The Darkness II Gameplay Part 1: Generalities

The Darkness II's gameplay is very standard in some ways and very weird in other ways. And not interesting weird.

At its core, The Darkness II is basically a cover shooter. Unlike other modern cover shooters I've seen and played, though, your character doesn't 'snap' to cover elements, and in fact the game never even educates you on the existence of a crouch button even though most cover is designed to only be useful if you crouch, and the game goes out of its way to educate you on all kinds of other stuff. Standard cover shooter mechanics like being able to lean out from a cover element are not available to the player, even though enemies do exactly this. So basically The Darkness II is a cover shooter but minus core mechanics that make a cover shooter function as a cover shooter.

This is the kind of weird I'm talking about.

Like a lot of shooters trying to give themselves something distinctive and interesting, The Darkness II gives the player character special powers, and then uses those special powers first and foremost to justify playing against the shooter assumptions by having the player be a melee combat monster. That's a fairly stock idea, except then The Darkness II has the extremely inexplicable decision to make by far the most threatening enemies in the game enemy melee! In playing the game, the vast majority of my deaths have occurred in one of three ways:

1: I'm fighting a boss. For the moment I'm just going to say The Darkness II's bosses are badly designed, and come back to this point in more detail next post.

2: An enemy with a spotlight aims it at me, making me unable to see or hear much of anything and disabling all my powers. I'll be coming back to this point, too.

3: A melee enemy manages to sneak up on me and three-shots me by beating me to death with a baseball bat.

Note that bullets do nowhere near the damage of some jerk with a baseball bat or 2-by-4. If four guys are pumping me full of lead while I stupidly stand in the open under a light source, flailing around and trying to figure out what's going on, that isn't nearly-instant death. I often manage to flee to some kind of cover, mostly dead, when such things happen. But a dude taking a baseball bat to me? If I don't react nearly instantly, they kill me with a mere three hits. And late in the game, melee enemies are frequently thrown at you in pairs!

That's bonkers in a game where my core Special Power is that I have demon-tentacles that let me make (theoretically) powerful attacks in melee even if I'm unarmed. Having melee enemies is one thing, but having them be so much more dangerous than everything else, discouraging the player from actually trying to close to melee with other enemies for fear of getting flanked by a melee guy? (Enemies love to flank the player in this game) Why even make my basic power 'murderous in melee' if you're going to make it such a bad idea to actually use it?

This segues naturally into another problem: even though the game is a fairly stock shooter with fairly stock shooter mechanics, one of its more bizarre failings is that the player's environmental awareness is garbage. You don't have 'radar'. Even though enemies are constantly screaming abuse like lunatics, the game's audio is strangely terrible at letting you work out the direction of enemies. I'm not entirely sure why this is. I eventually got sort of good at guessing enemy location via audio cues, but it remains a struggle, in stark contrast to other first-person-no-radar games I've played where such audio cues were instantly intuitive. Though the game has the stock 'ring on the screen' effect for providing feedback on where damage came from, it doesn't seem to properly map to where you got hit from, and enemies just don't really stand out visually so even spinning wildly about you basically have to hope you glimpse a muzzle flash in a lot of situations. This awful environmental awareness is a major factor in why melee guys are so able to murder me: generally if I didn't notice them before they got in melee range, I'm not going to be able to figure out where they are and back away/kill them before they get in their three hits, because the feedback on where stuff is really is that awful.

But let's back up to the light mechanic I mentioned.

I actually heard about the original The Darkness back before it was released, and was intrigued by what little I read. The magazine described how your character was exceedingly powerful when in shadows, and comparatively vulnerable in the light. As The Darkness is set in the modern day, I was imagining a pseudo-stealth FPS, where the default assumption is that the world is bathed in light (Whether from the sun or from streetlights and so on) and a major element of gameplay is arranging to get from one patch of shadow to the next so you can bring to bear your overwhelming power against whoever is in easy reach of that shadow. I was also given the impression that being in the light didn't do anything worse than make you as mortal as your enemies, a regular human with no shadowy superpowers.

