Darkwatch

Although there have been a few Wild West flavored titles that have come out for the consoles such as Rockstar’s Red Dead Revolver and Human Head’s Dead Man’s Hand, there’s not a whole lot of them to choose from in between the WW2 action shooters that are out there and the sci-fi inspired near future adventures that occasionally make their way through time to the store shelves. High Moon Studios and Capcom decided to take a different approach to the Wild West formula, adding vampire flavored gameplay to Wild West inspired gunfighting action, creating the action packed Darkwatch.

Darkwatch was reloaded on the Xbox for this review.

Spaghetti and Worm Infested Western

Part Sonnenfeld’s Wild Wild West steampunk, Tri Tac Games’ Bureau 13, Terminal Reality’s Nocturne, and adding the kind of undead mauling that Evil Dead’s Ash could only love, Darkwatch propels the player into the Wild West of 1876 by putting them into the boots of an outlaw named Jericho Cross. Jericho is on the trail of one last heist, a train robbery that will give him his dusty ride off into the sunset as a rich man. Unfortunately for him, the train that he decides to raid belongs to a secret organization known only as the Darkwatch which is not in the business of hauling gold. Instead of opening a vault to riches, he unwittingly frees Lazarus Malkoth, an ancient vampire that Darkwatch had gone to great pains to capture for last millennium and a half. As a thank you, he curses Jericho with vampirism for his trouble and sets off to make the West his own personal playground.

As the former outlaw turned undead shootist, you take Jericho on a chase after Lazarus in order to save yourself from damnation…or to establish your place in infamy. How you decide to do this is decided by your bullets and in the choices that you will make with the enigmatic Darkwatch eying your progress every step of the way.

Wild Wild Halo

On the Xbox, Darkwatch may feel a lot like playing Halo in the dusty wastes of the Wild West. For veterans of that particular sci-fi FPS epic, many of the controls and gameplay concepts are going to seem very familiar. There’s even a “blood shield” that acts much like the regenerating shield that the Master Chief uses in Halo along with one stage that puts you behind the wheel of a Warthog-like buggy. You’re also limited to only two weapons at a time in your arsenal, just as in Halo. Although this implies that several gameplay elements were borrowed from its sci-fi peer, it also makes the gameplay very easy to get into without a lot of worrying about what button does what. Former Master Chiefs will easily slip into the game while those who haven’t picked up Halo will still find the controls to be easy on the fingers.

The opening stage helps guide you through your early moves along with the vampire powers that you will eventually gain. Movement is easily handled by the left analog stick and aiming with the right. In addition to the trigger controls for grenades and for your trigger finger, you can also use whatever weapon you have in your hands as a monster masher. Each weapon handles differently, with the standard Redeemer revolver whipping out a single melee attack blade for those close and personal moments while the Rail Rocket can be used as a titanic club to knock the heads off of anyone coming a little too close to your personal space. While you can only carry two weapons at any time, Darkwatch supplies you with a gratuitous amount of firepower that you can pick up on the field including sticks of dynamite that you can hurl. Picking up an extra ‘Redeemer’ pistol, though, doesn’t give you dual pistols although a weapon specifically called ‘dual pistols’ fills that role.

Saves are handled thanks to a series of very well placed checkmarks, sometimes even saving in the middle of certain boss battles that are particularly nasty saving players from too much frustration. But for those that want a greater challenge, you can always select how difficult you want it to be when you first start out. Even if you return to a saved game profile, if you’ve been having an easy time of it so far, you can always jack it up to the next level when you continue.

Darkwatch makes use of Havok physics and locational damage to help satiate the need for Ash wannabes to enjoy the fulfilling career of taking apart legions of the undead in gory detail. While you have an arsenal of pain to use, smashing apart the undead is rewarded with flying arms, blown out shoulders, chunked skulls, and flying heads. Sharpshooters can expect headshots to be fatal…for most creatures…while those hoping for a chainsaw for an arm will still enjoy the bladed mercy that you can visit upon Lazarus’ cannon fodder. With Havok physics, creatures crumple, weapons and crates tumble about from explosions or from your own nudging, and props explode sending fragments flying everywhere. All of this makes the combat in Darkwatch look great and as entertaining as you become a Wild West flavored Van Helsing.

