The original The Darkness was created by Starbreeze Studios back in 2007, based on a comic book of the same title.
It features a young mafia hitman by the name of Jackie Estacado on his 21st birthday; targeted for assassination by the don of a New York mafia. However, a malevolent force of evil - known only as The Darkness - comes to Jackie's aid, transforming him into a power not to be reckoned with.
The Darkness II kicks off two years after the events of The Darkness, and Jackie is now the don of his own family. As soon as the game begins, you notice it has a very different style to that of the original. The main reason for this, perhaps, is that The Darkness II is developed by a different studio - Digital Extremes (rather than Starbreeze) - who have previously released innovative shooters like Unreal (which they worked on with Epic) and Dark Sector.
The new cel-shaded visual style, a stark contrast to the more realistic original, is quite reminiscent of a comic book (which is fitting, given the series is based on a comic) resulting in deep dark lines surrounding various game objects.
However, unlike many other cel-shaded games, it's detailed and gritty - which fits The Darkness well.
The opening scene sets the tone for the game, playing out by way of a cinematic set in Jackie's restaurant. You're taken to your table, where two beautiful woman await your company - a few moments later, however, chaos ensues and you're left with the impression that this is a going to be a brutal ride...
The Darkness II holds nothing back in the violence department, where a shot to the head leaves a rather textured bloody hole and a spray of cel-shaded red wonder beyond it. Let's just say what happens in the restaurant took the beautiful women (and me) by surprise.
Speaking of the gun-play, Digital Extremes have tweaked the approach taken by the original, adding a slight auto aim to the shooting mechanic. At first, you may feel like this game is going to be a little bit like watching a movie while pressing the trigger buttons, but the decision to add this 'snap aim' system becomes clearer a bit later on - so don't worry if you prefer a bit more freedom when aiming down the sights.
Gone is the way the guns used to react to the environment also, as Jackie no longer lifts his arms if a wall or cover is in the way, preventing you from stretching your arm out to fire as he does so.
Instead, when shooting, he pulls his guns closer to the aiming point when dual wielding to provide less bullet stray. This tweak allows you to unload more bullets into your desired target when pressing the both triggers in rapid succession. It all looks and feels really satisfying when in a big firefight, however there are some issues that can make the gun-play a bit frustrating at times, which I'll point out a bit later.
After the restaurant section is clear, Jackie has no choice but to let The Darkness out (he's been suppressing it for two years) and unleash its fury on his enemies. Mike Patton returns to voice The Darkness and does an amazing job in sending shivers down your spine every time he speaks, while the voice of Jackie is replaced by Brian Bloom, who - while he sounds quite different - delivers the role well.
This is where it gets interesting... and brutal; so, so brutal. The tentacles return, and they're hungry. You are introduced to the Execute mechanic of The Darkness II, where you simply press a button after grabbing an enemy and are treated to a no-holds-barred gorefest as the tentacles tear your foe apart. The animations and new visual style make these attacks look very unsettling, and I would not recommend you play this game when you have young children in the house - or your grandma!
The tentacles, like in the first game, are controlled by the two shoulder buttons, while guns are fired with the two triggers (the left trigger becomes "aim down sights" if you are not dual wielding).
The left shoulder button controls your grabbing and throwing tentacle, allowing you to pickup and throw enemies or loose objects. The right shoulder button controls the slice or whipping tentacle; if you hold the button you can control the direction in which the tentacle slices with the right analog stick. This allows you to cut in the direction you choose, perhaps to cut a wire that's powering a light or lift an enemy into the air.
There are four different types of Execution moves which you can gradually unlock via the new skills system, and - depending on the execution type - obliterating an enemy in this fashion will reward you with either more ammo, a Darkness Shield, or Health.
Each time you kill an enemy in The Darkness II, you are given Essence points - each kill type is worth a certain number. You can then spend these points at dark portals to unlock more skills; for instance, say you shoot someone in the head and they die you will get a standard +10 points "Headshot!", whereas if you use your tentacle to grab a nearby heating fan and hurl it like a frisbee to sever anyone unfortunate enough to be in front of you in half, you will get +100 "Sliced!" points.
Just like in the first Darkness game, light is Jackie's weakness during gun fights, so shooting or slicing lights out will aid in your progression. In The Darkness II, not only do you lose your Darkness powers while in the light, but your enemies will start using halogen lighting to blind you - making your screen completely white out. This was extremely frustrating at times, and made gun fights very difficult - particularly later in the game.
The first Darkness had you summon various imp-like creatures called Darklings, each of which had different abilities that suited different situations. In The Darkness II, however, you are only given one Darkling; he travels with you and can attack enemies to take them out of the fight. This Darkling also has more personality than the ones in the previous title - he still shouts profanities and urinates on enemies (for the comic relief so to speak), but he is involved in the story as well.
