Glistening eel-like tentacles sprout from my shoulder blades and hover in anticipation above a gunned-down thug. Razor-sharp teeth gnashing, the two snarling appendages glower back at me, awaiting a command. When I give it, they rip the victim's chest open and fight to devour his gore-dripping heart.
Displayed in a crystal clear 1080i HD picture with 5.1 surround sound, this is 2K's video game The Darkness.
It's a first-person shooter that tells the story of Jackie Estacado, a New York City hit man who receives two surprises on his 21st birthday. He finds out he's been marked for death by his mob boss uncle. And he's suddenly possessed by a demon. Now that's a rough day.
You start with a car chase shoot-out that raises more questions than it answers. As Jackie, you blast your way through a few of Uncle Paulie's Mafia-like operations to figure out why the big man has suddenly turned hostile. You also move to protect Jackie's girlfriend, Jenny, who's now on the mob's hit list, thanks to you. Then there's this evil supernatural thing that's constantly whispering in your ear. That needs looking into as well. But first, there's an army of mob goons and corrupt cops to deal with. So gaming action boils down to doing two things: piecing together intricate story clues and killing everything that moves.
So Many Ways to Die
Besides battling through the city streets with pistols, shotguns and automatic weapons, gamers are also endowed with special occult powers. The sinister otherworldly parasite attached to you manifests itself as the aforementioned snakelike creatures, and when you feed its insatiable lust for human hearts, you're rewarded with new endowments. For instance, a demon arm attack materializes as a big, sharp appendage that can be thrust through enemies. And a black hole attack allows gamers to suck enemies into, uh, a black hole.
In addition, you gain the know-how to summon little evil minions that climb out of steaming pits in the ground. These sadistic goops come in various flavors, including Kamikaze darklings that explode on contact, Gunner darklings that carry a Gatling gun and a Berserker darkling that attacks, eviscerates and urinates on your enemies.
Gamers also "die" in the course of the game and are teleported into the past to a hellish World War I battlefield that's filled with tortured victims, zombies and bloody carnage. It's there that a suffering, crucified man reveals the philosophical core of the game: Before the beginning of time, The Darkness existed and nothing else before it.
God, therefore, never was.
The game's creators attempt to give Jackie a virtuous center as he works to protect his girlfriend and aunt, but there is no real moral conflict here. It's only evil within evil against evil. A demonic entity rules the spirit world while corrupt humans rule the living. Goodness slips through in the form of two scriptures printed on the wall of a burned-out orphanage (John 14:6 and Matthew 28:20). But blink and you'll miss them. It's a token gesture, easily eclipsed by the harshest of obscenities that fill the dialogue (f-words, s-words, etc.) and the unholy grotesqueries that fill the screen.
The Darkness has gained critical acclaim for its imagery, creative storyline and excellent voice work. Gamestop.com, for instance, ranked it among its top five PlayStation 3 games, and IGN.com called it a "wonderfully gruesome adventure." But when I laid my controller down after my first couple hours of "play," it wasn't the visuals or story that stuck with me. Rather, I was left with an emotional gloom that weighed on me like a wet—dark—blanket.
Yes, it's only a video game and intended to be entertainment. But something can be so pitch-black—figuratively, spiritually and literally—that it's hard to find anything entertaining about it. I dislike the thought of anyone even dipping a virtual toe in this ebony pool, much less wading in and going for a swim.