There's no getting passed it -- as much as I enjoyed The Darkness back in 2007, it was a heavily flawed game. For every thing it did right, it had an equally as debilitating flaw. The combat was fun, even if the gunplay was a little unpolished; the level design was varied and often stunning, but the streets of New York city lacked little details like actual people to inhabit it; the game even had multiplayer, it was just unfortunate that it was uninspired and very obviously tacked on. The story, however, and more specifically, the tragic relationship between Jackie Estacado and his girlfriend Jenny Ramone, was the backbone of the game. This time around, even with Jenny long dead, that heart still remains, and it's as strong as ever.
It's like developer Digital Extremes took a look at every little thing about The Darkness, the good and the bad, and made it all better. While the original game strove for realism, its sequel goes for the more stylistic approach -- a style called Graphic Noir -- and ends up looking like a living, breathing comic. It's consistently beautiful, and very easy to get lost in every hand drawn detail. This new art style is also probably the only reason the game wasn't quite as controversial as it would've been had it gone for realism again.
The comic book inspired aesthetic makes the scenes of excessive violence and profanity, sprinkled with some naughty bits that take place in a brothel a little easier to swallow. There's a disconnect there that makes pulling the spine out of a screaming guy's anus Mortal Kombat style less disturbing because it's almost as if you're seeing it play out in a cartoon. A really gory, visceral cartoon.
Sadly, the executions that are triggered when you get up close to enemies and fire your guns have been removed, but they've been replaced by far more satisfying executions. You can unlock four different styles of executions that each award you different bonuses. They can be extraordinarily useful in combat because they offer bonuses like extra ammunition, health, a darkness shield, or a shortened Darkness power cooldown time when used. At the risk of sounding like a sociopath, there's nothing quite as satisfying as grabbing a guy by his leg, dangling him upside down, grabbing his other leg, and tearing him in half like a human wishbone.
When you aren't tearing your foes limb from limb, you'll either be pumping them full of lead with your dual guns, impaling them with pipes and pool sticks, smacking them into walls with your Darkness arms, decapitating them with thrown car doors, or killing them in a myriad other ways. The Darkness II makes you feel like a vicious killer, and it lets you cut down your enemies in a variety of ways. You even get rewarded for more creative kills. It's just unfortunate they didn't take a page out of Bulletstorm's book and give us more ways to kill and better rewards for murdering in more creative ways.
Some other tweaks, mostly to the combat, make the game infinitely more fun to play. You have more abilities to choose from, and while some of them have been brought over from the previous game, they've returned with some differences. The Black Holes, for example, aren't something you can summon -- now you can find them on corpses in the place of the hearts you can devour, and you throw them into a group of enemies. Gun Channeling has also seen some changes that let you upgrade it to automatically target enemies (while dual-wielding), and even shoot through walls.
One of the more interesting changes to The Darkness II is your Darkling, which has been scaled down from four Darklings you can summon at will to a single Darkling that's always with you. This gives us the chance to actually care about the little guy, even when he makes it difficult by peeing on corpses. I was a little disappointed to find him dying over and over again when I needed him the most, but his constant referral to me as "Monkey," and the option to throw him at enemies made up for that a bit.
At first I was excited about the possibilities of the 4-player Vendettas mode in The Darkness II, but after playing through it my excitement is tempered somewhat. On paper, it sounds great. You have a cooperative mode that lets you and three friends take control of four Darkness-powered mercenaries. Each mercenary has a unique Darkness weapon, back-story, and strengths. However, what they fail to mention are the somewhat tedious missions that more often than not have you fighting wave after wave of enemies. There's also the little issue that while three of the four playable mercs have powerful melee weapons, only one of them is actually fun to play.
Inugami has a katana, which he can use to slice and dice his way through waves of goons not unlike the way Jackie does with his Darkness arm. Then you have J.P Dummond, who wields a staff that can lift enemies from their cover. There's nothing wrong with that, only that's the only thing he can do. Trying to beat enemies down with the staff only ends with you poking them with your weapon until they eventually fall down. The last melee centric character, the axe-wielding Scotsman Jimmy Wilson, has the potential to be fun to control, only instead of letting you split skulls with his powerful axe all you can do is jab at enemies until they die. Vendettas could've added a great amount of replayability to a game with a pretty short running time (the single-player story takes roughly six hours to complete), but instead it ends up feeling slightly less tacked on than the multiplayer mode in the first game.
Even though I think Vendettas should've been scrapped and its resources used to add some more meat to the main story, I'm willing to forgive it if having 4-player online co-op on the back of the box sells more copies of the game so we can get The Darkness III. I'd also much rather have six hours of unrelenting, gruesome, and action-packed content than the mostly padded campaign the first Darkness had. Much of the RPG elements have been replaced by a tighter, more linear experience, and the New Game+ makes playing through it again even more fun. If you’re looking for a gory, gruesome action game with a lot of heart, both literally and figuratively, then The Darkness II is a very worthy addition to your library.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of The Darkness II provided by 2K Games.