The Darkness II Gameplay Part 2: Specifics and Conclusion

Let's start by going back to something I referred to but didn't cover: bosses.

They're really awful.

Part of this seems to be a moderately-understandable point of the developers putting themselves into a bit of a corner. As I mentioned previously, you have stock cover shooter regenerating health: your health meter is broken into 4 parts, and unless an entire segment is depleted you'll eventually just heal off any amount of damage within that segment. This means that a boss needs to be able to deliver more than a quarter of your health in damage in a very short period of time, which leads to bosses that can kill you in four attacks. Since the only way you can heal off permanent damage is to be killing enemies (Whether through the basic Execution or by eating their heart after they're dead), this means a boss fight can only help you offset such damage by spawning in enemies that complicate the fight and are of course trying to dish out damage to you themselves. Since your environmental awareness is so limited, such spawning-in enemies are a lot more problematic than they would be in many other games that have to deal with the 'only way the player heals is by killing enemies' issue.

But honestly the main thing seems to be that the developers had no real concept of how to design a fun and interesting and challenging-but-not-stupid boss fight. They're also really bad at cluing you into critical mechanics regarding boss fights: the first boss fight is against a mafioso operating a wrecking ball, and due to things like the crosshairs lighting up when they were over the wrecking ball I ended up thinking the game wanted me to attack the wrecking ball -which does work, but is far more difficult than trying to attack the actual vehicle. Which is something I tried to do, and seemed to have no success on. Worse, the game makes the fight seem like you can only do damage through the gimmick of hurling explosives provided by the Darkling, which is faster than shooting it, but not actually the only method available!

The only boss fight that's not completely awful is the one that's just it spawning waves of regular enemies, you killing them, and you breaking a thing/advancing the plot in between these waves. So basically the boss fight that isn't a boss fight at all -it doesn't even have a boss health meter.

There's also a lot of frustrating elements regarding specific enemies, too. Eventually you start encountering enemies who carry a shield; okay, sure, variety is good. The game will then prompt you to use your demon tentacles to remove the shield by grabbing it, and if you follow this advice it will fail completely. See, the game has later enemies be 'armored', and it will explain to you if you try to grab armored enemies that you need to destroy the armor before you can grab them. What it doesn't explain to you is that the shields on these armored shield guys are also armored: so the correct answer is to pump the shield full of bullets, then grab it, then get to shooting the guy himself. Oh, but wait, I'm leaving something out the game also never alludes to: a normal grab is simply you press the grab button and your demon tentacle handles the rest. The shield grab is secretly mechanically handled like destroying a door is, meaning you grab with the tentacle grab button and then mash the action/use/collect button, or else the shield guy will shake off your grab attempt and keep his shield. I died at least twice while trying to figure all this nonsense out.

This is piles of unintuitive and poorly-explained, to the point that it would honestly be less badly-designed if the game hadn't tried to explain it at all and just let the player try to puzzle it out on their own, but shield guys are also one of the nastiest enemies in the game, and their mechanics are outright broken. So long as they have their shield, they have access to a ramming attack: you might sensibly assume that momentum is a concern and getting to one side is how you avoid being steamrolled, but in actual fact the player character doesn't really move fast enough for that to be an option unless they initiate the charge from far away (Oh by the way they can initiate the charge from half a foot away, for full effect), and also it doesn't really matter anyway because they can turn 90 degrees or reverse direction and still hit you with the full might of the shield charge, knocking off an entire unit of health, sending you flying, and momentarily disabling access to your attacks while your character gets back up. Oh, and you can't grab their shield during a ramming attempt. Period.

Oh, and they have a fairly strong gun that makes them actually one of the more menacing enemies on a pure gunplay level, even before all these frustrating issues.

I don't know how much of that is deliberate and how much of it is just poorly-coded, but the end result is a mess regardless, and the enemy type really shouldn't be in the game, not like this.

A similarly obnoxious thing is the 'elite' versions of late-game enemies. For no explained reason these guys can basically teleport -it's slightly more reasonable than a real teleport, in that they're basically just walking really quickly from their current location to a new location (They can't go straight through walls or climb up to high ground they can't naturally reach... unless they glitch out, anyway) and they get a trailing effect that can potentially let you track them to roughly their new location, but these are small comforts. First of all, they usually do this three times in rapid succession, and by the time you've tracked to where they first teleported to the entire trail has gone cold. Second and more importantly, the real issue isn't the usual frustrating wack-a-mole issue with teleporting enemies in shooters, but rather that they flinchport.

