The Darkness Xbox 360 Review - 25/06/2007

The Darkness has been hyped up considerably since the first gameplay movies were released to the public many months ago, not least because of the stunning graphics and developer Starbreeze's history. The question is, does the gameplay match the graphics, and for once, does a FPS have a decent story that still manages not to overpower the shooting?

That reference is of course aimed at Halo 2, whose story debatably overrules the actual fun of each fight, but games these days tend to either have Oscar winning plotlines, or 40 IQ soldiers called 'Brad' or 'Max' or some other macho-sounding name. The Darkness follows Jackie Estacado, who looks like the most unlikely hero you'll see in a videogame (except maybe in Prey), with long black hair and pale skin, a bit of a goth by all accounts.

His life up to the start of the game was pretty grim. He was raised as an orphan before being adopted by crime boss 'Paulie', to be trained and used as a contract killer, and when the game picks up on Jackie's 21st birthday, The Darkness, an evil force that grants the beholder extraordinary powers, takes Jackie as a host. The interesting thing is, while the Darkness gives you all sorts of cool powers, as the game's story unfolds you enter a personal challenge to battle against it and prevent it from controlling your body and actions.

This leads to an incredibly moving piece involving one of the game's characters, that we don't want to ruin for you, but the point is that the Darkness controls you at certain times, and the developers have used this brilliantly to direct you in certain in-game 'cut-scenes' (which you usually have a degree of movement in) and really add to the dramatics of the story.

The attention to detail is remarkable, and occasionally humorous

Primarily, the game is a first-person shooter. Don't be fooled into thinking it's either a horror or adventure game, with an open world. While certain bits really make you jump, particularly in the alternate world we'll come to later, there's little apart from gore and the dark shadows themselves to make your hands start to sweat.

The game world isn't exactly open either. At first glance, it seems you have a huge environment to roam in, but because the Darkness needs shadows to survive, and also because the story is just so damn immersing, you tend to be moved along to certain locations and rarely have the chance to do much exploring. It's not a huge map, but considering the immaculate detail (every word on every poster is readable for example), it's pretty impressive. There's also few extraneous areas that are just there for exploring – most have a function in the game's story, and when you do venture out into the real world, the city is pretty lifeless as a result of no civilian vehicles driving around or real bustle about the place.

There's no reason for the game to be open ended though, it plays out more like a series of missions which you are not forced to complete straight away, but have to do to progress. It's not feasible to go to the other side of the back-streets of New York and try to find other quests, as they don't really exist, and eventually you'll wind up back at the mission you were stalling from. This illusion of an open world makes for an immersing atmosphere, but one which often ends up with you getting lost on the way to places, with the poor in game map, and no objective indicator or detailed journal. Interestingly though, there are maps on billboards around the city, which offer more help, perhaps making for a more real-world feel than in most games.

Not your conventional killer, at least not in the world of videogames

The subway stations in New York are used as the safe-houses in the game. These offer a break from the relentlessness of gun combat and allow you to complete various mini-quests (stress the word mini) for the civilians milling around. There are frequently repeated character models for the unimportant NPCs, and while voice acting is very strong throughout, you'd expect a bit more variety in a next-generation game.

You're also very limited in the subway-stations as to what you can do. There's many interactive objects, such as phone boxes you can use to move the story along or phone collectible numbers you have picked up, tourist information booths, and working ticket barriers. It gives it a realistic feel, but the characters populating the station feel forced and pretty lifeless, at least the non-critical ones anyway. There are also only two (functioning) subway stations in the game, which perhaps shows the scale of the Manhattan backstreets used. It's a good idea though, and one that hopefully we'll see in future games, blurring the open and linear sub-genres of adventure games so effectively.

However, this is a game about combat, and the combat is where you find the fun and bulk of the experience. Firstly, you should decide whether you want auto-aim on, and the general difficulty of the game. A large part of the Darkness in the early stages involves manually shooting out lights, and even earlier, killing enemies without the Darkness' help. As enemies tend to get up even after you've put four bullets in their chest, accuracy is pretty important early on to get the crucial head-shots. Wasting precious bullets when ammunition is scarce, trying to shoot out a light and missing by a centimetre every time, is very frustrating - my Xbox 360 defaults to no auto-aim with its settings, so I advise you just to make sure you check. The Normal difficulty for the game will also try your patience, but I personally found it far more rewarding for the amount of times I died, when I did get past certain obstacles.

