The Darkness 2 review: Shooting bullets off a list

On paper, The Darkness 2 is a "linear, first-person shooter with some neat twists." It sounds boring, and it was every time I played the game in a preview session before it launched. I'd hole up at some PR office in Manhattan and they'd run down a prepared spiel about "quad-wielding" or "the Darkling." The what?

In reality, The Darkness 2 is a beautiful, hand-drawn game from a team with derivative dreck like Dark Sector and Pariah in its past. It also has surprisingly realistic and impressive voice acting, which gets paired with gorgeous art direction right off the bat for a "last time on The Darkness" reintroduction.

But as impressive as the game's art style and voice acting chops are, it's not very easy to shape a marketing-driven preview session around technical aspects like that. But that's the case for most of what's so great about The Darkness 2 -- touches, moments and experiences that don't fit onto a bullet point list.
%Gallery-137848% I found myself furiously messaging Joystiq managing editor JC Fletcher after hours last week while playing The Darkness 2. "I'm currently watching a silent movie on a television inside of an insane asylum that may or may not be IN MY MIND," I told him. That is an actual thing that happens in The Darkness 2. (The silent film is a rendition of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Other Gods," in case you're wondering.)

At least, that's an experience I had in the game. The thing is, though, it may or may not have actually happened to Jackie. Is it reality that he's in a psych ward and has lost his mind, is the quad-wielding world of mafia boss Jackie Estacado only a psychotic vision? Or, is he actually mafia boss Jackie Estacado, and the psych ward is just a trick of "the Darkness" -- the mysterious being that inhabits his mind for both good and evil? The fact that I was even engaging such nonsensical questions warned me that The Darkness 2 was winning me over. The Eternal Darkness-esque concepts of playing with your expectations extend beyond Jackie's potential reality, but I'd rather save them for your enjoyment.

In between surreal story moments and quad-wielding murder sprees, I was given agency as Jackie to explore his fancy mafioso NYC apartment, which rewarded me with optional conversation with various thugs. That dialogue -- not to mention the state of Jackie's apartment -- helped to serve as occasional reminders of my place in the story arc. As if to remind players of how starkly depressing things get, there's a direct relationship between the state of Jackie's apartment, the number of mafia members in it and the story's progression. The fewer people are left, the further you've come to "saving Jenny."

Of course, Jenny's always in another castle. Which is to say, "Jenny was brutally murdered in the first Darkness game," so her role in the sequel is a bit more existential this time around. She's the carrot that drags Jackie along, but her relationship with the player is ... well, it conflicts with Jackie's objectives. Jackie and I didn't always agree, and I'd bet he won't agree with many other folks either.

The quad-wielding is a fun wrinkle in the combat, as are the few rare moments where you control Jackie's saucy British friend, the Darkling. While the latter occurs rarely and isn't particularly thrilling, the former makes up the meat of the game and functions more than proficiently. Despite the game's best attempts to teach me early on, I didn't fully master Jackie's murderous potential until the last quarter of the game forced it upon me, but by then I was hurtling car doors at distant snipers while slashing my other tendril violently at nearby shotgunners, and firing hundreds of bullets at anyone stupid enough to attack me.

A progression tree tied to earned experience helps to keep combat ever-evolving as Jackie finds new ways to take on varying enemy types. By the end of the game, Jackie can easily juggle several foes at once, impaling one while shooting another in the face, and snacking on their hearts for quick health power-ups on the fly. And should you enjoy the combat enough to keep the progression going, a new game plus option opens up after completing the main campaign.

A co-op mode called "Vendettas" provides another gameplay avenue for fans of the game's violence, allowing four co-op partners (online or off) to team up and complete combat-heavy side missions for Jackie. As goofy as the concept might sound, the side missions actually tie directly in to the main game's story, explaining some ... vague story beats and rewarding players with more of that great voice work found in the main campaign.

Unfortunately, the combat isn't quite as exciting because, while each character can wield the Darkness, none of them are Jackie. Though each co-op partner has a special ability, none of their abilities are "have four arms and be omniscient." It's fun, sure, but never quite as fun as macro-managing an area full of bad dudes as Jackie.

The Darkness 2 succeeds in many ways. It lives up to (and surpasses) its similarly surprising progenitor, despite being made by a different developer. It's gorgeous, even if it's built in an aging engine (the same engine that powered 2008's Dark Sector, in fact). And it's a first-person shooter with a story that's worth a damn, something we don't see very often in general (and especially not with shooters, specifically). It doesn't fit neatly into a marketing campaign, which makes it all the more endearing.

This review is based on a retail copy of The Darkness 2 for Xbox 360, provided by 2K Games.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.