I stepped into the Darkness II without having hardly any prior knowledge of the game, nor having played the first Darkness. As I tried to battle off the feeling that it was going to be one of those over-the-top “I’m freaking underground awesome” games, I loaded the game up with a healthy amount of skepticism in my veins. Over the next mere twenty or so minutes at the start of the single-player campaign, Darkness II strove to change my mind about it, and greatly succeeded.
At the heart of it, the single-player campaign tells a tragic story of one man’s life torn apart by the death of his girlfriend and his fight against the darkness inside of him (quite literally!). The game blends cutscenes inbetween the action to accomplish this, and some of them are completely heart-rending with main man Jackie is haunted by the ghost of his dead girlfriend Jenny. While I love the cinematic feel of the game, the graphics and animations are pretty standard. The game adapts a cell-shaded style that attempts to look similar to the graphic novel’s art, which some players might actually quite like (I’m just not usually a fan of such styles). Some of the animations are a little less than realistic, but they get the job done, and I’m not usually one to quibble over such things.
Demon arms incoming!
The gameplay is an action FPS blending in a healthy dose of RPG elements. Not only can Jackie dual wield guns, but he can also use his darkness snake-headed tentacles as extra arms to grab things (or people!) and eat people’s hearts. Yes, really - and it’s awesome. This mechanic is called the “quad wield” system. Defeating enemies nets Jackie essence which he can spend at upgrade shops to cherry-pick skills from multiple skill trees. These skills can be either active or passive, doing things like improving Jackie’s gun skills or ammo capacity, or opening up new darkness abilities, like black holes or stunning swarms of some kind of darkness insect.
The action is pretty fast paced since the way Jackie gets his health back is eating hearts from the corpses of his enemies. This system has its upsides and downsides, which also carries over to the co-op. The upside is that there’s often a decent supply of hearts lying around during and after a big fire fight, so you can move along without too much fear of death. The downside, however, is that after a fight it can sometimes feel like a bit of a boring scavenger hunt as you try to hunt down the corpses that have hearts so you can get your health back. Still, the annoyance is relatively minor.
This is a black hole, one of the many darkness skills you'll have access to in the game
“What about the co-op,” you ask? Loosely, there are two co-op modes (both known as “vendettas”): the co-op campaign and the hit list. The co-op campaign supports up to 4 players online in a reasonably-sized 8 mission campaign. You can only have one co-op campaign save going at a time and there’s no skipping around between the missions within your saved game. So, for example, if you have a save towards the end of the campaign and you want to start a new one with a different friend, if you were to create a new game, all progress in that save game would be wiped. A better option would be to have that friend host the game. This is a bit of an annoyance simply because it’s bewildering why they wouldn’t simply allow multiple save slots for the co-op campaign. The inability to jump around between missions isn’t such a big deal, since the Hit List mode allows you to do this.
After you’ve unlocked the missions in the co-op campaign, they will appear in the Hit List scenario options. So if for some reason you really like mission 8, you can just keep playing it over and over until the cows come home. Besides from all the missions being represented in Hit List, there are other modes which take the same maps from the co-op campaign and add different objectives (e.g. kill all enemies).
This is Vendettas. Notice the lack of aforementioned demon arms.
While an attempt is made at story for the co-op campaign, it’s not very successful. While the single-player story has decent depth and character development, the vendettas co-op story is both vague and shallow. Four people (are they mercenaries? Fellow gang members? I’m not even sure) have been tasked with helping out Jackie’s gang tackle a new darkness-related threat that’s apparently below his notice. They are all infused with darkness powers (no, I’m not sure why), and they’re sent running around the city collecting darkness relics and killing darkness bad guys. Whew, okay enough trying to puzzle out the rationality for the co-op story. Let’s move onto the different characters.
Players can choose between four reasonably different characters: Inugami, Shoshanna, Jimmy Wilson, and JP Dumond (Note: just as fair warning, these characters are ridiculously stereotypical, borderline offensively so). These characters each have a unique weapon in their left hand as well as a unique darkness power pulled from one of Jackie’s skill trees in the single-player (e.g. Inugami has Jackie’s swarm ability). These characters are leveled up just like Jackie via essence in a shop. They each only have access to three different skill trees, one focusing on their special darkness power, another focusing on general gun abilities, and a third focusing on group utility and upgrades to their special left-hand weapons.
The cast of Vendettas. From left to right: JP Dumond, Jimmy Wilson, Shoshanna, Inugami
On paper, the gameplay sounds pretty good. But in actual play, the co-op campaign starts to feel pretty lacking pretty quickly. It’s great to be able to play the game with friends, but sad reality is that the co-op takes away two of the strongest draws of the game: the quad-wield system and the story. While the co-op characters do have some darkness powers, most of what makes the combat fresh in Darkness II is the ability to do things like gunning people down with two weapons in your hands whilst grabbing someone with a demon arm and throwing them at their buddy. Going back to a normal dual-wield system while playing the game just feels bland. Take away the story as well, and you’re left with something that feels pretty gosh darn repetitive. Run down some allies, kill some guys, blow out some generators do the light doesn’t slowly kill you (not to mention blind you), (Optional boss stage here), end of level. It’s not a terrible experience, but it’s just not something that I’d want to play over and over for weeks. On the bright side, there is none of that one player dying and being forced to watch their friends complete the mission without them nonsense (people get incapacitated and their friends get a generous 50 seconds to run over and revive them before they bleed out), and there’s a good amount of ammo to share around.
All in all, the vendettas co-op mode is a completely average experience, but it sometimes feels worse than that if you’re comparing it to the single-player campaign. It may provide some entertainment a couple times through with friends, but it’s hard to recommend picking up the game for the co-op. It will certainly add a little bang for your buck if you’re already planning on getting the game for the single-player, but if for some reason you’re eying it just for the sake of the co-op, I’d strongly recommend a rental or waiting for a severe price drop.
Editor's Note: The Co-Optimus Co-Op Review of the Darkness II was based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.