Saturday 18 August 2012

The Darkness

Here's a game that made me physically unwell!

The Darkness, a 2007 release for the Xbox 360. I'm not going to be kind.

Developed by Starbreeze Studios and published by 2K Games, The Darkness is a story-driven FPS set in the urban cesspools of New York. Now hang on, a shooter not set in war time? You'd think I'd like this one, but alas, though I've tried to make friends with The Darkness during the last few days, I think I'd rather shoot Russians to cater for the west's unhealthy obsession with the cold war.

It's not unusual for me to dislike multiple award winning games, but while I don't get on with the likes of BioShock and Mass Effect due to taste, I am reluctant to back The Darkness because it simply isn't very good. Hours of my life were wasted by an Xbox 360 disc whose sole task in life was to make me feel stupid and insignificant - I get enough of that already, I don't need Swedish level designers joining in.

In the Darkness you are Jackie Estacado, a man with more hair than personality attempting to kill your crazy uncle Paulie and steer your family's Italian-American mafia group back onto the right track. Everyone wants you dead because you're fighting the powers at be, but following a car crash and some faffing around, you wander into the crazy mythical creature known as "THE DARKNESS" and venture off on a quest to kill people in the most depressing way possible. Oh and your love interest dies. No! Not Jenny!

The object of The Darkness is to drift around a few hub worlds looking for people to talk to and/or shoot. It's a fairly standard FPS, bar the crazy mutant tentacles that assist play (it's a power officially known as "the darkness" but that's a terrible name). You shoot nasty men in your quest to get from point A to point B, and can summon your dark powers in dimly lit areas to overcome obstacles and challenges. You can also create "darklings" to do some of the work for you and clog up corridors. Conceptually, these ideas are fine, but as far as implementation goes there's a lot to be desired.

The Darkness has no PC release, which I found surprising as there aren't enough buttons on the Xbox 360 controller to handle your array of guns and mutant powers. I figured the 100+ keyboard keys would come in handy on the PC - as darkness powers are very picky about light sources and require a bit of fiddling to set up, moving large objects is a tedious exercise thanks to the awkward nature of the controls. There's also no sprint button, making the game feel slow and clunky, with Jackie tripping over bits of scenery and being an easy target for the unbalanced AI drones to hit.

Your tentacles are activated by shoulder buttons and come with the added advantage of being able to see more clearly in the dark. They're a necessity for large chunks of the game, but along with Jackie's choice of weaponry, frequently obscure half of your screen when turned on. When you're close to death stupid filters turn up for fun and games, making things even more difficult, and in later levels you find yourself constantly wrestling with all of this noise just to keep yourself alive.

Though to be honest, seeing anything in The Darkness is a chore at the best of times regardless of what you do (what a surprise). Even with gamma correction turned up to the max, the game is so murky that on occasion, the engine runs out of colours to define objects in the world. Predictably the game takes place entirely at night, with green or brown tints on the textures to build a failed sense of atmosphere. What's more odd is that this game is supposedly based on a comic, and those usually come paired with colour-based art direction to captivate readers. Different rules for games I guess?

The level design of The Darkness comprises of some of the most obtuse and unintuitive layouts I have seen in modern times. Getting lost is a frequent occurrence during the opening stages of the game - characters in cutscenes will fail to relay vital information to you, so you have to make friends with menus and vague maps in order to get a bearing on the dull environments.

You'd think life would be fairly straightforward in a modern shooter, but not quite. You can access big chunks of the game at any point - they're modelled, they're filled with enemies and occasionally you'll even see a scripted event, but will offer nothing to you if you're at the wrong place in the story (and have no side quests activated). I wandered around some mostly empty docks for ten minutes before realising I wasn't meant to be there yet - a good FPS would have boxed this area off but The Darkness isn't a good FPS.

The "otherworld" sections, one of the few original concepts in the game, feature graphics which often degrade to Nintendo 64 standards, with excessive fogging turning the game into a poor man's Turok. But hey, at least you get to shoot Nazis in this segment on behalf of the British, because heaven forbid we have a shooter without a war taking place somewhere.

The very structure of this game is broken. Navigating hub worlds at painfully slow speeds (and backtracking - there's a lot of that), flipping between maps, second guessing scenery due to stupid level design and lack of testing - it's not pleasant. Death is common because Jackie can't take more than a couple of bullets to the face (or to the leg it seems - the hit detection is very much stacked against you), and the tedious loading times mean that on every occasion I've booted up the disc, I've left feeling frustrated and in some cases, in physical pain.