See, normally when you successfully shoot an enemy, they freak out and stagger to one side or another. In fact, there's a bit of a weird thing where armored enemies don't start doing this until the armor breaks, which actually makes them easier to pump full of bullets than if the developers had just raised their health, but I digress. The point is this is a mechanic that does make it a bit difficult to gun a target down -in part because honestly enemies in The Darkness II are appalling durable for a shooter ostensibly set in a mostly modern real world, with most weapons actually failing to kill even the weakest enemies with a direct headshot- but it's a predictable mechanic where you just need to shift your fire to one side or the other to properly finish them off, as they can't re-flinch until their current flinch animation finishes. Teleporting enemies in The Darkness II instead play the flinch animation for maybe a third of a second, and then instantly start a teleport chain. (Except when they randomly get properly staggered: I've never worked out the pattern to this, though I've only ever seen it once their armor is already broken) Once they're done, they're instantly ready to fire, and frustratingly teleporting enemies don't need to reorient after a teleport.

The overall result is that doing real damage to teleporting enemies only works if you're using a weapon that hits very hard per shot. The problem with that approach is two-fold: firstly, your weapon access is developer-defined through scavenging off of enemies and picking up any guns the developers kindly set down in an area, so there's no guarantee that you're carrying such a gun, particularly since you have a carrying limit of a single 2-handed gun and two 1-handed guns. (I actually like this particular carrying limit, but not enough to overlook the game's flaws) The second, much bigger problem, is that The Darkness II doesn't believe in that kind of a gun. There's no rocket launchers, your melee isn't that hard-hitting... your options are basically 'hit them with a shotgun's full burst' (Note that this isn't an instant kill or anything, it's just your fastest option) or 'painfully slowly grind them down'.

Now, you do have access to much harder-hitting tools, but I've already covered how throwables don't actually work on armored enemies, so that's one option ruined right out the gate. Another tool for bypassing such problems is your Darkling ally, as he likes to latch onto enemies. Enemies that he's latched onto are considered to be stunned, meaning you can grab and Execute them easily. If you buy a particular upgrade, you can even direct the Darkling at a particular target. (By throwing him at them) Awesome, right?

... except being armored blocks you from grabbing enemies at all, and so too is the Darkling prevented from latching onto an armored enemy.

So armored teleporters are just infuriating to deal with, with exactly zero good answers that are meaningfully accessible in real play. The closest I ever came to a decent answer was acquiring the ability to temporarily have my guns fire supercharged shots while not consuming ammo, and then upgrading that particular power to let me see and shoot through walls while it's active: teleporters usually prefer to duck behind a wall relative to the player, and so I could usually activate the power, take a shot that did decent damage, and then turn to a nearby wall they predictably hid behind and do some more reasonable damage, maybe even kill them before the power itself ran out.

Of course, in the late game a given wave of enemies can easily have four teleporters, and multiple waves may well include teleporters, so this is a pretty mediocre answer, as the gun-boosting power has a pretty long cooldown relative to combat length.

Even the spotlight guys are more maddening than I've already made them sound, as for no good reason they can absorb a mindboggling amount of punishment. They're not clad in real armor like other notable enemies, they're just dressed like Professor Membrane for some reason. Who knew lab coats were better protection than kevlar or steel plate? In practice you're really supposed to shoot their spotlight to get them to stop shining it on you, never mind that it's a small and fast-moving target and if you have line of fire on their spotlight you're 100% for sure being blinded by the light because spotlight guys are seriously aimbots.

Another issue is the variety in guns, or more precisely the lack of meaningful variety.

The game basically has four categories of guns in terms of archetypes, and its ammo system reflects this: ammo comes in pistol, submachine gun, rifle, and shotgun type. These are in turn split across the one-handed/two-handed firearm divide, with pistols and submachine guns being one-handed while rifles and shotguns are two-handed. Within each sub-category is 3 weapons, for a total of 12 different guns in the game. That's lower than some games, such as Goldeneye, but it sounds like a decent variety overall...

... except that the weapons within a category are overly-similar. Your three pistols are basically on a range of focusing on firepower per shot vs focusing on firing speed. The three submachine guns I couldn't even say what's different about them, beyond that I'm pretty sure the Uzi is the worst of them. Two of the shotguns are indistinguishable to me, and the third only has one copy halfway through the final level (Discounting Vendettas missions) so it barely matters. Two of the rifles are difficult to tell apart, with the third one lacking automatic fire but being roughly functional as a sniper rifle in the game, able to kill a decent portion of enemies in one shot if you get them in the head and having the best aim-focus effect in the game.

Put another way, your twelve weapons is more like 5-and-a-half in terms of real variety. Which is particularly frustrating since the game is so prone to outright punishing attempting to focus on/take advantage of your Darkness powers. Forcing the player to focus on gunplay and then making the gunplay low in variety is an ill-considered design.

