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Game Review: The Darkness II

Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360

Also available for: Windows PC

From: Digital Extremes/2K Games

ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, drug reference, intense violence, strong language, strong sexual content)

Price: $60

Though certainly a first-person shooter at its core, "The Darkness" may be remembered most fondly for the unique ways it applied thick layers of stealth, adventure gaming and a bold devotion to sink-or-swim immersion that no game since has quite captured. Playing "The Darkness" often felt like being a tourist in a new town - albeit one where a disproportionate percentage of the locals wanted to kill you.

Playing "The Darkness II," by contrast, feels like passing through as Godzilla. Jackie Estacado (that's you) is more powerful, the powers ingrained in him by the enigmatic force known as The Darkness are considerably nastier, and the game - set two years later and produced by a new developer - sheds most of those layers in favor of a straight sprint that's exhilarating and potentially dispiriting all at once.

Let's not mince words: The six-ish hours that embody "TD2's" main campaign may very possibly be the six craziest hours you spend playing a first-person shooter this year. Jackie brandishes the usual crop of firearms, but the upgradable powers granted by The Darkness - wieldable swarms and black holes, a demonic underling who does your bidding while calling you names, and a pair of demonic arms that can tear enemies apart, feed on them and toss them across the room - are anything but rudimentary.

Instead of piecing out combat and creating scenarios where acting stealthily works best, "TD2" throws you into the fire and encourages you to mix gunplay and demonplay in whatever ridiculous fashion pleases you best. One firefight never differs dramatically from another, and even the most powerful enemies aren't terribly smart, but a mix of busy environments and relentless enemy formations ensures plenty of room for attacking creatively instead of simply twitching and reacting.

With that picture painted, let's not mince words here either: While "TD2" preserves the original game's soul in some respects, and while the game is a riot to play on its own terms, the new gameplay comes almost completely at the expense of everything the first game dared to do differently.

The need to literally read street signs and check subway schedules to navigate around an unfriendly and non-linear city is, for instance, no more. "TD2" is nearly always straightforward, and a button press tells you exactly where to go if you somehow still get lost.

The need to shoot out streetlights in order to design the perfect stealth ambush is, to name another example, almost absent. Jackie's Darkness powers still disappear in bright light, so shooting lights out still works to your advantage, but you'll do so in the heat of a battle in progress instead of in anticipation of a fight you're starting on your terms.

Where the spirit of the first game shines without contradiction is in "TD2's" storytelling, which resumes where the original left off and arguably outdoes that game in terms of presentation, character design and exploration of The Darkness and its roots. "TD2's" voice acting is superb, its cast (down to that strangely adorable name-calling demon underling) extremely memorable. And the new visual style - which uses hand-drawn and hand-painted textures to give players the sensation of playing inside a freely explorable graphic novel - is a night-and-day improvement over the first game's more traditional look.

Instead of the first game's competitive multiplayer, which few will miss, "TD2" complements the campaign with a collection of hit missions and a second, shorter campaign you can play alone or cooperatively (online only, four players). None of the four playable characters is as powerful as Jackie, nor are the missions very creatively designed. But each has a unique power that Jackie lacks, and the game's devotion to strong storytelling and character design remains in full effect.

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