There are plenty of things you can do with a tentacle besides porn, and The Darkness II has them all covered. Jackie Estacado has gone through hell; now he faces an even greater challenge: Critics.
There's something living inside mobster Jackie Estacado, born of the blackest corners of the psyche, eons of human suffering and strife, and not a little high-cost hair product. He's the host for The Darkness, an ancient and powerful entity that thrives on chaos and destruction. This comic book anti-hero's first journey to the video game market resulted in a solid shooter with a surprising amount of heart (in more ways than one). The question is did he leave enough hearts for seconds?
For the answer we turn to that most heartless of uber-entities, the assembled video game critics.
An extra pair of limbs is so useful in an FPS, and so much fun, that it's a wonder we haven't seen more games transform you into a multi-tentacled engine of destruction. Instead, we've had to wait five years for this sequel to The Darkness - an unusually long delay in an industry as fond of annual sequels as it is of taking good ideas and running them into the ground.
And having four limbs really does make a difference, opening up combat possibilities that other shooters can't hope to compete with. As demon-infested mobster Jackie Estacado, you not only have two human appendages with which to wield a standard variety of pistols, shotguns and assault rifles, but two piranha-faced tentacles - manifestations of the ancient Darkness that has set up home in Jackie's body.
In terms of the fiction behind all this bloodshed, Estacado has managed to keep his unholy powers at bay during the two years since the first game's events, but soon reawakens them following the appearance of the Brotherhood – a shadowy organisation that was the original keeper of the Darkness and fancies it back. Estacado's spent the intervening period grieving the loss of his childhood sweetheart, Jenny, who was murdered in the previous game before his eyes.
She may be dead, but Estacado's inability to let go means Jenny reappears in hallucinatory flashbacks. Returning comic-book writer Paul Jenkins pens an intricate tale that flits between reality, the Jenny flashbacks and repeated visits to a mental hospital, where Estacado's a patient and his mob underlings take on the roles of doctors, orderlies and fellow inmates, with Jenny cast as a nurse. It's a genuinely discomfiting experience as you try to parse reality from flashbacks from Darkness-conjured hallucinations. The one constant is Johnny Powell, who's equally manic in real life as he is in the mental hospital, all bulging eyes and flailing arms and conspiracy theories. He's the maddest man in the game, but also the most in the know. In the few quiet moments, smart, sporadic use of licensed music lends real-world credence to the ultraviolent, supernatural fantasy that pervades elsewhere.
Combat relies on reflexes more than strategy this time around; Jackie can rarely get the jump on an enemy, and the Darkness is just a weapon rather than a tool. Most encounters begin when Jackie passes an invisible trigger point in the environment. Foes crawl out of the woodwork, descend from rooftops, and almost always rush his location, resulting in more close-range encounters and challenging battles.
Jackie can quad-wield weapons (two guns and two Darkness serpents), allowing for a variety of grisly kills. Placing two bullets into an opponent's leg makes him reel, giving Jackie enough time to lift him off of the ground with a serpent. As the foe dangles in agony, the second serpent can rip off his head or puncture his chest. The gunplay and serpent mechanics are beautifully implemented, and once mastered, empower the player with the sensation of superiority on the battlefield.
Feeling powerful is fun, but combat encounters lack the necessary variety in design and enemy types to remain fresh. Even with an extensive upgrade system in place, the action doesn't evolve from its initial form. I must have summoned my serpents to perform the grotesque wishbone kill (ripping a foe in two from the crotch to the face) at least 100 times in the seven or eight hours it took to complete the game.
Once Jackie's sufficiently powered up, he feels damn near unstoppable. Again, though, he has one big weakness, and that's light, which causes The Darkness to retract and throws everything into blinding black-and-white. Usually this can be remedied by shooting out whatever nearby light bulb is endangering your life, but some lights require following a wire and blowing up a generator before they'll go out. Then there are the handheld spotlights and flashbangs wielded by the Brotherhood (who are generally more competent and militaristic than the rival mafia goons you'll kill in the game's early stages), which present their own problems.
Luckily, you're far from defenseless when the lights are on, because Jackie has access to a small but impressive assortment of firearms that work just fine even when he's cut off from the rest of his cool powers. Able to carry three guns at a time (one rifle or shotgun and two sidearms), Jackie can dual-wield pistols and submachineguns, or single-wield for more accurate aim. It doesn't really get much more complicated than that, except to say that the guns all pack a satisfying kick, and that you'll rely on them an awful lot, considering the demonic powers at your disposal. Especially in later stages, when the game starts piling on tough, armored Brotherhood commandos by the truckload and swarming you with them.
The Darkness II's multiplayer extends the narrative and the life of the game well after the relatively short campaign. The multiplayer isn't like the original's — a forced-in and boring competitive multiplayer — but instead ties directly into the story. You play as one of four Darkness-powered assassins in Jackie's employ, taking on missions that his normal henchmen can't accomplish. The missions generally tie into parts of the story, like kidnapping a guy that Jackie asks for during the campaign, giving them a narrative component that makes them more significant. Even the missions that don't link to the campaign's story are worthwhile, as they give you and your buddies more fights to test your skills on. Most importantly, though, they're fun. They may not be the types of things that grow into an addiction, but the multiplayer modes provide hours of extra gameplay, and give you a good reason to play with friends.
Official Xbox Magazine
The Darkness II's copious gore might upset sensitive stomachs, but it's vastly superior to its predecessor in every respect, spinning a frantic, fantastic neo-noir nightmare you won't want to end. Even those who ordinarily dismiss horror with a shake of the head should give it a shot.
I believe in a thing called love, just listen to the rhythm of my heart.