Starbreeze The Darkness

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Starbreeze The Darkness

Pros

  • Atmospheric as hell, unique powers and creatures, nice mix of stealth and brawn.

Cons

  • Dipstick AI, tons of tedious walking and talking, uninventive level design.

Bottom Line

There's more than enough to like about The Darkness to forgive its notable flaws. It attempts to tread new ground in a tired old genre, which just proves that innovation is still worth something these days.

Would you buy this?

The last thing you can say about The Darkness is that it's just like every other first-person shooter. Based on the comic book series by Top Cow Productions, it's a refreshing change of pace in a genre marked by copy-cat design and been-there-done-that gameplay. Seriously, The Darkness deserves kudos just for the fact that it doesn't involve Nazis or World War II. But thankfully, the game, which was developed by the same studio that produced the acclaimed and unique Chronicles of Riddick, goes much farther than that.

Swimming with Sharks

Here's a little Darkness primer for those of you who aren't familiar with the comic book series: Jackie Estacado is an orphan who is sent to live with a mob kingpin who raises him to be a hitman. Wow, talk about Father of the Year material. The trouble starts on the night of Jackie's twenty-first birthday when Daddy Dearest sends him a nice present: a bomb that propels Jackie out of his apartment window and down through a skylight. And you thought your Dad was a disciplinarian.

The near fatal-incident has a strange side-effect: it enters Jackie into a forced symbiotic relationship with the Darkness, a bizarre sentient force of unknown origin that treats him like a meat puppet to be directed and manipulated. We'll stop there and let you discover the rest for yourselves.

Now, as much such an unholy union might bother a self-proclaimed free-thinker like Jackie, it does have its benefits, and virtual immortality is only the beginning. The Darkness, which, in a brilliant casting move is voiced by Mike Patton of Faith No More and Mr. Bungle fame, is made manifest by hitting the left bumper button; this results in murky tentacles sprouting from your back, two of which sport glowing eyes and mouths ringed with razor-sharp teeth. True to its name, this filthy presence thrives in the shadows, and any time spent in harsh light is accompanied by the sizzling sound of its discomfort. Feeding them the hearts of downed enemies increases your Darkness Level, which lets you spend longer in bright lights before you're left vulnerable.

Beck and Call

While these snake-like dudes don't do a hell of a lot during gun battles, one of the coolest elements in the game is the ability to send a lone tentacle creeping through small spaces to stealthily dispatch unwary opponents, unlock doors, and explore in relative safety. Slithering up walls, across ceilings, through windows, and finally taking the face off some poor schmuck is so much fun that it's hard to fathom why the uninventive level layouts don't take more substantive advantage of it. The obstacle-dragging Demon Arm you acquire later fares a bit better, since you can at least use it to stab yourself some criminal kebabs.

With your evil partner activated, you can also see dark portals all over the place, through which nasty little gremlins known as darklings can be summoned. At first you'll only have access to Berserkers, an unarmed general-purpose creature to be sent on little errands, like moving an obstacle, or tearing a single villain apart. As the game's chapters progress, you'll gain access to a gatling-wielding Gunner that's sometimes a little too happy to just stand around getting shot at, a strapped-with-explosives Kamikaze nut-job that's more than happy to blow holes in walls and people, and a Lightkiller who just goes around breaking bulbs so you don't have to.

Predictably enough, these little creeps will disappear in a puff of black smoke if they take too much damage, or spend too long in the light. They're loaded with personality, and always seem to have something goofy to say, which helps lighten an otherwise oppressive atmosphere, but, like the creeping tentacle, only rarely does one's presence become necessary or even terribly useful.

Living the Dream

With its detailed environments and moody lighting effects, The Darkness is cinematic as hell, to the point where you'll forgive the mob clich?s, stilted dialogue, and awkward gestures. Still, for all its evocative atmosphere, off-beat ideas, and unique powers, The Darkness doesn't deliver any moments of genuine fright, and it's hamstrung by some mundane design problems. Most noticeable among them is the enemy A.I. which offers nothing more than an uncoordinated resistance, even at the highest difficulty level.

Similarly, one might hope that the action would come fast and furious, but at least half your play time will be spent simply talking to people, and then figuring out how to get where you're supposed to be next. For a brooding action game dripping with atmosphere, it certainly fails to deliver the thrills on a consistent basis.

However, as strangely uneven, poorly paced, and ultimately unsatisfying as The Darkness is, it remains worth checking out for its unusual ideas, twisted gameplay elements, and uniquely dark atmosphere. While so many other games are content to rehash the same tired old stories and stale characters, The Darkness at least tries to tread new ground, which just proves that innovation is still worth something these days. It won't be the best FPS game you've ever played but damn it, it'll be one of the more memorable ones.

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