Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Darkness

The Darkness is an amazing game, and if the core gameplay were as brilliant as the attention to detail that surrounds it this would be one of the best games ever made.

For those not in the know, The Darkness started life in comics, appearing in Witchblade and soon expanding into its own title. This adaptation draws from the comics, but re-arranges key elements and removes the supernatural antagonists in favour of a gritty mafia-focused setting. No knowledge of the source material is necessary to enjoy the gaming fun.

You play Jackie Estacado, hitman for the Franchetti Family. You have been targeted for death by your psychotic Uncle Paulie, but on your 21st birthday you discover The Darkness, a powerful demonic force that makes you nigh-on unstoppable. You're soon drawn into a vicious mob war, simultaneously trying to protect your loved ones and fighting against the corrupting influence of The Darkness.

That all translates into an exceptional first person shooter.

The game alternates between the dirty streets and subways of New York City, and the hellish Great War-themed world of The Darkness. In each location you'll progress the overarching tale of your battle against Paulie Franchetti, but you'll also acquire side-quests, most of which are tightly tied to the main plot. You can revisit areas at will, which gives the game a kind of open-world feeling, and the story often re-uses the same locations with new enemies. Rather than feeling cheap, this successfully makes the game world seem more real and vibrant.

The graphics are stunning. On the XBox 360 this is one of the best-looking games around. Character models are expressive and make eye contact, with lips synched to their speech and a wide range of body language that supports their personality and dialogue. Not since Half-Life 2 have NPCs been so believable.

A huge amount of work has gone into the backgrounds, including a massive quantity of specially-commissioned graffiti from active graffiti artists. Posters and advertisments strewn across walls are not only believable but also very rarely repeat; most poster decals are unique to their location.

The attention to visual detail is not just in the art. The Darkness contains several embedded movies, including the full version of To Kill A Mockingbird. These can be watched on in-game TVs, along with Popeye cartoons and several music videos. They're pretty low-resolution, but still, they're entire movies.

The game uses short cinematics as loading screens. As the game loads each level you're treated to Jackie Estacado commenting on the new area, reminiscing on the backstory, recapping the plot so far, or just playing with his guns. That may not sound special, but it goes a long way to giving the entire production a cinematic feel. Late in the game as you revisit levels to mop up the sidequests you'll start getting frustrated at occasionally seeing loading screens repeat, but on the whole it's an excellent stylistic touch.

The writing in The Darkness is top-notch. The game tells a coherent, well-paced and satisfying story, with a few surprising twists and turns thrown in. The dialogue is amazing; the game delivers non-stop Italian-American speech without ever becoming cliched or clunky. Each and every character will feel like a real person naturally speaking what's on their mind. There's a lot of swearing, but here it serves only to further underline the reality of the characters.

Everything I've mentioned so far will absolutely blow you away about The Darkness. This is a game that was significantly delayed from its original release date, and it's very hard to say the extra time was not well spent. Quality just oozes from every pore.

Unfortunately, actually playing the game is not quite so brilliant. It's not bad, just... average. For all its fantastic production values this is still a game about shooting people in the head with guns. The guns in question aren't very satisfying, largely consisting of pistols, a shotgun, a rifle, and some hugely inaccurate and underwhelming automatic weapons.

It's a fairly hard game. I started out on normal difficulty and had to quickly switch to easy. At the start of the game Jackie can really only take one or two pistol shots before dropping. Later, the power of The Darkness significantly ups his resilience, but typically you'll still only have a couple of seconds between being at full health and being dead.

The Darkness itself is problematic. Your "Darkness power" is measured by a "Darkness meter", which doesn't appear on screen. There's often no good way of gauging whether you're fully stocked or almost empty. When you're "displaying" The Darkness, your Darkness meter soaks damage for you. When the meter's empty you take the damage normally, and usually die as a result.

You can also use a variety of Darkness powers, such as impaling objects and enemies on a "demon arm", firing a pair of powerful "darkness guns", or summoning a black hole to crush groups of opponents. These powers use the same darkness meter as the damage shield, so if you take a couple of gunshots you'll find that not only are you nearly dead but your powers are offline, too.

You can recharge the meter by standing in shadows. Conversely, standing in direct light drains the meter. That's problematic, though. It appears that every person in New York City leaves every electric light they can find switched on, all the time, even when they're not in the room. You'll want to painstakingly obliterate every lamp and light bulb you see, which uses a lot of time and pistol ammo. Later on some of the better Darkness powers make eliminating light sources easier. All the way through, though, this necessity to create darkness is irritating and badly damages the pace of the game. The developers would have been better served to keep light sources only in certain key areas, and make destroying them an aspect of individual scenarios.

Also, for a game revolving around light and darkness, darkness is handled poorly. While you're using your powers, you have a certain amount of night vision which makes it easy and comfortable to see when the lights are out. Unfortunately, the game mixes this in with "ambient light" - you'll often find places where there is light which is purely "artistic", not deriving from any source and not interrupting your Darkness powers. Outdoor areas are particularly guilty of this, being blanketed in neon signs and moonlight that you simply can't do anything about. It takes some time to get a feel for which lights can be destroyed and which can't.

Lastly, while the levels are an artistic triumph, they're a gameplay disaster. The geography has no real flow - there's no natural sense of where to go next, and key doorways and passages are often hard to find. Nothing here is as bad as the level monstrosities found in Halo but it's still an unfortunate bump in the gaming experience.

All those gripes aside, this is a top-class game, and one that its creators should be proud of. If you've been looking for a first-person-shooter that breaks the mould, or even a game with strong narrative to tide you over until the next Half-Life, this is exactly what you've been seeking.

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