The Darkness

September 17th, 2007 by Adrian

Gamespot had some nice things to say about the new Xbox360 shooter “The Darkness,” so I added it to my Gamefly queue and took it for a spin.  The sense of atmosphere in this game is terrific, and the beautiful artistic style makes an otherwise mediocre title into an enjoyable experience.

The Darkness has a lot going for it graphically.  The textures are absolutely stunning, from the writhing tentacles on the title screen to the hundreds of subtle variations on stone and tile that cover building exteriors.  The lighting is incredible too: harsh fluorescents, warm floor lamps, and tinted vapor bulbs bathe scenes in a varied palette of lifelike tones.  Several times I’d get off the in-game subway and just stand around idly for a second before realizing the game was live again.  The hazy glow of overhead lighting reflecting from ceramic tiles onto dirty brick looked so good that I assumed I was still in a pre-rendered transition cutscene.

Adding to the sense of atmosphere are good voice acting and decent animations all around.  You play Jackie Estacado, a small-time hitman for an NYC mob family, and  Kirk Acevedo (Oz’s Miguel Alvarez) turns in a relaxed, fuggedahboutit DeNiro impression that suits both the character and the story perfectly.  You know you’re playing a game where the developers really took pride in polishing the details when you bump into a group of retro bboys dancing for dimes on a subway platform, and the moves all look smooth enough to have been motion-captured.  Though you can toss them a few coins, they’re mostly there for show.  That’s a lot of work to go to just to build atmosphere, but it really pays off.

Despite some great environments, the overall gameplay is less than stellar, for a couple of reasons.  The biggest problem is that not only is there a dominant strategy, just about any strategy can be a dominant strategy.  You start off just shooting a couple of pistols, but as the game progresses you learn to harness more and more special “darkness powers,” e.g. sending out a snaky assassin/scout, lifting heavy objects with a tentacle arm, and finally creating a huge vortex that sucks in all nearby enemies, and spits ‘em out dead.

If the gameplay were well designed and balanced, there’d be different contexts and/or level layouts that rewarded (or required) careful consideration of your offensive tactics.  But as it stands you can just pick your favorite method of slaughtering your opponents, and stick with it throughout the game.  The auto-targeting system has a slight bias towards head shots, so the dual pistols that you start with stay incredibly effective right ‘til the end.  And once you get the vortex power, it’s like the difficulty setting doesn’t even exist.  You can just keep spamming this over and over and over and clear whole rooms in seconds flat.

You will have to recharge your “darkness level” from the shadows to use the special powers, but since the recharge rate is zero to full in about 3 seconds,  as long as there’s a puddle of shadow around, you’re good to go.  Oh, and in another visually compelling (and indulgently sick) twist, you can also rip out the hearts of your downed foes and devour them to instantly set your darkness level to full.  So as long as you keep up the momentum it’s pretty easy to keep your tank topped off no matter where you are.

The other major gameplay issue is opponent AI, namely the lack thereof.  There’s no flanking or even real patrolling behavior here… the mobs tend to just wander around in a small radius from their spawn points until you’re sighted, and then they’ll start blasting away at you without too much regard for cover.  This gives you a huge amount of latitude in planning your assault and recovering from any tactical errors, even further lowering the already trivial bar for combat difficulty. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the kind of hardcore gamer that needs to play every single game on the maximum difficulty setting to prove i r ub3r.  But I do want my progress throughout the game to feel earned.  When I can casually wipe out a small army of goons on the TV without ever feeling truly threatened – or forced to make a meaningful choice in how to approach the battle – my investment in the story goes down quite a bit.

There are also a few minor interface glitches that can break the flow at unfortunate moments.  For example, voice-overs from The Darkness that possesses you are apparently bound to map triggers on some levels.  This often means that subtitles pop up, the screen is dimmed to a hazy white/grey monochrome palette (losing your white crosshairs in the process), and the flailing demon heads that generally hug the periphery of the screen may start waving around all over your field of vision.  It’s not quite a true cutscene, but it’s at least halfway there.  Needless to say, if you’re engaged in a four-way firefight when you trigger one of these “conversations,” better hope you’ve got full health.  If the inherent combat imbalance didn’t make the game so easy, this would be an even more frustrating flaw.

I really admire this game for its visual style and its focus on keeping all of the action tightly bound to a continually advancing plot.  There are optional side-missions, but this is clearly not an Oblivion- or GTA-style “open-ended” experience.  Honestly, that makes it much more compelling for in this case. Given the lack of emphasis on tactics for the FPS aspect of the game, the overall experience is like being in an fast-paced, interactive action/horror flick.

End-to-end game time for the single player campaign is pretty short (between 10-15 hours depending on how much you like to just bask in the environments… and how many collectibles you’re looking to snag), so this is a hugely enjoyable rental.  As beautiful as the game is, I can’t see shelling out $60 to own my own copy (and neither should you).

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