On the scenario design level, the game is also frustratingly inconsistent. Most of the time the game comports itself as your typical modern shooter, whereby you are funneled down a linear series of corridors, with enough terrain complexity to make fights interesting but things still largely boil down to you walking forward and encountering and killing the next set of enemies, over and over, until the end of the game. Then, with no warning, the game will suddenly decide to spawn enemies to one side of the corridor from a door that looks exactly like all the other doors that are solid walls in real terms: I had a particularly maddening death where a shield guy got beside me and I couldn't figure out how they'd managed to sneak up on me, and the answer turned out to be that I'd taken cover right in front of such a door and when I killed enough enemies to trigger the scripting for opening the door the shield guy was right on the other side of it, along with a few buddies. Even more blatant, sometimes the game will spawn enemies from behind you, which is particularly frustrating as every time it cropped up it was outright unbelievable that they could have come from behind, even aside how obnoxious it was on a game design level in the context of a game that's basically a cover shooter. (Because your cover is probably worthless for protecting you from them)

A more innocuous version of this is when the game decides it wants you to do some backtracking. In one level, I followed the obvious path and ended up at a dead end. The Darkling was directing me into this dead end, but I couldn't figure out what the game wanted me to do in the dead end, as it contained no apparent advancement. The actual answer was that at some point I'd passed a light without even noticing it, with said light preventing me from tearing open a gate that was blocking the path forward, and the purpose of the dead end was that it contained a generator. (Bizarre gameplay dynamic: any light that's attached to a generator is a light that's impervious to damage. You have to break the generator to kill the light) This was probably the second-most egregious example of the game breaking from the 'move forward and fight things as they show up' mold with zero signaling (The most egregious was a huge room where I was expected to notice and examine a tiny picture on a random desk. The first time I went into that room, I ended up reloading my checkpoint because I thought the game had glitched out and failed to spawn enemies when it was supposed to... in part because I'd previously had a glitch where a button that had to be pressed was impossible to press, solved by loading the checkpoint), but this was an intermittent problem, and it's honestly very weird that the game was mostly consistent about the not-literally-on-rails shooter thing but not entirely consistent.


So what did I like about the game's gameplay?


I actually can't think of anything.

That's not me exaggerating for effect: I wrote up 'what do I like etc', and then had to stop for five minutes and struggle to come up with anything genuinely positive to say about the gameplay.

Oh, there's ideas I like. I like the idea of spotlight enemies in this game, but their execution is just awful. I like that later enemies start throwing flashbangs at you, which if they go off have a similarly detrimental impact to going into light (Shut off powers, mess up your audio and visuals) but more so and also you can't actually escape the effect by moving, you can only time it out... only with how screwball the basic light mechanics are, adding another way for the player to end up in light-punishing-you mode is frustrating, and worse yet the game does nothing to educate you on flashbangs: The Darkness and the Darkling will both exhort you to stay away from/get out of the light when you're in light, and they treat being flashbanged as the exact same state for the purpose of this message playing. Worse yet, the enemies that flashbang you are introduced at the same time as the scenario design starts incorporating light-traps: lights that only turn on once you're within their reach, and which demand you shoot their generator to turn them off, with the generator generally being hidden somewhere past the trap. I only figured out flashbangs were a mechanic at all when I got lucky and happened to see one tossed a few feet away from me and detonate futilely, which was the level after flashbang-users first started showing up. Before that, I'd thought I was getting caught in light traps and then managing to either stumble out of them or incidentally shoot up the generator while flailing about, because that kept happening too.

Similarly, there's elements of the game that are unique-ish from my perspective, such as the 'throw environmental objects at the enemy', that are hampered by their execution meaning they don't really add much to the game, or actively subtract from it in actual practice, as previously covered.

If my gaming experience was much more limited, I might be more positive The Darkness II, but as is I just can't help but think that any given thing that was moderately competent was done better by some other game. In particular, I'm finding myself mentally comparing The Darkness II against The Bureau and finding myself unable to find a compelling reason to play The Darkness II when I could play The Bureau instead.

Ultimately, I think The Darkness II's biggest sin is that its core gameplay of being a shooter vastly overshadows (Pardon the pun) what is presented as its distinctive feature of the Darkness mechanics.

It's disappointing, because the basic idea of being a murderous monster when stalking the shadows and a mere mortal when forced out into the light is a fantastic one, but the actual gameplay execution ends up feeling more like your primary quality of note is how difficult you are to kill and otherwise you're below human. If it weren't for the cover shooter health mechanics and the ability to eat hearts and Execute for health, I'd place Jackie as firmly inferior to his foes. And this is before you get into the penalties light imposes!

So much potential, wasted.

As we'll be covering next time, it's not like The Darkness II's story is some masterpiece, either.


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