All of the areas are connected by a series of subway stations, which are the only truly safe places in the game and where a lot of the less action-focused gameplay takes place. Here, you'll be able to make phone calls to get information and move the story along or take on a variety of side quests by talking to the people who populate the stations. These side quests are decent for the most part, though decidedly more mundane than the main quest. Still, they do provide a reasonably interesting diversion and yield some rewards for finishing them. As much as the RPG elements benefit the game, though, it's evident that they were lifted directly from The Chronicles of Riddick as there is nothing that this game does differently as far as those go. That's not entirely a bad thing since the RPG elements were used well in Riddick, but the developers should have at least attempted to take things a bit further and try something new.

Most of the game is still centered around combat, so it's good that The Darkness doesn't disappoint. This, like The Chronicles of Riddick before it, is definitely not a run-and-gun shooter like the majority of games in the genre today. Rather, it has a more deliberate pace and requires you to use cover in order to survive. This pacing for the combat feels spot-on and keeps the game both exciting and strategic. Nearly all of the enemy encounters are composed of situations where Jackie is surrounded by a multitude of foes, none of whom are particularly strong. The enemy AI is decent and has some tricks like peeking around corners and firing, but it isn't on the level of what games like F.E.A.R. offer. Enemies are capable of dishing out quite a bit of damage in a short time, so the game won't feel like it's too easy at the default difficulty setting. There's no health packs to be found in the game -- instead, Jackie's vision will begin to turn red as he takes damage and he needs to avoid gunfire in order to recover. It's definitely not a new idea for the genre, but it does give you incentive to stay behind cover and act carefully. All of the guns feel like they have a reasonable amount of power behind them, so shooting always feels satisfying, but the game would have benefited from having more diversity in the weapon selection as there is little apart from the standard assortment of handguns, shotguns, and machine guns. The gunplay is livened up a bit by the inclusion of an execution technique that is triggered whenever you attack someone at point blank range. Jackie will perform one of several execution techniques like sticking a gun in the enemy's mouth and pulling the trigger to instantly kill the enemy. It isn't always easy to get right in front of the enemy to pull this off, but it's incredibly fun to watch when you do.

There's quite a bit more to the combat than meets the eye, though. Once The Darkness takes control over Jackie, he will gradually gain Darkness powers which allow him to do anything from throwing objects with a tentacle to sucking enemies into a black hole if they're lucky enough to get in his way. These powers, combined with the standard guns, give the game quite a bit of variety in combat, and also provide you with multiple ways to approach a situation. For example, The Darkness gives you the ability to send out a tentacle that can slither up walls, attack enemies, and even unlock doors, so even outside of direct enemy confrontation, these powers have an application. In addition to the standard Darkness abilities, Jackie is also able to summon Darklings, which are small creatures that rise out of the portals you'll find all over the city. These bundles of joy will follow you around and attack any enemies you encounter. They're very useful in certain situations, and you'll gain Darklings with new powers such as ones that have the ability to use a gun or a saw to eliminate your foes. These, like the Darkness powers, add another layer of depth to the game to prevent it from being standard FPS fodder. Perhaps the most gruesome mechanic The Darkness brings into play is the ability to devour the hearts of fallen enemies. When used, one of the tentacles stabs itself into the enemy's chest and tears out their heart in a graphic display. The more hearts consumed, the stronger Jackie can become, and the more Darkness powers he will learn. It's a useful mechanic that gives you incentive to fight all of your enemies rather than run away, and it gives the game a little bit more depth. This all adds up to a game that is remarkably fun to play and one with a lot more substance to it than a standard FPS.

