Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Darkness - XBOX360/PS3

Following on from the criminally overlooked ‘Chronicles of Riddick’, Starbreeze present this heart warming tale of a boy and his demon squid monster.

On his 21st birthday, Jackie Estacado finds out that he’s being just been put at the top of a mafia hit list, whilst an ancient family curse forces him to be host to “The Darkness”, a creature that provides Jackie with the means to survive, but with plans of its own. The game begins like a typical FPS, quickly shifting into something far more unusual as the Darkness comes to Jackie’s aid in gruesome style. As the game progresses, the player seeks to protect Jackie from the mob whilst he must keep the Darkness at bay within.

It's not just the demonic powers that set this title apart: there are fantastic characters and storytelling, giving a powerful, cinematic experience. Strangely for a game that is so strongly focused on the narrative, side quests are available which often involve you deviating from your main arc. I say strangely simply because the game has an immaculate sense of tension, it does feel like Jackie is being hunted from all sides, yet he's more than happy to help a man get his harmonica back. They are a welcome diversion nonetheless, but could do with better integration into the storyline. They're not quite as frustrating as the recent "Oblivion" whereby the player could ignore the demon invasion for seemingly months on end without any negative repercussions, as those in The Darkness generally don't divert the player for as long.

Another strange but welcome diversion is in the use of televisions throughout the game, showing real TV shows and films. At one point, near the start, the character is invited to sit with his girlfriend and watch To Kill A Mockingbird. Not entirely sure if it was the whole film, but I got 10 minutes into it, which in itself is impressive. Despite this, one wonders whether the disk space could have been used more productively, given the game is only around seven hours, even on hard mode.

Speaking of which, Hard Mode is the only mode to play the game on for a challenge. Though it begins as a very hard game, the enemies never really become more powerful, whereas Jackie does. As he embraces the Darkness, he gains powers such as a tendril that can lift and throw cars as well the ability to summon a black hole, which can even bring down helicopters. This imbalance makes the last part of the game difficult to rate, though some will relish becoming the monster, as the enemies cower in fear.

The powers are fueled in two ways; through hiding in the dark and eating hearts of fallen enemies. The first provides a strange twist to the stealth genre, with Jackie having to create shadows as he progresses by breaking the lights out, the dark provides him with both cover and firepower. The latter allows Jackie to 'level up' in a sense, increasing the strength of the abilities used. This is done through a brutally gruesome animation, where the snake like heads of the Darkness rip into corpses and fight over the heart meat. It seems unnecessary after a while, but it adds a lot of character to the demon.

As well as these powers, Jackie can also summon minions called "Darklings", gibbering little goblin creatures that have a variety of applications and powers. Though they are a nice idea, they aren't very well implemented, very often they do not obey commands and wander off to do their own thing elsewhere. Whether this is a cigarette break or they just have no attention span is never explained, but one can only assume that this wasn't intentional in the programming.

The Darklings make a slightly better impression in the multiplayer mode, where players can shift between forms of human and darkling, the latter being unarmed but able to pounce and crawl along ceilings. In many respects, it's similar to Alien Vs Predator, but without the erm... Predator. Sadly, although it's a nice idea, the implementation is dreadful. If a patch was released after I played it, this section may warrant a re-evaluation.

Overall, the Darkness is a fine example of what a single player experience can provide. Though it lacks length, the narrative rarely slows down and has both depth and heart (not just the edible variety). Though the multiplayer is weak, and some more freedom would have helped it, it's difficult to resist the *ahem* dark side.