2K Games
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/18/2007 5:49:54 PM ET 2007-07-18T21:49:54

With all the heat placed on the banned “Manhunt 2,” it's a surprise that "The Darkness" is even on the shelves. It's unrepentantly violent, soaked in obscenity, and stitched to its skin with the occult. Blood goes flying as you summon demons to massacre anyone in your way. To gain power, you devour human hearts. Oh, and did I mention that you also play a Mafia hitman?

"The Darkness" (Rated M), is a new shooter from 2K Games based on the comic book of the same name . The comic — and the game — stars Jackie Estacado, a hitman possessed by an evil entity. Typically, video games based on comic books are botched affairs. Also typically, shooters that pack the dialogue with obscenity fall apart because of cheap attempts to shock.

But give "The Darkness" credit. This game, which is available for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, is bloody yet absorbing — despite a shoddy multiplayer experience and a too-short story. It also looks and sounds great, from the lighting and demonic effects to the gestures  of your goodfella buddies. And the wielding of dual pistols (fired with each trigger on the controller) feels perfect.

"The Darkness" starts with young Jackie on his way to do a job for his “uncle” Paulie, head of the Franchetti crime family. It turns out Paulie has other plans for him: The police, who Paulie supposedly bought off, are gunning for Jackie and his mob buddies. To top it all off, Paulie has decided to celebrate Jackie’s 21st birthday by having him shot and blown up. And this is only the pre-credit sequence.

Top 5: Console summer gamesWhat follows is a blend of “The Sopranos” meets the Devil. You play Jackie, who has even more problems:  The Darkness (which sounds like Gollum swallowing Tom Waits) has awakened inside him – and it wants control. With The Darkness, Jackie can sprout jet-black demon heads on tentacles, summon small demons with specialized skills (suicide bomber, gunner, etc.), toss heavy objects, and even open black holes to swallow his enemies. It's good to be evil — and satisfying when you throw down a black hole and make a SWAT team disappear.

Amid your own dark awakening, the Mafia is heading for a civil war. Paulie has stepped on too many toes, and the old timers recruit you to take Paulie out of the picture for good. To do so, you'll carve a bloody swath through New York City, with a couple stops in a frightening netherworld where World War I is constantly refought. This nightmarish no-man’s-land, where the secret of your curse is revealed, is the highlight of the game.

Of course, there's a drawback. Lampposts, flood lights, barrel fires, anything that exudes light will wither your powers. You'll need to shoot out light bulbs more than gun-wielding foes. Tedious, but worth it since The Darkness acts as your regenerative health and armor. You can upgrade your Darkness ability by eating the hearts of the people you've killed. Gruesome? Yeah, but, remember, Jackie is a contract killer, and nobody has the moral high ground in this game.

But for all the fun to be had, “The Darkness” takes only 8-10 hours to finish. That’s far too short when dealing with subjects like a brewing mob war and a generational curse of damnation. Second, there are too many load screens interrupting the action. And when you travel throughout New York, you’ll find that one of the greatest cities in the world is reduced to a handful of bland square blocks. Compare this to the “Spider Man” titles, where all of Manhattan was at your fingertips.

Let’s not forget the multiplayer feature, which can only be described as an abomination. With a choppy frame rate and choking lag, thehe gameplay is reduced to a drunken simulator where you randomly slam into walls and fire your weapon at the ceiling.

If you have to play online, opt for Shapeshifter matches. It's a weak, yet entertaining clone of "Alien versus Predator" where humans battle skittering little demons that can run up walls and tear flesh from their opponents. The twist here is you can morph between human and critter on the fly, making combat a pleasant kind of unpredictable.

Three or four years ago, "The Darkness" might have been better received, but with a short single-player mode and an awful multiplayer, "The Darkness" suffers from too many demons to be recommended as anything except as a rental.

That said, this is the first game ever where you can earn an achievement (or accomplishment on the PS3) for sitting with your girlfriend and watching "To Kill a Mockingbird" in her apartment. So, there's that.

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