It's the middle of the night in New York and I'm creeping through the seedy, dank and stormy night. There are mafia hitmen on my tail and I'm taking my time to move around them and make it back to the relative safety of the subway – the worst that happens down there is that an old lady throws coins into the path of an oncoming train and insists that I grab them for her in exchange for her phone number.
My back itches in an inhuman way, mainly because there's something wriggling around under my long leather jacket. Not in a good way either.
I'm a mafia assassin on the run from the law and my own kind. I've got an orphanage of children to save, a comic-book city to navigate and a pocketful of pistols. For some reason I've also got several massive black tentacles that are crawling around on my spine and which keep talking to me.
Randomly, I can summon monsters out of the shadows and I can take my body apart and control the tentacles remotely. It's strange and unexplained, but it's also beautiful, story-led violence in a purely distilled form.
It's The Darkness and it's fantastic in a darkly fascinating way.
We could tell that The Darkness was going to be something special from the moment it started. Obviously taking inspiration from Half-Life, players stay fixed in the viewpoint of the main character, mafia assassin Jackie Escatado, as he wakes up in the back of a convertible. Apparently Uncle Paulie sent Jackie along with some thugs to collect some money, but it didn't go so well and Jackie got laid out for a spell. Now he's stuck in the back seat for the Xbox 360 equivalent of Gordon Freeman's train ride.
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Driving through the tunnel, the thugs lament their failed mission and impending fates. Jackie, view restricted to straight ahead and silent for the time being, can only watch as things slowly edge from bad to finito, capice? A chase breaks out between the cops and the mob as they try to find a way to whack the foreman of a nearby construction company. Players, as Jackie, move into the front seat in what is definitely one of the most exhilarating and fun introductions to a first-person shooter that we've ever seen.
Soon enough, Jackie has to make his way through the construction site on his way to finish 'the job', twin pistols in hand. We can only call them generic pistols as the weapon system for the game divides weapons only be type, not model, so that, from Jackie's point of view a Glock 19 is the same as a snub nosed revolver. There's no reloading because of this, Jackie simply discards his pistols and pulls out a new, different pair. Given that the pistols are by far the most versatile and fun weapons in the game, mainly because they can be fired independently, it helps make the guns feel fresher long after the shotguns and machine guns get old and tired.
Guns aren't the only tool which Jackie has at his disposal though and, as players soon find out, there's a whole wealth of tricks that Jackie has up his sleeve to deal with the growing number of obstacles in his path - mostly in the form of his shadowy tentacles.
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The tentacles are never really explained for the first part of the story – worse than that, they are never even questioned by the otherwise vocal main character and the whole first chunk of the game passes by without Jackie ever wondering aloud just why he suddenly has the ability to summon hellspawn or why he has tentacles made of shadows which spring forth from his spine. Having played the game, we could spill the beans for you, but a lot of the fun comes from slowly uncovering this information and the first part of the game cleverly omits it on purpose to help build anticipation and to focus a bit more on the characters.
You see, Jackie manifests these abilities at the same time that his Uncle Paulie, a mobster keen on moving into the drugs market, decides to do away with his young nephew. Jackie is then forced to fight for his life as he tries to take down his uncle and the corrupt cops under his command, driven onwards by The Darkness' insatiable hunger for sinful souls. At the same time he has to deal with his girlfriend, Jenny, and try and keep friendships open with the older mobsters and the 'cleaner', Butcher.
The story is structured so that even if you were entirely unaware of the game's comic book roots (surely not?! - Ed.) then you'd still be able to feel the influence of comic book culture on the game's design, which seeps into every aspect of design and writing throughout the game. This makes it play as a bizarre blend of The Sopranos and The Crow for the way it mixes stereotypical mafia dealings with supernatural horror.
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We were initially sceptical of the mix and the influence of The Crow and its commonly misunderstood themes on the game, but we were pleasantly surprised to find that the mix comes across well and that the game feels entirely natural to play and experience. Jackie's mostly unexplained powers don't make him invincible however, far from it. The powers of The Darkness, which include monster summoning and melee attacks as well as some stunning area attacks and physics manipulations, are only really of any use when Jackie is standing in areas of shadow. Step into the light and he's suddenly a lot more vulnerable.
It's never hard to find an area of shade though as the game takes place almost solely on a stormy night in New York and Jackie spends a lot of time creeping around derelict buildings and underground tunnels. Even in the light, Jackie's propensity for violence is never halted thanks to his armoury of firearms and players can blend the two methods of attack together seamlessly with a little practice.