In The Darkness II, darkness is the default, including the rather weird point that there are multiple gameplay sequences where you're in a burning building, and the firelight does nothing to hinder your abilities. Light is only a problem if it's a specially-designated light source as arbitrarily determined by the developers, which generally amounts to little pools of light, though as you get deeper into the game it gets more aggressive about having light block off a lot of space. The game lets you destroy sources of light, as well, making shadows even more the default; simply shoot out the lights, and there you go.

More importantly, being in light during a combat sequence is crippling. It shuts off all your special Darkness abilities, but it also makes the audio near-inaudible, imposes a visual effect that makes it very difficult to make anything out, and every interface element other than your health meter becomes more or less invisible. (Ammo is presented in white, being in light imposes white all over everything, among other issues) The audio issue is made even worse by the fact that The Darkness and less intrusively the Darkling (A little simian companion who does various useful things throughout the game, respawns anytime he dies, and subtly helps to guide you in the right direction if you get lost) will tell you to get out of the light, adding still more audio clutter to try to parse. The really infuriating thing is that you can't even parse the direction a light source is coming from: it's not like the blinding effect is specific to if you're staring at the light, and the only feedback on where you're facing relative to the light source is that if it's actually in your field of view your vision gets even worse. In the early portion of the game this isn't a big deal, as light sources are -outside of one really badly designed boss fight- static, but eventually the enemies start including fellows whose entire job is to shine a spotlight directly at you, at which point the inability to tell where the light is coming from is maddeningly problematic.

I've had way too many cases where one of these guys spawned in (By the way: the game is really bad about having enemies spawn in nearby you when you cross invisible lines, often in ways where you can tell they just teleported in, such as spawning behind a van where you can see their feet just appear if you're paying attention to the gap between the van and the floor) from I-don't-know-where, hit me with their spotlight, and then while I flailed around trying to figure out where anything was I got shot to death. Or had a melee guy come in and handle me all by himself. The spotlight guy issue is exacerbated by their aimbot behavior: if a spotlight guy is in 'active' mode (Knows that you're somewhere in the area, in short), he'll unerringly aim his spotlight at you no matter what at all times, and will never lose track of you, making it impossible to eg retreat and then come back and sneak up on a spotlight guy to deal with him. This is particularly bizarre as (Barring a couple of outright-supernatural exception) all the other regular enemies can and will lose track of you when appropriate. Why are spotlight guys in specific magical aimbots who apparently see through walls?

Oh, and it bears noting that the spotlight enemies are another strike against trying to use your awesome melee powers: I've had several cases where I tried to go up to melee an enemy soldier in convenient reach, at which point a spotlight guy spawned in and shut off my demon tentacles before I got to swing, leaving me staring dumbly at my intended victim while they just kept pumping bullets into my face. Spotlight guys can't prevent you from shooting people, making it the reliable option. In fact, one of the weirder game interactions is that you can purchase a power that charges your guns with The Power Of Darkness, making them fire super-powerful shots while not using ammunition, and while you can't activate this power in light it'll keep running once activated regardless of light conditions.

This is all frustrating enough, but it's magnified by how the game seems to have a contradictory pair of ideas on how combat should flow. On the one hand, there's several aspects of the game that seem to suggest the intention is for the combat to be a chaotic mess where the player is mostly reacting to what's happening and not particularly planning. You can dual-wield guns to output lots of damage with poor accuracy, enemies tend to move fairly quickly, the poor environmental awareness means you're not really able to plot ahead your actions very well...

... but then there's the Execution mechanic.

Here's how Executions work: enemies can be stunned, staggering and unable to fire or move to cover or the like. This can be induced by throwing non-lethal objects at them (Picking up and throwing things is one of the main uses of your demon-tentacle arms, or it's supposed to be anyway), and you've got a Darkling assistant who can latch onto enemies, at which point they're considered to be stunned, but the main way it crops up is that if you manage to do a good amount of damage to an enemy without killing them they automatically become stunned. Once stunned, you can grab that enemy with a tentacle, and then by pressing a different button you instantly kill them and get some kind of bonus effect. (The default Execution provides healing: you have to unlock the other three possible Executions as skill purchases) The kill itself plays out a fairly lengthy animation, in which you are 100% invincible -not even light can affect you during an Execution- and yet remain as aware as normal. Executions even last long enough for your standard cover shooter regenerating health meter to start filling up!

