The Darkness Reader Review
The Darkness didn't age that well, to be honest. Playing it now shows it up for the average older sister of the Supermodel. A bit clumsy, and a lot nicer looking in your imagination. I wrote this review 2 minutes after watching the end credits back in 2007, but I guess it serves as a nice retrospective of how enthusiastic I was at the time. Spoiler warnings, by the way...
Starbreeze deserve a big, fat, stinking reward. Yet again they’ve carved their name (probably with some kind of crude office stationary) on the wall in the Great Hall of Gaming Achievements - in plain sight so that everybody can see, right next to the picture of Gordon Freeman (upon which they’ve also squiggled a pair of devil horns and a rudimentary fart gag).
See, while all those celebrity luminaries of Game Development have been jabbering on about creating immersive worlds, believable characters and movie-like productions, Starbreeze just went ahead and did it. No disrespect to them, but leave Warren Specter and Peter Molyneux to waffle on while they eat free cake – the guys at Starbreeze actually went ahead and did something rather than waste time chatting up the press.
First of all, I’d never even heard of The Darkness until fairly recently. As far as I was concerned, they were a disastrous parody-rock band who tried (and thankfully failed) to reawaken the era of 80’s Hair Metal. My attention was piqued when I heard mention of legendary vocal-smith Mike Patton’s involvement. And frankly, nothing prepared me for simply how great a decision that was.
For those who don’t know, there is very little that Mike Patton (formerly of Faith No More, now of Tomahawk, Fantomas, Mr. Bungle, Peeping Tom, Lovage and around a thousand more side projects to boot) can not do with his voice. From a crooning Sinatra to incomprehensible rabid screeches via eerie monkish chanting, the man’s voice was perfect for the roll of The Darkness. He brings the demonic hell-spawn to life like nobody else ever could, and it’s a testament to Starbreeze (whose fingers must have been welded to whatever the relevant pulse) that they even thought to include him.
Patton really does flesh out the creature into the rasping, disgusting, vile and wretched parasite that it is. If I was in Starbreeze’s shoes, I seriously wouldn’t have even considered anybody else. Utter genius.
With that fan-service over with, lets move on to the characters. Without spoiling The Big Twist (which you can see coming from a mile away anyhow), there are some deeply moving sequences in The Darkness that only really work through the exemplary characterisation. You feel massively angry about the protagonist – Jackie Estacado’s – predicament. You furiously want to unleash all of Hell on his foes for what they are doing.
The beauty, of course, is that you can, but the characters help spur on the motivation ten-fold. Shooting bad-guys has been a staple part of the Gaming Diet for years, but never has it felt so invigorating. Carrying on to rip out the hearts of these treacherous foes to feed your ever-hungry resident parasite (and thus empowering yourself further) is a deeply satisfying action that still doesn't tire 300 "meals" down the line.
There's a certain moment towards the later end of the game in Lower East Side that will have you literally sprinting as fast as you can in red-faced anger, goon blood on your mind, especially following the scenes in previous sections of the game. How many times have you ever felt that way in your gaming career? You know,
Most gaming characters these days come across as one-dimensional stereotypes with completely bland and predictable lines delivered by Z-grade voice actors. But Starbreeze have once again excelled; there’s not a single awkward line of dialogue in the entire game. The lines are delivered with the exactly correct amount of enthusiasm and feeling. And there are stacks of them too – I simply do not remember hearing a repeated line of conversation. Initiating a talk sequence itself is also completely intuitive. You just walk up to whoever is calling your name – no button pressing or bumbling around making sure you’re standing in the exact right spot. It's completely natural.
Speaking of the vast amounts of material, finding any of the various TV sets in the game (there’s one in your Aunt’s living room if you’re struggling) will allow you to view entire episodes of Popeye and Flash Gordon, not to mention entire music videos from a small selection of bands. In the game!
Imagine the scene – I’ve got a mission to lay waste to one of Uncle Paulie’s goons who’s been reported spying on Jackie’s Aunt. Not to mention the main story arc which requires me to hunt down a Very Special Briefcase so it can be rigged with a bomb. I’m fairly sure I’ll be acquiring another Darkness Power some time soon for extra jollies, so what the hell am I doing watching a 1930s original version of Flash Gordon with a hobo in the subway?
Sure, these extras are purely ancillary to the main game, but they flesh out the world even more. Similarly, go look at a flaming barrel – there are (refreshingly) not that many for an FPS, but the flames that lick the air above their steel nests are some of the most realistic I’ve ever seen rendered. Again they are ancillary, but somebody at Starbreeze must have spent hours and hours perfecting those flames.
And that’s the big difference between this and many other FPSs. Starbreeze have poured their heart and soul into The Darkness and it shows in every corner of the game. That they enlisted professional graffiti artists to draw the abundance of wall paintings is another fine example.
It’s also a great show-piece for how video-games can happily emulate great movies. The interaction between characters is brilliantly natural. The scripted scenes are superbly directed and genuinely keep your attention without feeling at all intrusive. Jackie feels grounded in his world rather than just being a floating gun. The last mission is fantastically movie-like in quality, right from the way lights shatter under your icy glare, to the scripted sequences where The Darkness takes control. There is a general mood to the game whereby graphics, audio and code are somehow combined to create an intangible atmosphere that just isn’t present in many other titles boasting the “cinematic” bullet-point. The abolishment of loading screens in favour of Jackie’s inter-mission soliloquies is a total stroke of genius (watch out for his brilliant remembering of his first kiss in the subway...). The use of (arguably Tomahawk’s finest 3 minutes) at the start of the ending credits is exactly the right song. The credits themselves are exactly like any movie’s. I could go on and on…
The most involving and cinematic moment in the whole game for me, though, was right at the very end - the last time you have control of the game before the ending movie - the inevitable execution of Uncle Paulie. Your first shot simply disables him, puts him on the ground and makes him start the begging process. From here it's entirely up to you how you end this snivelling git's worthless life. You can take as much time as you like, looming over him, your shadow cast large, listening to him beg and squirm, until you find the perfect weapon. It's by far the most satisfying death in the whole game, and it's dished out to you perfectly. By the time you're at this scene, you've been fantasising about Paulie's death for around 15 hours. And now it's entirely up to you how it is done.
To wrap this up, if you are a fan of video-games, The Darkness is essential to your well-being. If you can honestly say that you played it indifferently and were unimpressed by any aspect, you are probably dead inside. Don’t be put off by the long history of the intellectual property – no previous knowledge of the comics is necessary. Just pop it into whatever disc drive you kids are using these days and sit back, savour the next 15 hours of truly unique gameplay, because you’ll be a bit sad when it’s over.