Monday, April 27, 2009

The Darkness (video game)

Platform: X-Box 360
Also On: PS3
Developers: Starbreeze Studios
Genre: Action, First Person Shooter
ESRB Rating: M
Release Date: June 25th, 2007

Adaptions of other media into video games isn't always a pleasant affair. See most movie based games for proof. But comic books have generally fared better in the way of adaptions. The track record of these games are often more hit-or-miss than anything else; but when they're good, they're damn good.

And on the sixth day the lord created The Darkness video game; and it was good. Well, not really. But it is a good game; that part is no exaggeration.

For the uninitiated, The Darkness is a comic book series handled by the publisher Top Cow. Created in part by the inimitable Garth Ennis, the books have a history of excellent talent settling down for good runs with the book through it's several volumes and has earned itself a deserved fanbase. Eventually, it's success bore fruit in the form of a video game adaption. Not bad for a series not published by Marvel or DC.

You find yourself in the shoes of Jackie Estacado, a hitman for the Franchetti family mob in New York City. It's Jackies twenty-first birthday, a date that doesn't go as well as it should. After a botched collection attempt on a nightclub which saw him knocked unconcious, he wakes in the car with two of his crew just in time for the police - whom are in the pocket of the head of the Mob, his uncle Paulie - to bear down on them with a vengeance while they're on their way to a hit, leading to a shootout through the tunnels. It's an ambush set by his uncle Paulie, who has betrayed him and put a price on his head.

To make matters worse, Jackie finds himself plagued by a dark, evil voice and strange powers of darkness that have arisen as he's begun his escape. It booms frightening words in his head, calling him nothing more than it's puppet and proclaiming that soon, darkness will fall. It's soon clear that Jackie will need to take solace in his girlfriend Jenny, his Aunt Sarah and the older members of the mob, whom are dissatisfied with Paulie, to find out what happened and why he was betrayed.

All that is really the setup for the games story and you learn what you need to know fairly quick. After the initial few scraps and aquiring the first darkness power within the first hour of the game, you're quickly introduced to key players in his life from Jackies girlfriend Jenny to older mobsters like Jimmy the Grape, setting the stage for the events to come. By the time you're halfway through the first chapter, you'll know the basic pieces; but by no means do you truly know what will happen.

The story is a fantastic adaption and a true highlight of the game. The events portrayed throughout it are generally culled from the first volume of the series and the first five or six issues of the second volume; the wheat seperated from the chaff and spliced together into an engaging story in it's own right. Despite being a known killer, somewhere inside Jackie you can sense a decent human being that might have turned out better had his uncle Paulie not adopted him into a life with the mob. His girlfriend is equally sweet and realistic, something that honestly led me to think that there simply weren't enough scenes with her.

The story is also emotionally charged. By the end of the first chapter, the stakes have been raised to a level where there simply is no going back. A couple emotional twists slam you hard, despite the limited amount of time knowing these characters, and it leaves you wanting to finish simply to get sweet revenge. I haven't quite experienced scenes this effective since Final Fantasy VII; made all the more powerful by the sick taunting of the Darkness throughout any and all terrible events that fall before you.

One thing to keep in mind is that the game isn't a direct adaption of the comics. In some ways, you might say it's a Hollywood-esque adaption. The difference is that here it works; something that's not always the case with your film adaptions. The comics themselves tend to be a bit more outlandish. On the other hand, the game takes the events of the comics and grounds them with a more realistic base; gritty and grimy with a noir style. Jackie doesn't use the armor he frequently wears in the comics, instead sticking to his usual look befitting of a moster. All of the surroundings feel quite realistic as well, or at least as realistic as you can get in a game with talking evil demons that eat peoples hearts.

If I'm giving praise to the story, I have to give props to the voices that carry it. Frankly, all of the voice acting is simply top notch, with Kirk Acevedo of Oz aptly playing as our anti-hero, Jackie Estacado, and bringing a lot to the role. Then there's the man who voices The Darkness, Mike Patton. Perhaps best known as the lead vocalist of Faith No More and possibly a death metal band he's fronted, he voices The Darkness as best as I can imagine anyone capturing it. The eerie voice changes pitch and depth seemingly at will, bleeting hoarse threats and macabre taunts to Jackie. He simply makes it sound as creepy, disgusting and evil as anyone could ever imagine it sounded; no doubt making his inclusion a stroke of genius in my eyes.

The soundtrack is just as great. The licensed songs aren't bad, with a good deal of rock and metal; there's even one by a band Mike Patton fronts called Tomahawk. It's the musical score itself made for the game that truly sings. Some of the games most emotional scenes are accompanied with simply beautiful music remeniscent of the quality in Final Fantasy games that simply puts already striking scenes over the top. When the guns are drawn and the bullets are flying, pounding rock fills the speakers, driving you forward through your opponents. The game has the right music for the right moments, something that is not always recognized as such but is simply just as important as other aspects of games.

