Darkwatch (Video Game)

Developed by High Moon Studios

Considering how long Darkwatch has been in the making, and considering that it was almost cancelled before Capcom plucked it from obscurity, it’s with some relief that the title is finally with us.

Darkwatch has always been an interesting pitch, a western themed horror title that puts you in the boots of a gunslinging half human half vampire, trying to decide whether to follow his human or vampire urges. Vampires in the old west just seems one of those perfect combinations, and I’m glad to say that the team at High Moon have more than done the idea justice.

Were I to be cynical, I’d say that Darkwatch is Halo set in the old west with vampires. It’s an effective, and hard to argue with, description of the game. Darkwatch implements Halo’s recharging shield, its two weapons at a time limitation…heck there’s even a four wheel drive buggy named after an animal and a female voice in your head guiding you and telling you what to do for most of the game. But see, there’s a difference between copying something and understanding what made something work.

So maybe Darkwatch is Halo for the horror fan, but I don’t think there has to be any shame in that. It does bring some of its own ideas to the table, as well as offering up a very different tone and setting to most other games out there. How many horror themed first person shooters have you played lately?

It’s that Darkwatch so effectively does that idea justice that sets it apart from being just another Halo clone. If you wanted to experience vampires in the old west, Darkwatch was made for you, and I know it’s an idea that’ll find a lot of favor around these parts. Ol’ Johnny Butane has been crying out for more western themed horror as long as I’ve been reading this site, and he’s not alone.

Having not long finished Bloodrayne 2 before beginning this game, I must say, I’m getting a little tired with the whole “half human, half vampire…ALL BADASS” notion, so the fact that Jericho Cross doesn’t really catch me as an engaging character is possibly not entirely the fault of Capcom and High Moon studios. He’s certainly wearing a cool outfit, with his black duster trailing out behind him as he tears around on his horse, in a very cape like fashion. The big black hat and scar are a little cliché, but undeniably cool, unlike his single glowing eye, which is a bit daft. Vampires have glowing eyes, he’s a half vampire, so he has just one that glows!

Graphically the game is so-so, certainly compared to the recent FPS on XBox. Firstly, you have the insult to HDTV owners that is a lack of progressive scan support, then you have what’s basically PS2 level graphics improved with better texturing. The PS2 game doesn’t have the same kind of peers the XBox game has, so while not looking as good as the XBox title, it doesn’t end up looking so graphically inferior to the games around it.

Artistically the game is a mixed bag. Environments and menus are all rather good. The animation stands out as a strong point. The weapon designs are stylized but have enough of an old west look to them, even when they’re weapons that didn’t exist back then, that they still look believable within the tone of the game.

The human character designs are all a bit exaggerated, which seems a little odd for a horror game, but you soon get used to it. The monster designs are a good deal better. Still slightly cartoony at times, but over all rather good. There mightn’t be many original enemies, but there’s at least one that’s on the unique side…the big fat monster that projectile vomits at you is undeniably different. But again, High Moon have a good idea what’s fun to play against, so the enemy types, while familiar, are far from annoying.

Being able to see that the keggers (decaying bodies carrying a big keg of dynamite on their shoulder that run towards you) were based on the headless bombers from the Serious Sam series doesn’t make them any less fun to fight, and the inclusion of Havok’s physics engine makes all the explosions rather more satisfying than they are in most games. Havok has been used in a lot of games, and while it’s not a part of the gameplay here, it really adds to the believability of the world making it feel that much more grounded in reality.

That you, as a half vampire, can make these great gravity defying leaps is all the more satisfying for having gravity effecting most everything else so believably. It really gives you a feeling of supernatural power.

A shooter is only as good as its weapons, and Darkwatch has a lot of expected ones, as well as a few unexpected ones too. You start off with a pistol that’s one of the fastest firing guns in the game. There are multiple rifles, dual pistols, a cross bow that shoots arrows with attached sticks of dynamite, a shot gun, and a few others. Personally I find the lack of machine guns rather refreshing.

It’s easier to talk about how Darkwatch differs from Halo than to try and explain its gameplay from the ground up. You can only carry two weapons at once, you have a shield (here called a blood shield) that will recharge if you can avoid taking damage for a few seconds, you can throw out a stick of lit dynamite at any time, and you can do large melee with almost every weapon. The 4 wheel drive “Coyote” drives just like the Warthog in Halo, though this has a mounted machine gun you control. Beneath the blood shield is a more traditional health bar that is refilled by picking up red glowing orbs dropped from enemies. As a vampire you have a double jump that is very floaty, and lets you cover long distances and reach much higher places than you normally can in a FPS. To make this a bit easier to cope with, you can press the use button in the air to drop straight down like a stone. This helps prevent you overshoot jumps, and while feeling very weird, comes in handy often.

You have vampire powers on top of that one. You have blood vision that gives you a zoomed in view that highlights enemies and pick ups. There are other powers too, though these are somewhat defined by whether you take a good or evil route, and as such sadly, are rarely ever needed or noteably fun to use.

