Jackie Estacado is finally back, and the wait has been worth it. We'll admit to a sense of quiet relief. While Starbreeze made the first game great, we weren't sure that Digital Extremes was up to the job. But despite rewriting much of the first game's formula, The Darkness II serves up what really matters - dollops of gore and a pitch-black story.
The loss of the original's striking photorealism should have put the game at a disadvantage, but the new art style swiftly wins you over. Straight cel-shading could have looked cheap, but the attention to detail brings things to life - pencil marks trace the edges of the world with a gorgeous hand-drawn touch, and the hand-painted vistas are all visually striking. It's one of the best-looking games we've seen for a while, and the comic-book colouring doesn't ruin the tone. You should expect a lot of gore, but this won't be the aspects that shock you the most.
The Darkness II combines witty scripting, an interesting and gripping storyline and a surprisingly adult approach to narrative. The best spoiler-free example is the brothel you visit in the first half of the game - unlike Duke Nukem Forever's strip club, it's a scene that feels unpleasant and depressing for all the right reasons. But while the narrative aspects feel grown-up, the rest of the game is wilfully adolescent, putting you straight into the boots of a murderous cyclone of death.
Not all of the original darkness powers have made a return for the sequel, but the package that is there feels much more tightly focused. Everything you need is mapped to the controller, which means the flow of the action is never broken up by pesky little pop-up menus. The right and left triggers handle the fantastically punchy-feeling guns, and the bumper buttons control the demonic tendrils that sprout from your back on demand. The right one deals with melee stuff, deftly slicing off limbs. The left tendril acts a bit like Half-Life 2's iconic Gravity Gun, grabbing and hurling around most things with ease, and tearing out the hearts of your fallen foes. Alright, so Gordon Freeman didn't do that - but this proves that it'd work a treat on the features list for Half-Life 3.
Once you've stunned an enemy with smaller attacks, you can even grab people while they're still alive and tear them to shreds with execution moves. Sometimes they try and shoot you while dangling upside-down. It's quite endearing. Put it all together with a mix of unlocked skills and the results are hectic. Mix 'n' match dual-wielding lets you keep your options open, and most fights are won by using what's around you. Car doors are ripped off to make impromptu riot shields. A ceiling fan is only ever two clicks away from becoming a means of decapitation, and pool cues are an open invitation to impale. While you're busy causing trouble with your tendrils, there's never any reason to stop firing both pistols.
Once you get to grips with the controls, it's pleasingly easy to cut a man in half and rip out his heart before the torso even hits the floor. Assuming you're in shadow, of course - as before, light is your main weakness. In keeping with the pared-down vibe, you only have one Darkling sidekick this time - a cheery British fiend who proves consistently useful. Picking him up with your tendril and hurling him at enemies is equal parts useful and hilarious, and he avoids the all-too-common problem of full-sized wingmen by being too short to get in the way. He also does a great job of keeping you on track - while you never feel like you're on a Call of Duty-style rollercoaster, his guidance means the pacing never has a chance to turn turgid.