Most successful videogames focus on controls that let players kill, shoot or score in new and exciting ways. Plot and characters are typically an after-thought or non-existent. 2K Games’ new shooter “The Darkness” takes the opposite approach. Its moody, character-driven narrative pushes the boundaries of videogame storytelling. The actual gameplay, however, isn’t nearly as original, making for an uneven experience that aims high but doesn’t quite meet its potential.
Based on a comicbook, “Darkness” is about a mafia hitman who, on his 21st birthday, inherits a family curse — he’s possessed by an evil spirit that grants super-powers. As Jackie Estacado’s journey takes him through betrayal, heartbreak, and to the afterlife and back (twice!), gamers will want to keep playing not just for the joy of winning, but because they care whether Jackie can avenge his dead girlfriend and rid himself of the Darkness.
Game arrives with very high expectations from fans. Developer Starbreeze Studios’ last title, an adaptation of “The Chronicles of Riddick,” is widely considered to be the best movie-based game. In many ways, Starbreeze doesn’t disappoint with “The Darkness.” Graphics are solid, particularly the use of lighting to set mood and help players create shadows, which are necessary to summon the Darkness’ supernatural abilities. The game’s version of hell — World War I trenches in which nobody ever dies — is one of the most disturbing visions of the afterlife ever committed to any screen.
Even the level loading screens, in which Jackie talks directly to the camera about what’s going on in the story, are creative.
Vocal and motion capture performances are excellent. “Six Feet Under’s” Lauren Ambrose conveys genuine caring and fear as Jackie’s girlfriend, while musician Mike Patton is beyond eerie as the Darkness. Kirk Acevedo effectively mixes pain and grit as Jackie, though he sounds closer in age to 40 than 21.
The problem comes when gamers start playing. “The Darkness” is, ultimately, a simple first-person shooter in which Jackie has to eliminate a seemingly endless army of goons. Despite the excellent supernatural elements, players spend too much time running around shooting their guns at anything that moves.
Online multiplayer format is similarly uninspired, featuring standard games akin to “capture the flag” and “last man standing.”
Jackie’s supernatural abilities are a mixed bag. The more gruesome ones, such as sucking enemies into a black hole or eating their hearts to gain power (paging Joe Lieberman!) are inventive and perfectly match the game’s story. But the ability to summon “darklings” — playful imps who scurry around and help dispose of ene-mies — is a big miss. Not only are they often more of an annoyance than help, but they’re out of place in a game whose tone is set by suicide and torture.
From the story to the characters to the setting, “The Darkness” is impressive to behold. If it were only that impressive to play, it could have been an all-time great.