Ah yes, the good vs. evil mechanic. A lot was made of this, and while it does dictates how the story wraps up, it sadly makes little difference to the gameplay. It alters some cutscenes and the final boss, as well as giving you different vampire powers, but partly due to the powers not really feeling necessary, and partly due to those two final bosses being so similar in gameplay it does little to impact the gameplay.

There’s never any moral dilemma to being good or evil. It’s usually just a good or evil prompt. Should you save this random character of no importance or let her die. There’s no penalty or bonus for doing either option, and I had been hoping for more moral conflict, something more part of the gameplay, than something that brings the gameplay to a stop and presents me with an either/or option.

It doesn’t break the game in anyway, it just doesn’t add to it and thus feels like a missed opportunity. There is undeniably a replayability aspect to it, to see those other cutscenes and to fight that other boss, but that’s really all it offers, and as such there’s no benefit of walking the line between good and evil, you may as well have just picked at the beginning of the game whether you wanted to be good or evil and left it at that.

Another missed opportunity is the horse back combat sections, not because there’s anything wrong with them, there isn’t, they’re actually excellent, there’s just hardly any of them. The game could have really done with more of these sections, and I’m not sure if High Moon and Capcom were a little paranoid about how they would be received. More than just a change of pace, they’re fun in their own right, giving you independent control over your horse and where you shoot, as well as letting you duck down on either side of your horse to dodge attacks.

Because the second level is horseback based, you get the impression that you’ll be doing a lot of it, but instead you’ll actually be waiting a heck of a long time before you get to do it again, instead going through mission after mission of on-foot FPS combat.

Level design is rather stylized, making good use of the settings, with outposts and canyons and gold mines and frontier towns…but there are some rather weird transitions, and a branching section in the middle of the game that lets you choose the order in which you take on three missions, that frankly doesn’t make any sense and should have just been done linearly in my eyes.

For example, you go from a desert in the wild west to an area with snow without any kind of transitional cut scene showing you approaching an ice capped mountain in the distance and then arriving. You just turn up at an outpost and it’s snowing. I’m sure I’m not the only person that found that a bit weird.

Also, when you get to choose the order in which you do the missions at the Darkwatch, you get the impression that the people are in great peril in all of them, but the order you do them in doesn’t change anything about them. The people urgently in need of help are no worse off if you leave that particular mission until last, and again, there is a place I can see some of the moral dilemmas I was hoping the game might offer.

It’s actually one of those three missions that is easily my favourite in the game, making great use of the fact that, in sunlight, Jericho has no vampire powers. So no vampire zoom, no double jump, and no blood shield. Unfortunately it’s the only mission that takes place during the day, so it’s gameplay isn’t duplicated anywhere else, and the fun of hiding in the shadows to recover or snipe, and the feeling of having to quickly cover ground from one dark area to the next, is all to brief. More missions under those conditions would have made for a deeper and more distinct gameplay experience.

The single player campaign is probably going to take you around ten or so hours, a lot less if you’ve conquered games like Halo on “Legendary”, but makes for a fun and occasionally creepy romp, and the story line, though a bit pulpy and obtrusive at times (some levels it feels like you can’t go thirty seconds without being interrupted by a brief cutscene), is engaging enough to have you wanting to know what’s going to happen next. Fortunately it’s not all that Darkwatch has to offer.

If you have the PS2 version of the game, there’s a split screen co-operative mode, something I (with the XBox version) didn’t get to sample, but I’m sure Darkwatch’s single player is just as fun if not more fun with a friend. To be honest, if you can cope with slightly inferior graphics and sound, and controller less suited with for FPS, I might recommend the PS2 version of the game over the XBox one, even though the XBox version is the only one with online multiplayer.

You see, while this is by no means a criticism of the live based multiplayer, which has some pretty good map design and offers night time and day time versions of most of the maps (no vampire powers in any of the daytime maps no matter where you stand sadly), hardly anyone seems to be playing it. That most of the maps were obviously built for larger numbers of players just makes this even more unfortunate. It might seem a bit harsh, but if there aren’t enough players now, a few weeks after release, I don’t think there’s likely to ever be.

Obviously, the map size is an issue in the split screen mode as well, offered by both versions of the game, but even so you’re probably going to have more fun playing this with your buddies all in the same room than playing it on line, where if you’re used to the sort of level of competition Halo 2 offers, Darkwatch is a bit of a cake walk.

It’s fun no doubt, if you can get enough players, but there are maps here you’re unlikely to ever get enough people on to really enjoy.

So Darkwatch gets some things right, and some things wrong. The things it gets right are the important things. The single player mightn’t be the longest and the multiplayer mightn’t be the deepest or best supported, but the game mechanics are fun, the story in the single player is interesting, and the atmosphere unique enough that your memories of the game won’t blend in with everything else, and as I said before, if you want to experience vampires in the old west in an action based FPS, Darkwatch was made for you.

3 ½ out of 5

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Jon Condit

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