You can show as much or as little compassion as you like, although it usually ends up with someone dying, whether it's you or the enemy

Auto-aim is on a sliding scale, and perhaps the middle-ground is where I would recommend it. This way, the game auto-aims to light fittings when you look in their vicinity, and helps cement the bad-ass hitman feel that should be surrounding Jackie and The Darkness. As Jackie in his human form, you can pick up a variety of weapons, including dual Uzis, his trademark dual pistols, an AK47, a shotgun and a really beefy assault rifle. His pistols take a long time to get used to, despite the familiar left trigger, right trigger way of firing them. The problem is that in the heat of a battle, if you're mashing the triggers to unleash as many shots as possible, the guns empty and rather than reload one, the game waits until both are out of ammunition and you have stopped mashing the triggers before automatically reloading.

You can also reload with B, but without a real HUD, your ammo only appears on screen when pressing B or reloading, meaning you can have one empty gun but keep mashing its trigger in battle, resulting in Jackie forlornly trying to club the enemy with it. A HUDless display does have its advantages though. The Darkness takes up much of the screen, and anything else would have carried it over the top. You also have health-regeneration powers when in the dark using the Darkness, which you bring out with the left-bumper, with serious injury replicated in a deep red screen, often turning red and white for over ten seconds if you're in real trouble. You can see the Darkness' health by the intensity of its eyes. If you're in the light and under fire, a sizzling can be heard and their eyes are much paler, with tinges of opposite colours, whereas in the dark they are deep and striking. The colour of the Darkness' eyes and veins changes depending on the power selected, it's not always red and menacing. When using the Darkness and in the shadows, a orange glow forms around objects and walls, allowing you to effectively see in the dark, while of course not having the full visceral vision you would have in the light.

Jackie also has some nifty melee-gun combos, where you press both triggers next to an enemy, and he initiates a special move, such as kicking them to the ground, keeping a foot on their head and shooting their brains out – it's really satisfying, as you'd imagine, and they're very varied, happening completely in real time. When you 'equip' the Darkness, you can use the special powers that come with it, which are unlocked as you progress through the game. After watching many gameplay videos, I was personally longing for the cooler moves, but staggering them adds a sense of progression that you appreciate later in the game.

They may be cute, but the wonderfully portrayed and voiced Darklings are pretty sadistic – often choosing to urinate on your dead enemies

As well as the heal power, where the Darkness breathes in the dark air around you (automatically), you can send one of the Darkness heads on a rampage to unlock doors, kill people, and explore new areas. There are two Darkness heads, the one on the left rarely getting in on the action, with dozens of tendrils spreading out around them – it looks absolutely awesome when you see yourself in the reflection of a window or bathroom mirror. You cycle through powers using up and down on the D-pad, and unleash them with the right-bumper. Sending a head crawling along the ground which you control with the analogue stick and attack with right-trigger is really good fun, although they have a tendency to get stuck on objects and are pretty hard to manoeuvre (well they are detached monster-heads, what do you expect).

Other powers include the ability to send out a tendril to smash lights, pick up objects and impale enemies, and the fantastic black hole, which sucks all the surrounding enemies into a spiral, before flinging them out. The more destructive powers require a period of a few seconds rest after each use, so shouldn't be employed unless you're sure all the enemies will be taken out, or you'll be left vulnerable without the Darkness' protection and have to hide in the shadow until fully strengthened.

In the early stages of the game, you get quite attached to the Darkness, especially when you realise how hard life fighting the mafia is without it. Every time you look down, you see your body, your legs, your hands, and like in the Chronicles of Riddick, this really helps you to feel like you are the main character, in this case, Jackie and the Darkness, rather than someone directing them. The Darkness also talks to you regularly, as you may have heard, asking you to 'embrace it', saying it 'wants to help you' and to 'kill them all Jackie, yes…good…more' – generally, being quite a supportive otherworldly monster. However, it soon takes control of you, with the only way to fight it being in the Otherworld, or a physical manifestation of the Darkness' mind. It's difficult to get there, and I don't want to ruin the superb plot anymore by giving details of that. However, what Starbreeze have done with the development of the Otherworld just has to be explained.

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2K Games
Starbreeze Studios
Xbox 360 - PS3