Games 2/14/12: The Darkness II, Gotham City Impostors, Shank 2

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’s 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 are 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 applies remains in full effect.

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Gotham City Impostors
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Monolith/WB Games
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, comic mischief, language, mild suggestive themes, violence)
Price: $15

“Gotham City Impostors” posits a wonderfully crazy idea: an urban battleground pitting self-appointed vigilantes in shoddy Batman costumes (Team Bats) against similarly entrepreneurial criminals in homemade Joker getups (Team Jokerz).

It’s such an inventive premise, in fact, you might be dismayed to see it applied to a multiplayer first-person shooter that, beneath the surface, is only so different from the multitude of other class-based shooters already crowding the market.

Purely in terms of being what it sets out to be, “Impostors” is mechanically excellent. Monolith’s first-person shooter expertise — if you’ve played “F.E.A.R.” or “Condemned,” you’re familiar with its work — gives “Impostors” a rock-solid foundation in terms of control responsiveness and other particulars. You can choose preset loadouts catered to five classes (Striker, Defender, Medic, Scout, Sniper) or configure your own, and between the guns you expect and a few that are special to this world, your firearm needs are covered.

Though your toys are nowhere near as impressive as Batman’s or The Joker’s gadgets, “Impostors” gives you a few to play with, and it doesn’t force you to level up before you can play with them. That’s a very good thing, because while you can freely sprint around the five maps, it’s more fun to glide, spring into the air and zip around with the grappling hook. “Impostors,” realizing this, designs the maps to take full advantage, with multiple vertical levels, numerous hiding spots in high places, and lots of opportunities to flee harm’s way in a flash.

For those dismayed by the increasingly uneven playing fields that make most multiplayer shooters practically impenetrable for new players after a few weeks, the news about “Impostors” is good. Unlockables are numerous, but they’re cosmetic and personal enhancements rather than weapons and perks that offer players an unbalanced performance edge. For those invested in the game, the personal enhancements — including new performance trackers and in-game challenges to complete — are terrific carrots within a carrot. A truckload of clothing pieces makes it possible to design Batman and Joker costumes that bring out your personal sense of shoddy style. You even can use unlocked graphics to design a special calling card that other players see when you take them out.

Here’s hoping you enjoy that kind of ribbing, because if you aren’t here for the online multiplayer (12 players), you may as well not be here at all.

Though the Bats and Jokerz spout some funny lines during the course of a match, there’s no story mode to really let the premise shine. You can’t play against bots or against friends via splitscreen, and outside of a tutorial mode and some very brief skills challenges, online play is your only option. The three match types are your standard class shooter match types, the matchmaking system is predictably prone to dropping you into fights against players ranked higher than you, and if you don’t enjoy duking it out online in “Call of Duty” and its ilk, the amusing little things that set “Impostors” apart from its humorless contemporaries will be cold (and short-lived) comfort.

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Shank 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network) and Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Klei Entertainment/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, drug reference, intense violence, strong language, suggestive themes)
Price: $15

The original “Shank” took a handful of good ingredients from different genres and combined them into one surprisingly focused action game. “Shank 2” doesn’t mess with that approach, providing a second helping of all the first game did right and making adjustments to the few places where it went wrong. For the uninitiated, “Shank 2” is a violent but cartoony sidescroller in the “Metal Slug” vein, outfitting players with guns and explosives but placing special emphasis on close-quarters combat and providing an abundance of weapons (from knives to shovels to chainsaws to wieldable fish) with which to deal damage. The melee combat is, despite the 2D presentation, somewhat in the “Devil May Cry” vein. A when-all-else-fails pounce attack come straight out of Wolverine’s playbook. And the running and jumping occasionally feels like a classic “Prince of Persia” game when Shank is in chase and chaining moves together without hesitation. Beyond telling a new story, “Shank 2” tempers the first game’s occasionally cheap difficulty, fixes a few unfortunate button-mapping choices, and adds some new moves — most notably, a very convenient evasive roll and a terrific counterattack mechanic — that allow players to better fight defensively. A new arcade-style Survival mode (two players, online or offline) also complements the story and allows players to unlock and play as new characters. That feature comes at the expense of the first game’s collection of co-op-only missions, but it’s a better fit that’s built to endure longer than those missions did.