On sort of a whim, I rented The Darkness on Friday night and burned through it by Sunday morning. I really hadn't been following the game before its release, even though I played through and loved Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. The preview materials I'd seen didn't grab me; the premise and mechanics weren't too appealing from the little I read, and the lame license definitely didn't help. But luckily, between my fond memories of Riddick and the positive reviews the game's been getting, I convinced myself to go pick it up. Luckily that is, because it's awesome.

As far as I'm concerned, the game's defining characteristic is that it doesn't treat the player like an idiot-- it gives you a world and trusts you to find your way around; it gives you objectives, and trusts you to figure out how to complete them. Structurally, the gameworld is laid out as an array of individual interconnected spaces that all feed back into a central hub area, the New York subway system. The wonderful thing is that the game doesn't hold your hand-- there's no minimap, no magical compass pointing to an objective marker, no voice in your ear from home base steering you where to go (besides The Darkness itself that is, which only serves to taunt you along the way.) If I have an objective at the corner of Mulberry & Orchid on the Lower East Side, I actually have to use signs, maps, and landmarks in the gameworld itself to navigate to my destination. In the subway, I look for the signs that point to the train I need to take; I get on the train, then look for a sign that leads me to the Lower East Side station exit; then I look at a street map posted near the station to find where the intersection of Mulberry & Orchid is compared to my current location; finally, I read the streetsigns on the corner to tell when I've gotten where I need to go. Navigation in The Darkness works just like in real life, which is incredibly refreshing compared to the usual contrivances and conveniences found in games. It brings the player down to earth, and removes a layer of abstraction that otherwise tends to distance the player from the experience. I remain engaged even when simply navigating from point to point, instead of passively following a waypoint while my mind wanders.

Experientially, the game has a great deal of texture to it, which is to be lauded. It's multifaceted; its intensity level actually ebbs and rises between high- and low-impact objectives. For every moment of extreme, over-the-top demon-assisted gun violence there's a counterbalancing moment of simple exploration, a conversation with an NPC, or a low-key, non-combat objective. I love that the game's stated objectives range from "kill the Chicago family's West Coast guy on the Lower East Side" to "blow out your birthday candles;" from "wipe out the gang that hangs around the Whitefish Pool Hall" to "go visit your Aunt Sarah." The game lets you breathe; it lets you have a wide spectrum of experiences within a cohesive gameworld. Maybe the most awe-inspiring gaming moment I've had this year was simply pressing A to sit on the couch with Jackie's girlfriend Jenny, and watching from first-person as the two of them quietly sat together in front of the tv, wrestled over the remote, kissed, and finally seeing Jenny curl up with her head on Jackie's shoulder as she went to sleep. It was touching, familiar, and moving in how unique it was in the context of a game. It was a human experience, made the more powerful for its contrast with both the hyperviolence of the other half of the Darkness's play mechanics, and with the typical imagery seen throughout the spectrum of high-budget action games in general. Moments like this are incredibly important when it comes to motivating the player through the later stages of the narrative. The player builds a simple memory of this encounter and others with Jenny, a genuine connection to the character, which gives terrible gravity to the climax of the first act, and propels the player with true animosity along the central line of the game's revenge plot. The Darkness managed to make me care.

There were plenty of other things I enjoyed about the game: the outstanding dialogue, voice acting and characterization of the cast of players, the ruthless execution kills and general chaos of the combat, the game's unique vision of Hell, the top-notch presentation throughout in both the interface elements and the gameworld itself, and more. In all, The Darkness made me happy to be playing a game by guys who clearly "get it;" in all respects, it's a very forward-thinking design, and manages to make an affecting experience out of that lame license that I mentioned earlier. This is a game by guys who set out to make a game they wanted to play, out of a license they wanted to adapt, and pulled it off.
The above ethic can describe a number of their label-mates who are also published by Take2/2K Games: All of Rockstar's studios (responsible for Bully, the Warriors, and GTA,) Remedy (responsible for Max Payne and the upcoming Alan Wake,) and Irrational (whose Bioshock is being published by Take2 this year.) They're all projects with a soul, projects that are borne out of their studio's desire to realize a vision they have for the unique experiences they want to convey. Take2 gives these ventures wings, backs their developers' visions instead of treating them as mills to execute their movie-of-the-week tie-in contracts. I respect that kind of game--the kind with a soul-- and Take2 for believing in them and making them possible. Based on their lineup, I'd say that Take2 is the best, most progressive big-name publisher in the business today. It's a shame that, from what I've read, Take2 is going through tough times. I hope that, if they go under, someone else will be around to support the dark horses of the AAA game development community.


Anonymous said...

Story's good, then. Like MGS-good?

Steve gaynor said...

The story elements in The Darkness are completely different in scale and style compared to MGS. They both have absurd plots and both shine when it comes to presenting likable, whole characters. The Darkness is definitely more street-level and its people more everyday, in a good way.

Karim said...

MGS didn't have absurd plots :) It was symbolsim stripped down.