Version tested: Xbox 360
An extra pair of limbs is so useful in an FPS, and so much fun, that it's a wonder we haven't seen more games transform you into a multi-tentacled engine of destruction. Instead, we've had to wait five years for this sequel to The Darkness - an unusually long delay in an industry as fond of annual sequels as it is of taking good ideas and running them into the ground.
And having four limbs really does make a difference, opening up combat possibilities that other shooters can't hope to compete with. As demon-infested mobster Jackie Estacado, you not only have two human appendages with which to wield a standard variety of pistols, shotguns and assault rifles, but two piranha-faced tentacles - manifestations of the ancient Darkness that has set up home in Jackie's body.
The one on the left, let's call him Grabby. The context-sensitive left shoulder button sends him snapping out to sink his teeth into any of the objects marked with a glowing core. Hitting the button again throws the object in question. So you can quickly lob scaffold poles and pool cues as deadly spears. Car doors can be ripped off and used as a shield, then thrown as a lethal frisbee. Grabby can also lash out and feast on the hearts of fallen foes, topping up your health in the process.
That's not the only way to use your powers to bend the stakes in your favour. Stunned enemies can also be snatched. Once in your clutches, the face buttons allow you to perform a variety of gruesome executions. Decapitation, dismemberment, bisection, disembowelment: all the family favourites are here, and each provides some auxiliary benefit such as more health, extra ammo, a shield or faster recharge on your other Darkness powers.
The tentacle on the right, he's Mister Slashy. The right shoulder button, in conjunction with the right stick, enables you to slash across the screen horizontally or vertically, smashing through scenery or carving up enemies like a joint of boiled ham. And, of course, at all times you've still got two hands free to keep blasting away at the cannon fodder blocking your path.
Many of these powers were present in the first game, albeit in clumsier forms, but here they've been streamlined and slotted into a control scheme that puts myriad possibilities within easy reach at all times. There's a pleasing fluidity to the way new developer Digital Extremes has taken the template set in place by Starbreeze and enhanced, upgraded and embellished it. Imagine an even more ghoulish and sadistic spin on Bulletstorm's body-mangling metagame, and you're halfway there.
Movement, too, is fluid. While the weaponry packs a punch, Jackie glides smoothly through the game like an ice skater, free from the leaden jogging that the more realistic shooters are forced to offer. This isn't a game that wants to pin you down for too long, so encounters are fast and fierce, full of circle strafing rather than duck-and-cover antics. In keeping with this, even the toughest foe can be taken down with a few well-placed shots. There are no bullet sponges here, and you're able to pull off distant headshots with an Uzi, so clearly those who demand fealty to real-life ballistics should not apply.
There's a deeper reason for mucking around with the gory stuff though. The more outrageous your kills, and the more varied, the more Dark Essence you earn. This is the currency with which you evolve your powers, and the escalation is well paced. Even at their most basic you're capable of doing serious damage, but with four prongs of evolution to play around with, you only get tougher.
Unfortunately, the enemies don't. Whether facing normal mob enforcers or demon-infused agents of The Brotherhood, an ancient organisation that wants The Darkness for its own ends, you're always more than able to bring the slaughter. Certain enemy types require a modicum of strategy, but it rarely goes any deeper than snatching away a shield to expose them to attack. Their AI isn't up to much either, which fits in well with the game's relentless pace and gonzo energy - but it does mean that even when the screen is dripping with viscera, there's not much muscle pushing back against you.
Your only real weakness is light. Straying out of the shadows strips you of your Darkness powers and leaves you disorientated and dazzled. It's a thematic fit, but not one that works particularly well in a gameplay context. This isn't a game where you'll spend much time sneaking around, plotting your attacks, so rounding a corner only to be blinded by white smears as a gang of hoodlums fills you with lead feels like a cheap shot. There's potential here for some more interesting light-and-dark play, but the game seems content to just shine things in your face when it's least convenient and leave it at that.
What's most refreshing is that, even in a game that goes out of its way to keep you moving, slashing, shooting and tearing your way through, it's always driven by narrative. Indeed, this may be the most story-fixated shooter in years.
With a five-year gap in the real world and in-game events picking up two years after the events of the original, Digital Extremes could have been forgiven for rebooting or ignoring a lot of the existing story. Instead, the game gives you a quick recap and then plunges right in as though nothing had happened. The loss of Jenny, Jackie's father, the struggle to contain The Darkness - this is the heart of the tale, not optional narrative colour.
With so many shooters squeezing plot into the spaces between gunshots, it's great to play a game that makes you walk around and talk to people, that takes its characters and their emotions seriously. There are even regular interludes in an asylum (where it's hinted that Jackie may be, in reality) which play out as miniature adventure games: all story, no action. Even in a frankly ridiculous slapstick game about a gangster with demon tendrils, a little attention to character detail can make all the difference.
The downside is that The Darkness 2 feels like a one-and-done experience, with little replay value. There's a New Game + option after completion but, short of filling out the gaps in your skill tree and finding hidden relics, there's not much reason to dive back in. Each relic, for example, has a full backstory but impacts the gameplay in only the shallowest way. It's a waste.
The same is true of the Darkling, a scampering Cockney-voiced imp that acts as a pathfinder and comic foil during Jackie's quest. You're able to take control of the Darkling and scurry around in the shadows, ripping the throats out of unwary guards. It's a fun change of pace, but it only happens twice, and at strictly scripted moments. Look too closely and the game is full of interesting ideas like these: fun in the moment, but never really leading anywhere.
There's more ambition on display in the online side of things, though that's more down to what Digital Extremes has left out rather than what's been put in. Unusually (and boldly) for a shooter, there's no competitive multiplayer. If only more games were able to resist the easy lure of a perfunctory deathmatch mode. Instead, we get an entirely separate co-op campaign in which four players can take the roles of some outrageous stereotypes - spooky voodoo black man, boozy foul-mouthed Scot, sword-wielding Japanese man and vengeful sexy Jew lady - as they perform a series of missions and hits at Jackie's request. These actually relate to the main story mode, and fill in a few minor plot points, so there's good reason to give them a spin even if you play solo.
Each character has their own Darkness-infused weapon, which in turn gives them unique execution moves and skill trees. It won't take long to max them out and the characters are fundamentally the same underneath their national clichés, but there's no denying that it's fun to have all four rampaging around the map, gutting and skewering the identikit bad guys.
The online is basic to the point of being crude - you certainly won't be blown away by the mannequin-esque movements of your fellow players - but with an enjoyable secondary story to play through, plus unlockable bonus missions designed specifically for two players or more, it supplies a solid enough suite of multiplayer action without trying to squeeze the unique pleasures of The Darkness into an ill-fitting capture-the-flag mould.
Ultimately, it's this unique style that makes The Darkness 2 worth your time. After years of chest-beating military domination, the FPS genre is starting to show signs of life in more eccentric ways. Everything old is new again, so by concentrating on character, story and giddy comic-book excess, The Darkness 2 is a more compelling offering in 2012 than it would have been in 2008. It may be little more than a gore-soaked custard slice on the great gaming buffet table, but it's a guilty pleasure worth tasting all the same.
7 / 10