So the Execution mechanic points in the exact opposite direction of frenetic chaos: to activate it you want to carefully control your fire so you don't accidentally kill an enemy, and then once you have activated it you have a few moments to catch your breath, pay attention to your environment, and plot out your next move. Bonus points: the game has what amounts to an experience mechanic, and exactly how you kill an enemy determines how much not-experience you get out of killing them, and Executions pretty consistently give more than simply shooting the enemy to death. Optimal play thus involves trying to Execute everything, pushing the game even further away from the frenetic chaos it otherwise seems to be shooting for. Well, until you're in the late game, where enemies give more total if you kill them and eat their heart than if you Execute them: enemy hearts give more not-experience as you advance through the game, but Executions don't scale not-experience at all.

Executions connect into another problem: poor design choices when it comes to controls. You've got one button for interacting with things generally, and another for interacting with things via your demonic tentacles, and the latter is capable of several different interactions... which leads to cases where you're trying to do A but it instead does B. Since the health-providing Execution is locked behind grabbing an enemy with your tentacle, as is eating hearts for health, this can lead to situations where you're desperately scrambling for health and then die because bad control design decisions caused you to grab a potted plant instead. I'm not joking or exaggerating for effect here. That can actually happen.

Worse, grabbing things with your demonic tentacles has a very iffy place in the design outside of performing executions and doing mandatory 'destroy this obstacle with your tentacles' nonsense. Most objects you can grab come in three categories: firstly there's 'harmless' thowables like potted plants, planks of wood, etc, which stun enemies, letting you Execute them regardless of their health level. Secondly, there's lethal throwables, which are generally metal objects, which instantly kill unarmored enemies with no regard for health level. Thirdly, in addition to collecting ammo or swapping out guns using the standard 'interact/use' button, your demonic tentacles can also grab these objects for the exact same result, just with more reach.

The problem is, all of these are bad.

Stun throwables primarily serve to support Executions... by performing a ranged attack as you close in. In a game where 99% of your enemies are using guns, and it's perfectly normal for the environment to provide clear firing lanes that aren't nearly so walkable, and by the way your melee isn't actually that lethal anyway so closing in on groups of enemies is unnecessarily dangerous. If The Darkness II were a set in a more elves and orcs sort of fantasy setting, such that melee combat was the default, this would be much appreciated. In an FPS I generally have to wonder why I didn't just shoot them instead, especially since armored enemies can't be grabbed and thus can't be Executed, and for armored enemies the vast majority of their durability is in their armor. Worse, the physics on throwing stun-inducing throwables is maddeningly bad, with them often catching on walls or the ceiling or boxes vaguely nearby the target rather than actually hitting the target, and they're always instantly destroyed on impact. The overall result is that I'd rather all the stun-throwables were cleaned up from levels entirely, so that I don't have to worry about accidentally grabbing a potted plant when I desperately need a heal.

Lethal throwables are better. Their physics are actually silly aimbot nonsense where if your cursor is nearby a target the game generously has the demonic tentacle hurl the object dead on, and I've never seen one catch on a wall or the like when the aimbot behavior was triggered, so they actually work, and given the astounding number of bullets even a gangster in a nice suit can absorb without dying an instant kill is much-appreciated... but they're also far rarer, still are automatically rendered unavailable after being thrown (Metal poles are particularly jarring in this regard, as they remain visibly intact, just stuck in the wall/floor/ceiling, but the game won't let you grab them anew), and once you get deep enough into the game all the enemies tough enough that you'd really appreciate it are getting the majority of their durability from their armor. If an enemy's armor is intact? They don't die. I'm not even 100% sure their armor takes damage from having a fanblade sent spinning directly into their chest, and if it does do damage it's a shockingly small amount. The deeper you get into the game, the more common armored enemies are, and the more likely they are to be the primary threat in a room, rendering lethal throwables less and less useful as you progress. They're a glorified gimmick.

