PLATFORM: Xbox360; PS3
DEVELOPER: Starbreeze

I feel like I’ve been seeing bits and pieces of The Darkness at game events for a couple of years. I’d never read the comic book, and had little interest in doing so. And until I heard about it constantly while having the ‘what have you been playing lately’ conversation over and over at E3 last week, I’d basically written it off as a gimicky shooter. With a few glowing friendly reviews, though, I thought I’d spend the weekend post-convention giving it a shot. Was I wrong about the gimmicky shooter assumption? Only partially…

The Pitch

You’ve got guns, a trenchcoat and Mike Patton speaking inside your head. Just like Columbine!

The Play

The Darkness is a first-person shooter with a twist. Yeah, what shooter these days doesn’t have a twist?

You’re Jackie Estacado, junior mob hitman, boyfriend to fellow orphan and budding hipster Jenny and now sworn enemy of your boss Paulie. The pissed off Paulie tries to kill you in a variety of ways, opening up your soul to possession by The Darkness, a gibbering, tentacled shadow force that sounds a lot like that kid you knew in high school that endlessly imitated Mike Patton. Oh, wait. It is Mike Patton.

As a hero in a shooter and a mob badass, Jackie has pretty solid skills with guns, not that there are any particularly cool ones in the game. Pistols, rifles, shotguns — that’s pretty much the deal. But instead of wild paramilitary gear, you’ve got powers gifted by the Darkness.

The Darkness powers are almost uniformly fantastic. Why use guns when you can detach one of the toothy shadow worms to crawl around on it’s own, or manifest a demon arm to stab out lights and give some goon a size seventeen tunnel through his gut? The Darkness Pistols (endless ammo, shadowy power) are mostly useless, but the black holes you can manifest late in the game are awfully cool, inasmuch as you can actually get them to suck in a screen full of bad guys.

You’ll also be able to call up four types of gibbering, mad little Darklings. The Berzerker and Lightkiller versions are great and work as advertised, killing enemies and lights with relative effectiveness. The Gunner and Kamikaze ones are more problematic; the Gunner’s as likely to catch you in a hail of bullets as the guys you want to kill, and the Kamizaze might blow you up instead of the barrier you’d like to remove. You can direct them to specific areas, however, and as long as they’re out of the light, the Darklings will help by distracting and flanking enemies.

But those powers aren’t available from the start; you’ll have to earn them by eating the hearts of enemies. Some truly evil (an absurdly relativist stance in this game world) hearts will evolve your Darkness abilities, awarding a big new power.

Because you have to stay in darkness to power The Darkness, the game verges on tedious until you get the Demon Arm power, since you’ll spend more time shooting out lights than capping bad guys. With the Arm, though, you can quickly pinch out almost any light source. That speeds up the game (you don’t really have to aim the Arm) and facilitates more stealth, as enemies won’t hear the Arm like they would a gunshot.

Not that the enemies have enough AI to really pose much danger when they do hear your shots. Forget about being flanked or having to shoot around cover — this ain’t FEAR. As a trade-off, many enemies can plug you FAST, even when you’ve got the life-preserving shroud of Darkness activated.

But even with the powers all in place, The Darkness is frequently a slog through limited environments. The couple of New York neighborhoods and subway station that appear are exquisitely detailed, but they’re also very small, and you’ll visit each more than a couple times. In between the shooting action is a smattering of fetch quests and a handful of side missions where you can get all up in your morals by helping people out (I’m not a demon — I found an old biddy’s bracelet!) but they don’t much alter the flow of the game.

What makes The Darkness stand out is a story that, while constantly ready to trade easy blood for hard-won emotion, is far more well written than most game narratives. As cheap as some of the emotional spikes are, each is at least engagingly scripted. Starbreeze builds in some nice moments of downtime, too, emphasizing that a handful of the game’s personalities come close to being actual characters.

The script is brought to life by a fine cast of voice actors, making The Darkness feel like an action-oriented pre-release version of Mass Effect. I only wish that Mike Patton’s voice work sounded less like a guy trying to be evil. There are moments where he really steals a scene, however.

Like the action, the story basically hits a single ugly, downcast beat and stays there for the duration. That makes gameplay and narrative at least well-matched, but more tonal variety would push The Darkness from worthy diversion to impressive achievement.

The Presentation

Starbreeze was one of the first studios to make stellar use of techniques like normal mapping on the original Xbox (in The Chronicles of Riddick) so it’s no surprise that The Darkness looks so delicious. The lighting is (as you’d expect in a game with this emphasis) superb, and the New York levels are crammed with all sorts of little details. The world isn’t nearly as interactive as Starbreeze wants you to think at first glance, but it is engrossing enough to make the repetitive backtracking through the game’s few neighborhoods a lot less odious.

They’ve done a nice job with the lack of HUD, too. You’ll see your current darkness power level in a red glow on the side of each of the two beasties sprouting from your back, and ammo is plentiful enough that you really don’t need a constant weapon head’s up.

Also worth a shout are the load screens. While far too plentiful, they at least showcase Jackie, either in monologue or gun kata mode. Since we’ve got to suffer through so many load times (and I’m not convinced that we do) at least Starbreeze has done something to dress them up.

I’d be hesitant to recommend the game to anyone with a standard TV. Eventually, scenes start to play out in near total darkness, with shimmering orange outlines to highlight objects and enemies. Starbreeze has done a pretty good job managing shadowy combat, and moments where I got lost in darkness were rare. But that was on a hig-def setup with the brightness and gamma rigorously set. Low-def players, proceed with caution.

The Replay

If the basic reliance on killing lights doesn’t drag you down, there are a few weird achievements to be had in the 360 version. (Shooting all the tunnel workers in the opening scene, or sit still with Jenny long enough to win an award.) Players who track down every secret and collectible like your Aunt Lilly with her purple pen and Precious Moments catalog will find some cute stuff. Extra outfits for the Darklings, phone numbers that lead to bizarre messages, etc.

Multiplayer should be the extender for any real FPS, but it’s mostly an afterthought here. I loved the quick shape-shifting ability, which recalls the great old Aliens Versus Predator games by gifting players with super speed and Carl Lewis leaping abilities. But the Darkling melee combat is plagued by shoddy hit detection and playing multi as a human is dull. I’ve started going back into multi on my retail copy to get some easy achievement points, but once that’s nailed The Darkness will have a few months to incubate on the shelf while I decide if I really want to crawl through the story again.

The Verdict

I’m one of those gamers who explores every level to death, looking for secrets before moving on. So the ten-hour story stretched longer for me than most, and to Starbreeze’s credit they’ve added a good amount of detail that’s worth seeking out.

But that doesn’t do much to counter the fact that the gameplay is mostly one-note, whether you’re blasting away as a human or using powers like mad. The cool Darkness powers and fun Darklings occasionally offset the point to point progression and unexceptional AI, but not often enough. The grim, pulpy storyline is fun enough to merit a single play, but by the end you’ll be wishing for a lot more variety, and maybe a highlight reel.

6.8 out of 10