Really I just don't understand who The Darkness is aiming for - it's an 18-rated game that seems to only appeal to angsty teenagers or obsessed comic book fans. It's meant to be "artistic" (because apparently clips from the 1962 film adaption of To Kill a Mockingbird is a qualification for this), but since the characters are forgettable and the world is so dark and dingy, these ideas fall through.

And from an actual artistic standpoint, The Darkness is undoubtedly mediocre and dated. Many of the characters appear unnatural due to poor animations, and combined with the often ugly environments means you don't get much joy from looking at this one. The music also fairly forgettable, and although the voice acting won't lead to hair loss, the surplus amount of swearing makes the game feel pointlessly juvenile.

Much of the game is perfectly fine - the game engine and related areas function as you would expect, and this isn't a game riddled with glitches or game-breaking bugs (though the AI is certainly frustrating). Much of it is on par with standards you would have expected for 2007 - it's just the game design that let's this one down by leaps and bounds. It's also worth noting that its sequel (released earlier this year) does a great deal to solve the problems I've mentioned, so if you've played both, the flaws of this game are even more apparent.

The Darkness dips in and out of being acceptable and down-right horrible. Some missions are a joke, others are easy to handle and Jackie did make me laugh once or twice, but it really all bottles down to one feature - it's an extremely dark and repetitive game, obsessed with flickering bright lights and rumble features. This isn't something I'd want to sit through before dinner.

The Darkness isn't the horror game its art may suggest, nor is it "shocking" or "thought provoking" like the media may claim. It's just a mediocre little shooter that pretends it's artistic and meaningful. It completely baffles the mind that the game was given awards for all the features I hate - I must have been playing the wrong game, because I can't recommend any other practise than to avoid it.


  1. Great review as always, I always think why some games are so "popular" and when I play them they are all like 'meh' xD. A question, how many consoles do you have?

    1. In the real world, Mega Drive 2 (with Mega CD), Saturn (white Japanese model), Dreamcast, N64, PlayStation 2, GameCube, Wii and Xbox 360 (with Game Boy, GBA (x2), Game Gear and Neo Geo Pocket Color as handhelds). But of course backwards compatibility lets me access much more, like the Master System and PlayStation 1.

      And I have an Acorn Electron. And a sole ZX Spectrum game despite no ZX Spectrum to run it on.

      I resort to emulation for a lot of the older systems, which isn't totally honest but tends to be more practical. But I find the reverse is true for CD/DVD-ROM based games.

    2. Nice, did you buy them in eBay or something?, I always wanted old consoles like the Neo Geo or SNES, I still have my old Mega Drive 2 but it's a bit tricky to use because the games don't work sometimes :c xD

      A PC is always nice to run older systems, but I feel it would be more "charming" to have the console in front of your TV and play there, I guess if someone doesn't have the chance to buy one in eBay or something (like me xD), maybe it's better to play it in the PC :3

    3. The Mega Drive, Saturn and N64 were from eBay. I got my original PAL Saturn when it was brand new because my seven year old self didn't know much about video game sales back in the day, but it broke and I never bothered to fix it. It just sits in a box waiting for me... along with a broken Dreamcast.

      I'm not fond of Nintendo PAL conversions which is the main reason I avoided investing in physical Nintendo consoles like the NES or SNES. If I lived in the US, owning a copy of Super Mario Bros. on the NES would be cool and nostalgic, but in the UK it ends up being the worst version out there because it isn't optimised for the lower frame rate. Even today you see this with the Wii's Virtual Console - the alternative is to buy NTSC systems and that means awkward voltage step-down converters and maybe NTSC->PAL converters for the TV. And lots of importing and shipping costs.

      I'm much more interested in the UK's old computing scene, now that I know it existed. It's just a shame that so many Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum games were sold on compact cassettes - they barely worked then, never mind thirty years later =P

  2. Ooh this is interesting. Hurts my swedish heart to see this game unappreciated here.
    - But I really appreciate that you're not one of those blind reviewers that autoblindly love everything NEW shooter with a twist!

    + I would say that the story told is actually as good or better than Half Life 2 and Episode 1.

    - The hit detection is horrible. It's because this is, in practice, NOT an FPS ;P It's rather a sneaking style game, you're not really supposed to shoot enemies, you're supposed to sneak up and crawl behind to their legs with the darkness snakes for easy kills.
    - But yes the hard hit detection is a poor fix to encourage darkness powers. Probably a late addition during the development.

    - Yeah, the level design is not user friendly, too large areas to get lost in.
    + If you have a looot of time though, it's interesting with this FPS where you can move more freely than in Shenmue.

    Well I like this game, even if I don't love playing it.