The Darkness II is a video game about restrained sex and unrestrained violence.
It's the kind of a game that will show you, through a half-cracked door, the back of a fully-dressed woman giving a man oral sex but will let you stretch a man, supine, across the length of your TV screen—suspended by the demon arms protruding from your protagonist's body—and than penetrate one of those arms up into his back and then through his chest, murdering him as he gurgles his last bloody breath.
The Darkness II, which I've now played three hours of, is a fun first-person shooter that is begging to be the topic of a psychological profile.
Like the first Darkness game, this new one is a lurid first-person shooter that takes chances. It lacks the polish of a big fall first-person shooter, but that just might allow it to be more interesting than the big boys.
The new game stars the haunted, supernaturally-powerful crime boss Jackie Estacado in a rough-edged adventure. It oscillates between being a fascinating choice-filled first-person shooter and being a test case for telling more interesting stories in this format that's usually reserved for video gaming's equivalent of action movies.
For all that the first three hours of The Darkness II achieves, the memory that lingers most potently since I played it was that the game introduced me to its camera controls by having a character tell me to look to the right to check out the "rack" on a brunette. Male privilege, indeed. This is the kind of game you're in for.
What matters most about a game is how it plays, and in that manner The Darkness II inherits and expands the smart concepts of its predecessor. You get a first-person shooter that lets you dual-wield weapons. But you also get demon arms, a left one that grabs and tosses things/enemies and a right one that swats. Human hands and demon arms are mapped to a total of four controller buttons, so you can trigger combinations of attacks with all four. You can use the left demon arm to grab one enemy while shooting another with the gun in Jackie's right hand. You can use the left demon arm to hold a car door as a shield while machine-gunning enemies with two guns at once. These options give players that most welcome element in video games: choice. Later in the game, you can even control your minion pal, a crude british imp who in this capacity serves the role of the detachable arms of the first game.
All your combat options make the many shootouts in The Darkness II far less monotonous than they'd be in a conventional shooter. You can explore even more possibilities for defeating the game's many enemy gunmen by upgrading Jackie's abilities through an elaborate upgrade tree and by coordinating assaults with that faithful minion who will jumps into battle to attack enemies (and then urinate on them).
As in the previous game, you must also account for the variable of light. In bright light, the demon arms go away. You're compelled, of course, to shoot out the lights and keep the arms. Some of the game's levels are designed to make that hard to do.
I found all of the moment-to-moment choices I could make during the game's combat sequences interesting, but I've come to tire with gaming's embrace of hyper-violence. It combats not just my personal tastes but the ability for a game to tell a story I can buy. This game begins with a good set-up that shows Jackie ambushed in a restaurant by mysterious thugs. It's a gore-fest of ripped limbs from the start. But the next playable sequence puts Jackie in his crime headquarters, a gaudy duplex full of marble staircases and Italian men who end arguments by flicking their fingers forward from beneath their chin. Jackie goes to his bedroom where we see him mourn for Jenny, the deceased love of his life who players of the first game may remember taking a quiet moment and watching a movie with.
Here in this sequel we are asked to again consider Jackie's softer side. We are asked to buy the fact—as is sold later in some scenes involving a Jenny-like figure—that a nice girl like Jenny could love a murderous thug like Jackie. She's have to be psychotic or pathetic to love a brute like Jackie, no? It strains credibility. It also helps build an odd sense that we are playing as a man eager to unleash hellish violence but who is, more or less, frustrated romantically. Sexually, too? Perhaps, in that when he meets two sexy twins early in the game he can no sooner brush off their come-ons when one of them is suddenly shot through the head. The sexuality in this game is abbreviated even as its violence is expanded.
This new game is trying to tell a story, and, for all of its tonal oddity, is doing it in an interesting way. It rejects an explain-everything approach and instead seeds mystery through off-hand exchanges about Jackie's father, the nature of his demon arms and other curiosities. This pulled me in, just as the increasingly complex shooting did.
I ripped through about four main areas of The Darkness II's linear campaign last night. I rolled my eyes plenty: at the fetishization (and points-rewarding) of body-penetrating violence and at the lurches of a game that tries both to convey the slow dance of a sweet romance and the excitement of a shootout conveniently located in a brothel. I do embrace a game that complicates formula with choice, though. In The Darkness II I've experienced a game that wants to tell me a story by posing a series of mysteries, that has been confidently constructed to not always be obvious and that lets me make many decisions about how I'll play through its thrill ride.
I should note that different people made this game. Starbreeze was on the first Darkness, Digital Extremes on this. The transition holds up even with a new more comic-booky graphical style.
The risk of playing a preview build of a game for me is that it'll satiate my interest and keep me from wanting to play the finished game. The Darkness II, as lurid and curiously-constructed as it is, has surmounted that risk. I want to see where they're going. I'll start this one over from scratch when it's out for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC on February 7.