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Wot I Think: The Darkness II

Gore blimey

First-person shooter The Darkness II is out in the US, and tomorrow in the UK, and I've played it through to the gruesome end. Past the gruesome beginning, via the gruesome middle. How does all that grue hold up? Well, wipe away the lung and take a seat, and I'll tell you Wot I Think.

I didn't play The Darkness. The console-only title missed me, making the PC sequel my first experience of the series. But since I refuse to write comparison reviews on principle, it makes little difference, beyond my confusion over who the strange monkey-creature in the Union Flag shirt is. And it certainly didn't stop me enjoying a couple of days with one of the noisiest, goriest and smartest shooters I've played in a while.

Wait, did I say "smartest"? That doesn't sound right. Does it?

It makes an mixed first impression. There's an absolutely gorgeous art style - a rotoscoped look, with deliberate nods to cartoon within what are remarkably realistic graphics. Black outlines surround people and objects, and they're shaded with crude pencil lines, almost underplaying what is a superbly detailed world. Seeing the lights in a room reflecting in someone's eyeballs is quite the thing, especially when their cheekbones are defined with hand-drawn shading.

But then it's set in a Mafia family, lots of Noo Yoikers jammering at each other about how they "fockin' did this" and fockin' did that", like a mobster waterfall of cliché. They love their families, and they'll fockin' kill anyone who harms them, and so on.

But then the story is really about a Mafia leader who's possessed by an ancient evil that existed before God let there be light. The Darkness, under central character Jackie Estacado's control since the end of the last game, finds a way to convince Jackie to release it once more - to save his life. This gives Jackie an extra pair of arms - well, snakes - that can be used to throw around heavy objects, slash men in half, and rip hearts from chests. Yum.

But then this is very familiar territory, of a man battling evil and saving the world, without the game ever really explaining why any of it's happening. The closest you get to a metaphysical motivation is to save the soul of your former girlfriend, Jenny, killed during the first game. The Darkness appears to have her trapped in hell, and is using this as a means to control you, force you to cooperate with his nefarious goals. So it's battling darkness, to save the girl.

And back and forth you go, between the recognition of such over-familiar themes, and original twists and some superb presentation. The same is equally true of the combat.

In its transition to PC, real efforts have been made to make it work without a controller. And then abandoned just before they were finished. With a controller you're stuck with the horribly jerky movement of an analogue stick that has never suited the FPS, and without it, you're left with a muddle of keyboard controls. Because The Darkness II is a first-person shooter with knobs on. Knobs in the shape of long, shoulder-rooted tentacles with snakes' heads on the end. So you have all the regular controls you'd expect from an FPS, and then some more on top.

That works great with all the various buttons on a controller, but isn't quite so suited to a typing instrument. It means you've got left mouse firing, right mouse aiming, and then the middle mouse slashing the snakes, held down while you move the mouse in a direction to aim them, along with Q and E performing other snake tasks. It was better than flailing around with the imprecise controller, but too often trying to aim slashes with the same device that aims my view led to the game spinning me on the spot, doing neither.

Other porting faux pas include the lack of real save games, meaning if you want to start again, you have to wipe all your progress, and the completely unnecessary disappearing of dead bodies and broken items from the screen. Otherwise it's pretty damned smooth, the graphics really ramped up to make use of the extra pretties, and the load times so quick you can't even read the one-line messages before the next screen is in front of you.

But that combat is so fun! And offers you so much choice. If you want to play it as a straight FPS, you can pretty much ignore the shoulder-snakes for large chunks. If you prefer melee you can leave guns at your side. Or best, I'd suggest, is a judicious combination of the two, whipping a baddie into the air before popping his head, or shooting him to the ground, then sweeping him up with a tentacle and ripping his body in half with the other.

So why smart? It's certainly not the game's combat progression, which unfortunately gets more frustrating the further you go. By the last couple of missions baddies are so ludicrously powerful that headshots barely work any more, carrying massive shields that are covered in armour, holding whips that can remove the gun from your hands and lights that cause your Darkness powers to go away. Which essentially means you can't do anything but hide, which isn't quite the direction the power-fantasy should have been heading. Switch the difficulty down and you pretty much become invincible, but you know you're cheating.