In addition to the regular arsenal of steampunk inspired weaponry which ranges from mechanical shotguns to guided rail rockets, Jericho will be able to make certain decisions that will affect the kind of special abilities that he will be able to use. Throughout the action adventure, you’ll come across the victims of Lazarus Malkoth’s evil in the form of twisted and blackened souls bound to this world or the occasional staggering human who had been recently been bitten by the undead Roman. When Jericho runs into these tattered vestiges of humanity, he has a choice to make: be the sheriff with the shiny badge that helps to ease their suffering by freeing their souls or purging their blood, or by being an evil cuss and sucking them dry to add their power to your own.

Each choice grants you some ‘experience’ towards gaining new powers for either good or ill, allowing players to customize Jericho’s otherworldly arsenal. Should you be the good guy to give yourself the power of Silver Bullets? Or be as evil as a rattlesnake and use Soul Stealer to tear the essence of men from their bones? Don’t expect to dramatically alter the course of the game, however. The choices you make won’t change the game in a dramatic sense keeping the storyline focused on the major battles that Jericho will eventually be pulled into.

To help Jericho protect himself from lead poisoning, he also has that “blood shield” I mentioned earlier as part of his new vampiric career. It’s a regenerating shield that can take some damage before Jericho’s pale flesh begins catching bullets. When that happens, you can heal yourself by absorbing ‘blood clouds’ from the monsters you defeat, represented as glowing, red flares. There are also ‘blood canteens’ strewn about that can completely heal you. By absorbing blood clouds, you also fill up the power meter needed for your special vampiric abilities. Whenever you use these special powers, the meter drains out forcing you to take care as to when you can use your ‘gifts’ without leaving you in a tough spot later on.

Jericho can also perform a double jump in midair to get to hard to reach places, although this sounds better than it works out. Jericho’s second jump feels like you’re almost floating on air, giving you the ethereal feeling of being a creature of the night. Unfortunately, it also makes it difficult to make accurate landings resulting in more than one frustrated attempt at trying to get to particular ledges. Darkwatch doesn’t turn itself into a platformer, however, so this is not as bad as it may sound although it can still make getting those hard to reach weapons and precious blood canteens a challenging experience.

At certain points in the game, Jericho will also find himself on the back of Shadow, his demonic steed that he had given unlife to when he gave in to his urge to feed, as he tries to shoot his way to freedom or clear a train of desperados in an attempt to board it. He’ll also be able to drive the Coyote, a steampunk buggy that he’ll gib the undead with as he plows and shoots his way through Lazarus’ forces. The Coyote is only used in one level, though, and most of the levels are on-foot leaving it more as a novelty.

Many of the environments in the game are also stocked with explosive barrels, some of which are carried by the dead known as “keggers” that run screaming at you. Again, Havok physics and locational damage help players make the most of these eager critters, allowing eagle eyed shootists to take out the actual kegger without blowing up the barrel that they’re carrying so that it can drop to the ground and be used later, or simply shoot the barrel with a well placed shot to send it and his friends up in a satisfyingly bombastic fireball of death. There are also gatling gun emplacements that Jericho can use to thin out the legions of cannon fodder that inevitably burst out from the earth to get at you. Jericho will also come across other scars on the land that Lazarus had left behind called “evil marks”. These twisted tree-like things will continue to summon more dead things to attack you unless you destroy them. Quickly.

Quaint Towns and Wanted Posters

The carnage that you’ll be leaving behind in your wake look just as good as the locales that you’ll be gunning your way through on foot. Steampunk inspired aesthetics such as massive, geared machines that can summon portals along with a gratuitous amount of iron plated walls and floors decorating the headquarters of the Darkwatch to the exaggerated mechanics of the weapons that you’ll find yourself collecting help create a pretty distinct atmosphere for the game. It all works, even when you find yourself outside fighting through the dusty canyons of the desert or through the burning remains of a forgotten pueblo town. Some of the textures, and character models, though, can tend to look a little bland, although the character design for your enemies mix up their ranks with all sorts of interesting beasties. The cinematics that use CG characters to help tell the story of the game also use a stylized look to the actors.

The voice acting is pretty good all around with a few exceptions, although Jericho never says anything as he remains the proverbial ‘silent hero’. Ennio Morricone’s trademark whistle and harmonica theme from “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” is also used as part of the musical ensemble put together for Darkwatch and much of the music isn’t bad. It does the job and keeps pace with the fast action of the game.