For the most part, The Darkness excels in the graphics department. The gritty New York setting is brought to life by the almost absurdly detailed recreations of dank subways, streets, and buildings. These environments are littered with signs, graffiti, and posters, all while looking dirty enough to capture the feel of New York. The lighting effects are convincing, yet not overused, and the shadows cast by objects are similarly effective. Character models are also extremely detailed and the animation for them is even more impressive. During conversations, characters will emote accordingly and it all looks natural, which is exceedingly rare in games. Jackie, himself, is also very well animated during gameplay, even though you only see his hands and the guns he holds in them. There's a remarkable amount of subtle detail in how he moves, such as how he realistically navigates his guns around a wall whenever you approach one. The Darkness, like almost everything else in the game, is smoothly animated. The tentacles continually writhe about and transition seamlessly from being inactive to devouring an enemy's heart. As realistic as the graphics may sound, though, they are also highly stylized. When The Darkness is activated, a yellow glow sweeps over dark rooms, you'll see the tentacles suck in the air, and an eerie glow emanates from the tentacles' eyes. Even without The Darkness present, there are numerous stylistic touches like the reddish glow applied to everything when you take damage. All these minor additions take a game that otherwise looks very realistic, and makes it look truly interesting and artistic. All these visuals look crisp, too, because the game supports resolutions up to 1080p and the game really deserves an HDTV given the amount of detail you simply won't be able to experience without one.

As good as the graphics are, though, they aren't perfect. While the frame rate generally hovers at a relatively smooth 30FPS, it does dip slightly on a few occasions. The animation didn't escape unscathed either, as characters' mouths move quite unnaturally when talking. Character speech doesn't necessarily look bad, but given how high-quality the rest of the animation in the game is, it stands out a bit. New York is also disappointingly devoid of activity and it would have been nice to see more crowds on these sleepy streets. All of the areas in the city also look overly similar with very little to set them apart. It would have been nice to have some landmarks or defining characteristics to make them feel different. Taken as a whole, The Darkness is a mostly excellent achievement from a technical standpoint, and there's some impressive stylistic touches, but the lack of variety and spice in the environments hinders the enjoyability of the game to an extent.

The sound design is no slouch, and may actually be the game's strongest point. The most notable aspect of the sound is the phenomenal voice overs. Every character in the game is well cast and every line is delivered with Hollywood-quality voice acting. The resulting voices sound completely fitting for the characters and the lines never sound out of place. It's a shame that more games don't have voice overs that sound this good, because they, just as much as the graphics, help bring the characters to life. The sound's other notable aspect is the 5.1 surround sound. You can hear the enemies positions clearly with the surround sound on, which is to be expected from a game with 5.1 audio, but what's especially impressive is all the subtle effects. The most prevalent are the haunting voice of The Darkness (voiced by Michael Patton), which comes from behind you just as it should given it's location on Jackie, and the other voices that echo throughout Jackie's mind at certain points. You'll also be surrounded by various sirens, chattering, and other background noise as you traverse New York, and while all of these surround effects are minor, they contribute quite a bit to your immersion in the game. The sound effects for all of the weapons are spot on and pack enough of a punch to sound satisfying. The musical score is pretty good and fits the mood well, though there aren't any songs that stand out as being memorable. Overall, however, the game's sound comes across very well and truly brings the game to life.

This isn't a particularly lengthy game and clocks in at around 8-10 hours, but that time is some of the most enjoyable you'll spend playing an FPS. The side quests add a couple of hours to the play time if you're intent on finishing all of them, but no matter how you look at it, the game is relatively brief. The one thing that does give the game some legs, however, is the sheer amount of unlockable bonus content. Throughout his adventure, Jackie will find phone numbers and letters hidden in random locations. By calling these numbers and sending these letters, you'll unlock bonus material in the main menu. These take the form of concept art, scans of The Darkness comic book, and a few other production materials. Some of these are pretty interesting, so it is worth taking the time to find these collectibles, and there are dozens upon dozens to be obtained. There's a multiplayer mode as well which has the standard game types you'd expect from an FPS, but between the unbalanced classes and the horribly laggy netcode, it's essentially worthless. The focus is clearly on the single player mode and that's where all of the enjoyment you get out of the game will come from.

The Darkness is a game completely worthy of any FPS fan's attention. The core mechanics of combat are fantastic and there's a surprising amount of depth to it. Even if you aren't an FPS fan, chances are that you'll still enjoy this immensely if you want a highly entertaining, story-driven game. It's not perfect, but it's still an easily recommendable title for either of those camps simply because it feels very polished and has one of the most interesting designs to grace an FPS. Starbreeze Studios has done it again.

Daisuke02's avatar
Community review by Daisuke02 (July 03, 2007)

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