Sunday, August 9, 2009

Beaten : The Darkness

Two weeks ago I delved into my local Gamestop's bargain bin, and pulled out a ten dollar winner, The Darkness. Based on one of those Spawn-type, dark vigilante comic books, the Darkness is a first-person shooter with a very original twist, and a story that's one of the most emotionally engaging ones of this generation.

Players assume the role of young mob assassin Jackie Estacado, who on his 21st birthday finds out he has these inherited darkness powers. These powers are cool - there are tentalces that you can send out to scout and attack foes, another tentacle attack for close-range combat and moving objects, darkness guns, and a black hole you can summon to mess up enemies. Your darkenss powers are increased by devouring the hearts of downed foes.

The powers also allow him to summon four kinds of darklings - little demon followers each with a different function. One's a brawler, one's a gunner, one's a suicide bomber, and the other goes around zapping light sources. Oh yeah, these are darkness powers after all, so as the player explores areas they have to shoot out every light source they can. The powers will cut out at inopportune times until the player gets in the habit of shooting out light sources.

Back to the darklings for a moment. Yes, they're cute, they way they jabber to each other and make little daemonic comments about things, but man are they dumber than a sack of doorknobs. You can send them to places that you target by pressing X, but they rarely do what you want. I used them sparingly, usually as cannon fodder.

The story, as noted previously, has warm and compelling moments in spite of all the bad mojo going on. I won't give away any spoilers here, but it's a masterpiece of interactive storytelling. There are great and memorable characters to meet, from old mob family members to folks in the subway who give you side quests.

There is a really cool collection quest here, too. There are scraps of paper with phone numbers on them that can be gathered. When the player finds a pay phone, they can call all of them up. There are lots of silly, humorous answers on the other end of those phone numbers, and each one unlocks some sort of bonus content. There are letters, too, that can be found and later mailed when one comes across a mailbox. I barely found half of the 100 numbers and letters hidden in the game.

In terms of level design, it's almost an open-world game, in that there are many neighborhoods, all connected by two subway hubs. Some don't open up until later chapters, but many can and must be revisited as the game progresses. The game consists of five huge chapters, two of which take place in a hellish World War I battlefield that has to be seen to be believed. Graphically and technically, that area is a gamescape unlike any other I've seen.

There are all sorts of other design brilliances that make The Darkness stand out from other games. The loading screens are little vignettes of Jackie, sometimes talking about an area the player is about to enter, sometimes about the characters, and other times just fooling around with his guns.

The televisions the player sees here and there contain actual real-world content - an old Flash Gordon serial, old Max Fleisher cartoons, a few movies and music videos. Again, this is actual content, not a facsimile. I fell asleep with Flash Gordon on, and woke up a few minutes later to see it still playing, much further into the episode. I really think that the whole thing is in there, if one wanted to watch it all. An impressive technological feat.

It took me about a week of playing to beat the Darkness. It was challenging, and never unfair, with lots of twists and turns in the story to keep me interested. This is the total package - great gameplay coupled with a compellingly crafted tale. There's a sequel in the works, but Starbreeze Studios, the ones who created this incredible game, aren't the developers. Whoever is out there making a new Darkness game had better pay close attention to what Starbreeze did here, for anything less would be a travesty.

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