Picking up ammo and guns with your tentacles is painfully situational. In theory it should be useful for restocking by grabbing ammo fallen nearby without having to step out into enemy firing lines. In practice you'll almost never care. Most of the time I 'meaningfully' benefited from this functionality was when the game deliberately placed an ammo box or useful gun outside of my normal reach.

Worse, all uses of the tentacle are further hampered by the light mechanic; if you're in light for even a moment, you'll drop whatever your tentacle is currently carrying. You can't grab things with it while in the light. In fact, you can be blocked off from grabbing at something with your tentacles that's in light! Once spotlight guys start showing up, this heavily discourages trying to lean on the various uses of your tentacles. A concrete example: toward the beginning of the game, I was fond of grabbing car doors and using them as shields to just walk at enemies and largely ignore cover. (Until they poured enough fire into the shield to break it, but then I'd just grab a new car door so whatever) Once spotlight guys (Not to mention flashbangs) were in rotation, I basically gave up on shields, having had one too many times where I was doing fine, was briefly exposed to light, and then promptly died.

So basically the only things I want to actually use the tentacle-interaction button are eating hearts on corpses to restore my health and grabbing enemies so I can Execute them for goodies. (Attacking with the tentacles is a different input) All these other uses? Constantly got in the way of me trying to use the tentacles for their only good uses. That's a pretty major design fail.

The one theoretically practical use of the tentacle-grabbing stuff is letting you attack at range even when your guns are out of ammo or you have no guns. In normal missions, this doesn't happen. In the handful of sequences where the game does force you down to nothing but the tentacles, there is a distinct lack of throwables to take advantage of, and the environment is too choked for them to be reliable anyway. So... nope.

I'm also not a fan of the leveling mechanic. The UI for it is not very intuitive, but it basically boils down to four over-paths that each then break down into two sub-lanes. One overpath is about specializing in your guns, for example, and then its sub-paths are about specializing in pistols and submachine guns (One-handed weapons) vs specializing in shotguns and assault rifles. (Two-handed weapons)

That's all fine, but the actual choices are a frustrating mix of 'borderline-essential' (I struggled to keep up with my ammo expenditures even though I grabbed the ammo-granting Execution extremely early), 'useful but not impactful on the gameplay' (I was really disappointed at the 'explosive bullets' upgrade: as far as I can tell, it's just a damage upgrade, no area of effect or anything, and honestly it seems like a really small damage upgrade), and 'possibly actively detrimental'. One pick makes dead enemies have a chance to have a 'black hole' instead of a heart; the black hole can be thrown to do damage to enemies, where a heart can be eaten for a health refill. Once you've purchased this skill you're risking having a situation where you try to kill an enemy such that you can get at the heart because you really need healing, and oops they drop a black hole instead.

What makes it worse is it really feels like the game is balanced around the assumption you took certain of the more significant picks. 'Darkness Armor' is the worst offender: you take much less damage when in the dark once you've gotten it, and I found that for instance the utterly unreasonable damage on melee enemies became merely interestingly threatening, as opposed to infuriatingly unfair. I'd actually be less bothered if the developers had balanced the game in a manner that suggested they were entirely oblivious to how good the best stuff was, as then a player could simply tune the difficulty curve to their taste: if your first run was too easy, just don't buy the best stuff. If you jump up a difficulty level and suddenly find you can't keep up, buy some of the best stuff and see how you do now. The actual difficulty curve feels like it's basically punishing players for not buying a guide or watching a Let's Play or the like before playing themselves, in part because the in-game descriptions of skills are often fairly vague on what the skill really does. Some skills sound amazing and are merely okay, while others sound like they're not really worth buying at all and can snap the difficulty curve over their knee.

So a lot of the game's overall mechanics are just a mess or poorly-implemented or just plain confusing as to why they're even in the game.

As this post is quite long as-is, next time we'll be covering some less broad aspects of the gameplay and reach an overall conclusion.


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