The differences between The Darkness II and its predecessor extend to the visual design. Whereas the first game's visuals were grim and ominous, the sequel is heavily cel-shaded. There's a vibrant grittiness to the art design. For instance, in an early subway level, cracks crisscross the tiled walls and graffiti is scrawled on the subway cars. These grimy touches contrast with the purple glow of your demonic arms, the vivid orange pants of your enemies, and the crimson puddles of blood these goons gush as you have your way with them. The intense visuals are a nice complement to a game that traffics in intense and sudden shocks, not in pervasive dread.
6349882Sometimes, you don't welcome a visit from an old friend.None
The story matches the tone of the visuals and the gameplay, putting Jackie in some horrific situations that might have you squirming in your seat. Yet, as squeamish as some of these moments are, they don't feel like cheap ploys meant to make your stomach churn. The story earns the right to shock you because The Darkness II takes time to breathe and develop its characters. A scene in a gloomy cemetery allows you the chance to grieve, which makes the surprising sight that kicks off the ensuing shoot-out all the more harrowing. Between missions, you chat with family members, both the mafia kind of family, as well as the kind related to you. As in the first game, Jackie delivers thoughtful monologues while levels load. Even your little darkling gets to take center stage in an oddly emotional moment near the end of the game. The game's excellent ensemble cast sells each and every line and situation. You believe Jackie's desperation as he navigates the sterile white hallways of a mental institution. You believe in Johnny's hypercaffeinated, unhinged levels of anxiety. When The Darkness whines, groans, and pleads to Jackie, it's like hearing the voice of chaos itself, just barely constrained by its human host.
And then there's Jenny, the girlfriend Jackie watched get murdered in the first game. Yet here she is, her ghostly image constantly urging him forward. On the occasions Jackie catches up to her, they share brief but tender moments that effectively illustrate his dedication. But is she real? And if not, how is it that Jackie sees her and interacts with her? Some of The Darkness II's best moments come when it plays with your expectations and has you wondering: What is real and what is imagined? And ultimately, does it really matter? The story gathers up all the assumptions you made from the beginning and turns them inside out.
Dual-wielding? Try quad-wielding!
The biggest shock you might get from The Darkness II is its incredibly short length. Fortunately, the experience doesn't have to be over once you've finished the story. You can always go back and play a new-game-plus, carrying over all the upgrades you purchased and further progressing through the surprisingly extensive skill tree. But the remaining value comes mainly from Vendetta mode, where you can tackle missions alone or with up to three others online. (However, the Vendetta campaign doesn't greatly lengthen the experience: you can finish it in 90 minutes or less.) Here, you control one of four different characters with different traits and skill trees of their own. You don't eat hearts to regain health in this mode: you destroy them.
The Vendetta campaign's story runs in parallel with the single-player mystery, but the focus isn't on narrative: it's on gunplay. You don't get a pair of demonic tentacles lolling to your sides, but you might have a powerful supernatural weapon that you charge up and then fire at your foes. Or you might have a sword for slicing, dicing, and plunging into the chests of the fallen dead. Or you might even have an arcane staff that raises mobsters into the air and twists them in half--another horrific bit of brutality that might shock you the first few times, even if you just spent hours tearing men apart with demon arms.
That mask is not likely to extend this guy's life expectancy.
In spite of these twists (as it were), the Vendetta missions aren't as satisfying as Jackie's adventure into the unknown. Whereas the single-player campaign plays with pace and player expectations, Vendetta mode is about shooting stuff with friends. This isn't a bad concept for a cooperative mode, of course, but you need to crank up the difficulty level to the highest setting if you wish to be remotely challenged by The Darkness II's blockheaded AI, even in the few boss fights. At least the final boss fight pits you against a ghastly foe--an over-the-top monstrosity in a game with an over-the-top attitude. It's an improvement over the mundane rivals that teleport around in the story campaign's boss encounters.
Faults notwithstanding, The Darkness II's menacing story and macabre action are accentuated by memorable moments worth experiencing. Unlike the original game, the sequel doesn't brood: it shrieks and snarls, the shrill voice of The Darkness echoing in your head as you flail your demonic appendages about as a man literally possessed. When you break the game down, however, you notice that The Darkness II isn't a lot different from other shooters. Levels are linear and predictable, focused on ushering you from one straightforward encounter to another so that you can go crazy with those deranged arms of yours. If you are a fan of the original game, bear this in mind: The Darkness II is a fun, very short FPS without the authentic atmosphere and subtle touches that made its predecessor so intriguing. Still, if you've got a lust for virtual blood, The Darkness II leaks enough of it to satiate you.