The Darkness Review (Xbox 360, PS3)

I was a fan of Starbreeze Studios long before The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, so don’t think for a moment that I believe Starbreeze is a one-hit wonder. The developer’s first Xbox game, Enclave, was one of the console’s best-looking and most underrated games, so the quality of Riddick really wasn’t all that surprising. What was surprising, though, was the feeling of finishing The Darkness, a comic-based game that recently released for both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and feeling completely and utterly let down.

To be fair, I’d never heard of The Darkness comics before playing this game, so my impressions may be a bit tainted by the fact that I’m a Darkness “newbie.” However, I dare say many people who consider buying this title will be in the same boat, which lends itself to a few troubling facets. First, players don’t learn why the protagonist has demonic arms sprouting from his shoulders, let alone why he’s not panicked by their appearance, until about one-third of the way through the game. At that point, it’s fair to expect to say “well, at least the gameplay was so good that I could overlook such a narrative gaffe” — but it’s not.

Even in the overcrowded first-person-shooter genre, The Darkness manages to trudge players through some of the most tedious, repetitive and uninspired missions in a long time. The game takes place in various New-York-inspired locales, from subway stations and back alleys to Chinatown and a pier. Unfortunately, those four to six locales comprise almost the entirety of the game, and none of them is particularly large, which means players go back and forth from one location to the next for the most menial of tasks (retrieve a key, kill a single enemy, etc.).

In between these tasks, players find themselves at the center of a mob war, complete with double-crossing uncles and murdered girlfriends. The thing is, although players have access to traditional guns and demonic powers such as a black hole, guns and spike-like arm, none of the opposing mobsters seems concerned that he’s taking on an otherworldly foe, which spoils some of the fun of strolling into a room to declare “surprise, my demonic shoulder-arm is about to eat your heart!” Had the enemies been a bit more concerned with the protagonist’s powers, and had the developers spent a bit more time fleshing out the “why” and “wow factor” of those powers earlier on, the game could have benefited considerably.

Unfortunately they didn’t, nor did they pay attention to balancing the game’s stealth and shooting elements. All four of the Darkness powers are stronger and rejuvenate faster when the protagonist is in the shadows, so much of the game is spent shooting out lights a la the first Splinter Cell. At that point, the gameplay delves into activating a Darkness power and easily taking out an enemy or unloading a clip from one of the game’s dozen or so weapons into the foe’s torso. Lather, rinse and repeat, and you’ve got the Cliff’s Notes explanation for the gameplay in The Darkness.

This combination of light-shooting, easy-killing and menial-errand-running is a serious disappointment, particularly since Starbreeze was at the helm. One area in which they didn’t disappoint is the environmental graphics, whose high-resolution textures and lighting look great. However, those good elements are countered by middle-of-the-road character models, and the respectable soundtrack is hampered by often-sketchy voice acting.

I went into The Darkness expecting great things, not because I’m a fan of the comic book, but because I have great respect for the phenomenal games Starbreeze Studios can create. Was I expecting too much? Was Starbreeze, like every studio, destined to have a speed bump sometime along the way? Maybe. But even taking Starbreeze out of the equation, The Darkness is a mediocre game in a genre where mediocrity is one of the worst fates a game can suffer. I still expect great things from Starbreeze down the line, and I hope for everyone’s sake that The Darkness is the only dark spot on this developer’s otherwise bright history.

– Jonas Allen

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