There are also some sections where you control this Darkling, and the game becomes a stealth take-down scenario, in which you must sneak around and stay out of the light to reach an objective. These sections slow down the pace, allowing you to take a breather between gun fights.
Now that I have described how you control the tentacles and shoot your weapons, I can expand on the frustrating thing about The Darkness II gun-play that I alluded to earlier.
When you have several enemies - especially the stronger types you find later in the game, who require a combination of attacks to defeat - it becomes a task of mashing your controller like you're main stage in Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance.
You're pressing shoulder, trigger, and face buttons to bash, rip, shoot and otherwise obliterate your enemies, whilst alternately eating victims hearts for health or shields - all while being blinded. This combines to form an almost unassailable difficulty level that will have you thinking about giving up much more than you might like.
But, this could just be because I have become accustomed to shooters being rather simple. The Darkness II challenges you, pushing you to the edge, but the feeling of satisfaction after getting through such a difficult fight makes it worth the effort.
The Darkness II is more linear than its predecessor, with no open-ended exploration or inhabitants with side quests. There's no way to use the telephones to call for easter eggs, nor can you watch To Kill A Mockingbird in its entirety on a TV. However, you can still search around each section for Darkness Relics, collectables that also offer you Essence points towards unlocking skills.
Thankfully, if you miss all the collectibles or did not manage to max out your skills, there is a "New Game+" option, allowing you to start the story again with all the skills and relics from the previous run through.
There is also a Multiplayer component to The Darkness II called Vendettas, a co-operative campaign set parallel to the main story arc where you can play up to four players as unique characters who have Darkness infused weapons and Darkness abilities of their own, with a task to hunt down darkness relics.
As the game is yet to be released I was unable to play co-operative with my mates, however an option allows you to go through the co-op campaign by yourself offline - unfortunately, there's no split-screen option for local multiplayer.
Each character has their own background story and personality, delivered to you through conversations with Johnny Powell - a character from the main story.As well as each character being unique in personality, they each handle quite differently:
Inugami a Japanese psychopath who wields a samurai sword named the 'Kusanagi', which is controlled similarly to the slashing tentacle in the main game. He also starts with the darkness ability Swarm, which can shroud several enemies to take them out of the fight temporarily.
Shoshana a female 'Mossad agent', uses a double-barreled pistol named 'Arm of the Night', which has infinite ammo, good kick, but a slow fire rate. Her initial darkness ability is called Gun Channelling, which allows you to deal more damage and not consume ammo on normal guns you may acquire.
JP Dummond is somewhat of a voodoo priest, who uses a staff named the 'Midnight Stick' which can lift enemies from cover and expose them. His initial darkness power is the black hole, an ability which opens a dark portal and sucks in its victims, tearing them apart in the process.
Jimmy Wilson, a stereotype of Scottish muscle, wielding the 'Dark Axe' which is thrown towards his enemies and can be channeled back like a Jedi using the force to retrieve his light sabre. His initial darkness ability is summoning two suicidal darklings which seek out and detonate on enemies.
As well as having your own special weapon, you can duel-wield or pickup weapons as you fight through the co-op mode.
Just like in the main story, when you progress further the enemies get more difficult to kill, and start using blinding lights to take away your darkness abilities and hinder your view from shooting at them.
If a team mate dies, you can quickly run up to them and press the revive button to bring them back into action, otherwise they will automatically re-spawn when any surviving players reach a checkpoint - I can thank the help tips for this one as I can't actually test it out pre-release.
Like the main story line you can earn and spend Essence points at dark portals in each level, allowing you to purchase various abilities if you wish. You can also regain health by destroying hearts using execution kills, however once you collect them from a downed enemy your team mates will have to search elsewhere.
As it's designed more for co-operative play, you will get wave after wave of enemies in each level while trying to achieve an objective. The first level, for example, has you trying to survive several waves of enemies while you guard Johnny (he is tied up) before you can proceed to the next level. This becomes very challenging in the later levels if you do try and play through on your own.
I could imagine this mode would be quite satisfying with 3 friends, each utilising the different abilities and weapons to clear each level. But by myself it was quite a lack lustre experience, as each level just felt the same as the last, up to the point it got very challenging because bosses had huge amounts of health to deplete and it felt more like a chore to progress.
As a package, The Darkness II is an enjoyable story with an appealing visual aesthetic worthy of the R18 rating. Just be prepared for some frustrating moments and, if you enjoyed the first Darkness, you will miss the exploration and side quests - but at least you can turn on all the taps in the mansion. With the co-op campaign and interesting achievements it does have some decent replay value.
Available on: PS3/Xbox 360