Of course, even with excellence on those aspects, the gameplay still needs to hold up for it to be a true experience, otherwise the game falls apart right there. Thankfully, while it isn't perfect, The Darkness still delivers on this front. The thing is that there's definitely a learning curve.

The Darkness might throw some at first strictly because of it's somewhat odd layout of controls. Certain actions aren't bound to the buttons you'd expect them to be. Such unfortunately takes some getting used to if you're familiar with other first person shooters. Things like jump and reload being bound to buttons different from the usual setup of games of this type is a bit jarring. Also, controlling a few of the Darkness powers takes a it of getting used to as well; there's no strafing while using your Creeping Dark, for instance, so if you want to get around something, you have to do a lot of turning and backing up, which ends up draining unnecesary darkness energy until you get the hang of it.

Other than that, it tends to work relatively well once you get into the swing of things. An interesting choice in the controls for this game actually comes from the dual weilding of the smaller weapons. With things like pistols and submachine guns, each trigger fires the gun in the corresponding hand; an interesting dynamic for shootouts once you remember to use both weapons instead of just one. It leaves you open to fire one gun while reloading the other, helping keep you from ever being without bullets flying in the thick of a gunfight; something that would come in handy in some other games. When it's a two handed weapon, a more familiar scheme comes into play with the right trigger firing the weapon and the left performing a melee attack with it. All this was far more intuitive then I expected it to be at first; it was initially frustrating because I kept forgetting that one button didn't fire both hands like in many games. Eventually it became second nature and is a mechanic I wouldn't mind seeing used in other games.

The Darkness powers are generally the bread and butter of the games controls. Without them, it's your standard FPS games. With them, there's fun to be had. Powers include things like the Creeping Dark, Demon Arm, Darkness Guns and Black Hole. Each has it's respective uses to the point where you'll find yourself switching through them at different times, whether it be to stab an enemy with the Demon Arm or to suck a good deal of them into a deadly black hole at the cost of all your available darkness energy. You can also summon Darklings from portals; little imp like creatures who will attack enemies all about and support you in battle. They come in four different flavors, each with their own unique moves and abilities.

You can bring up and put away The Darkness with the touch of a button, but strategic use of it is the name of the game. Having it up allows you to use it's powers, but it also brings up a shield that takes damage to the darkness energy instead of yourself, meaning it's not always wise to just blow through your energy in a firefight. This is especially true if there are a lot of light sources in the area; light slowly dissolves darkness energy away which can only be replenished by having The Darkness out while in the shadows. Shooting light fixtures is a quick way to darken any area, but you still need to keep your cool. Enemies will still manage to waste you if you're not careful; a satisfying balance to me as you don't want to feel too superhuman. Otherwise the game wouldn't be much fun.

There's generally quite a bit to do in The Darkness. In truth the game is somewhat linear, but it doesn't feel like it. The areas feel more expansive than they really are, especially when you're in the open areas outside buildings and the subways, and there's often a good amount of things to do on the side. A hundred collectible phone numbers and letters can be found throughout the game which, upon dialed at a phone or mailed respectively, unlocks extra content in the main menu. This content ranges from concept art to videos to a couple full issues of the comic, if you have a decent enough sized TV to be able to read them. You can also help out citizens in need, which will often aquire you a new collectible upon completion. Aside from the obvious benefits, listening to the dialed numbers messages ends up being downright hilarious at times while in other instances hinting at things that might crop up in a sequel. As you'd expect, it pays to explore.

Still, the game isn't without it's faults. As mentioned, it is fairly linear in a style we haven't seen for about two console generations. If you're the type who enjoys doing everything and checking everywhere, there's a good twenty hour game here. If you're the type who blazes through the story and doesn't care about the side bits of story, that playtime is cut by a bit more than half.

The overall cinematic feel of the game is also it's greatest weakness along with it's greatest strength. There's a decent amount of stuff to do, but the story is the main focus. While this makes it extremely strong, it also means once you have exhausted the story and the other things to do, you'll probably find yourself popping it back in mostly to relive the story. It's not a Grand Theft Auto style game where you'll probably play every day considering most of the real meat is in the stuff aside from the story. In actuality that's a very good thing for the most part, but in an age of Grand Theft Auto style sandbox games, some gamers simply don't go for that anymore no matter how great the product.

On the last note is the X-Box Live multiplayer. For the most part it's a pretty standard affair. First person shooter multiplayer for the most part. No darkness powers. The only real wrinkle is that you can choose if players are allowed to shapeshift into a darkling during play, which is fun but not enough to really make the multiplayer a big deal. It's not terribly hard to find matches online, but it's also not always a cakewalk. Compared to far more robust online games, The Darkness's multiplayer is more like icing on an already sweet cake; glad to have the extra sweetness but it wasn't really needed.

My Opinion: Play It

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