Hang ‘Em High

Being a sort of Wild West Ghostbuster can be a lot of fun and the game does a lot to try and keep the player pulled into the interesting backstory that the manual lavishly describes in detail. But for whatever reason, that’s never translated completely over to the actual experience. Darkwatch’s story starts off strong, but then it begins to lose steam shortly after it begins leaving it to the atmosphere created by High Moon’s designers to take up the slack without taking advantage of the opportunities that it offers.

For example, the manual tells you that the main baddie, Lazarus Malkoth, was a Roman who had founded the Darkwatch in 66 AD in order to fight the vampires that eventually brought Rome down. Lazarus tried to summon and control a dark power that he sought to use to aid his fight, only to become consumed by it turning him against the organization he helped to found. It sounds like interesting stuff, the kind of backdrop that films such as Snipes’ Blade had used to great effect in dressing up the motivations for their characters and the villains they fought. None of this is made apparent in the game and the rich backstory that could have been used to delve even deeper into the Darkwatch is wasted by turning Lazarus into your run-of-the-mill foozle.

Then there’s the sex scene, ambushing the player and providing an unexpectedly hilarious segue into the morning after. Not only was that completely unexpected, it made absolutely no sense other than in making Jericho look like a dumbass. If you had played Jericho as the ‘good guy’, expect your actions to be ignored. At the end of his run as the Minuteman, he does the one thing that would have been considered the equivalent to being Count Dracula. Even if you had played him as the ‘bad guy’, you’d expect him to be a lot smarter than that…even after being warned. Speaking of which, where was his guardian angel-type ghost partner? Even before this scene plays out, the predictable plot made it all that much more painful to watch since it isn’t exactly rocket science to guess what was going to happen next.

Darkwatch’s plot falls apart faster than you can fan the hammers on your six shooters. The story just seems to eventually wander about, throwing situations like the scene above in your face and fully expecting you to just go with the flow. There’s an interesting sub-thread that never gets developed and is all but forgotten later, characters that change attitudes as quickly as you can reload your pistols, and an ending that doesn’t quite leave you with a sense of closure when all is said and done. It hints at a continuation of the saga, which would be nice since the weak story simply felt unfinished and not in a way that would have made players eager to find out what would happen next in a sequel.

One other thing that I would have liked to have seen in Darkwatch was a greater emphasis on your powers as a vampire, or at least a greater selection of powers. As it stands, the powers that you earn are fun buffs that you can use in tight situations, but they play second fiddle to what Darkwatch does best as a straightforward FPS title. The action isn’t bad when it just comes down to the gunplay, especially the melee which never gets old, but it’s still pretty standard stuff. At least the enemies in the game help make the action interesting and fun. While most of the foes you’ll encounter tend to just charge at you, Darkwatch helps mix it up with several other foes that will do their best to try and corner you with a variety of attacks.

The length of the single player game may disappoint players hoping to at least put in more than just a few hours into it, many of the stages and areas being short and sweet engagements. With the automatic checkpoint system in place to watch over you, determined players can blow through the game in less than a few hours on the default difficulty. If you’ve ever played Halo or other FPS shooters on the Xbox, don’t expect it to last very long in your hands. It does offer multiplayer options, in both four player split screen and on Live! if you want to shoot it out with up to 16 living souls which might give the game a little more longevity, offering many of the standard gametypes that players can expect.

Pale Rider

Darkwatch brings an atmospheric steampunk adventure to the wild West against wrapped up in the plots of a secret society packed with quite a bit of gun toting, six shooting action backed by a crunchy helping of limb liberating melee. Along with the vampiric abilities that Jericho can use and the opportunity to help shape his outlook on unlife, Darkwatch offers something a little different to the WW2 and sci-fi flavored FPS battlefield. It’s different enough to be interesting, but when you lift away its gothic veil, it suffers from a short single player campaign and a storyline that doesn’t seem to be all there lending an awkward feel to the rest of the title. Despite this, if you’re looking for something that’s a little different and are curious to know what Clint Eastwood could have done if he were fighting dead men instead of desperados, you might want to check out Darkwatch.

- World 1-1

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