And it's not the use of light, either. The Darkness can't stand it, so you need to stick to the shadows to be able to do anything but fire your gun at a mostly white screen. This isn't a mechanic that's used interestingly at any point, and mostly requires shooting out lights, or more tediously, finding the generator for those - er - bullet-proof light bulbs. The biggest issue here is the game isn't trying to be Thief, and is pretty well lit anyway, so even noticing you're going somewhere too bright is tricky, let alone finding which source of light the game has decided it doesn't like. Much more could have been made of this, but it's just a distraction.

It's actually in the telling that you realise the cleverosity here. From the start, your late lover Jenny is a far more interesting damsel in distress than you'd expect from such a brash, noisy shooter. She's modestly presented, not tits on legs, and isn't sexualised in motivating you to want to rescue her. If anything, Jackie is soppy in his smitten nature. Oh, and also clever is quite what a major role she plays in the game, despite being dead.

There's a huge cast here, and while they're all faded Scorsese-photocopies, each is superbly acted, and the lines get better and better as the game goes on. Between location-based shooting antics you spend time in your Mafia-mansion, free to wander around and chat to the many inhabitants before you head off on your next adventure. As events unfold, and more tragedy strikes, the investment in those characters pays off with some impressive pathos.

But that's just a part of the game. Because it succeeds with yet another common trope - the "Which reality is real?" theme, for which I'm astonished to find I can't find a TVTropes entry. I think the first time you see it, it's the most effective, worn down each time since then. For me the big two are Red Dwarf's Back To Reality, and Buffy's Normal Again. And here, it's basically that Buffy episode played large. Suddenly flashing away from moments of fighting for your dead girlfriend as a mafia boss with demonic powers, you find yourself in a mental asylum, surrounded by patients, doctors and nurses, with the same names and faces as the cast of the regular game. People desperately trying to tell you that being a mafia boss with demonic powers fighting for your dead girlfriend is probably not that real, which is, you know, pretty convincing. So it's not the first time anyone's seen the device, but it's executed superbly well.

And then there are the moments where you appear to be in some sort of version of hell.

And the times they blur together.

And the doubt about any of it.

So while the game really does seem to be trying to gain the "Do Everything From Other Games" achievement throughout (almost straight away you're running through an underground train tunnel, in and out of trains, and there's the obligatory carnival level) it does it all with well-earned confidence and panache. It's frustrating that the combat - something that's so much fun early on - becomes the game's frustration toward the end. And as much as I enjoyed the story, it's a shame it's delivered in a particularly unenigmatic way. It's all in-game, which is great, but you're stuck to the floor, and can barely turn your head, which means all conversations are seen from a static point of view, no use of direction to make long chats visually interesting. Luckily the art is so great I found myself studying the details as often as I was doodling in my notebook.

This is a truly gruesome game. Not just with its deliberate shock moments like regularly ripping humans in half, entrails and viscera revealed in perverted detail, but in its extremely adult content too. Especially one sequence upstairs at a dubious club, where you walk past room after room of sobbing, abused and violently fucked prostitutes. It's dark.

It's also relentlessly loud and boy-ish. There are three women in the entire game - one is the helpless maiden to rescue, one is a maid, and the third is an excellent but underused side-character, your Aunt Susan. It's very much about a man being a man, coming to terms with his manliness, mostly by killing other men. Although Jackie does have a girl's name and very girly hair, so it balances out.

I was genuinely expecting a brash, stupid shooter, noise and bluster and shooting at heads. That it's so smart is a fantastic surprise. Without this, I think the game's frustrations might have pushed it too deeply into a crowded crowd. But it's not without this - and it's enigmatic with it. I'll obviously not spoiling the endings, but that 's' just there tells you something. And I'll say that they're brilliant which is a rarely used word when talking about how games end.

It's a decent, if overly-busy shooter, a cacophony of gore and screaming. But it's also a surprisingly smart take on familiar territory, with some really interesting twists. I really was only expecting brains to feature when splattered across my monitor.

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