STAFF REVIEW of Darkwatch (Xbox)

Friday, September 30, 2005.
by Stacy Code

Darkwatch Box art Darkwatch is a game that doesn\'t really know what it wants to be - and neither does the hero of the story, actually. Neither seem to have heard the old adage that if you try and please everybody at once, you\'ll just end up upsetting a lot of people.

Developed by High Moon Studios and published by Capcom, Darkwatch is a first-person shooter in which you play Jericho Cross, a bank-and-train-robbing outlaw who stumbles into a secret undead-hunting organization when he inadvertently frees a demonic villain from a train he\'s trying to rob. Jericho becomes infected by the villain and becomes a vampire himself, eventually recruited into the Darkwatch organization to hunt and destroy the undead.

Visually, the game is astonishing, for a title built on the Renderware engine. The two genres - wild west and gothic horror/fantasy - blend together well stylistically and the game\'s engine shows off the level environments beautifully, indoors and out. Moody, dark outdoor enviroments (gunfighting skeletons in a churchside graveyard at night - wheee!!!) are contrasted with gorgeously detailed indoor levels such as old mines and castles. I say again - I have never, ever seen a Renderware-based game look this good. Darkwatch really shows the power and potential of the engine.

Unfortunately, the game doesn\'t innovate at all when it comes to the actual play mechanics. Your character, Jericho, shamelessly rips off Master Chief in a few respects - the \'rechargeable shield over a finite health bar\' is weakly explained as your having donned a \'blood shield\' of some sort, and damage to your health is replenished by drinking from \'blood canteens\' dropped by slain enemies. It\'s hard not to chuckle at this generous splashing of blood around in the game - it seems as though anything in the plot, play mechanics or anything else can simply be explained away by making it blood-related within the game. You half-expect Elvira, Mistress of the Dark to lean in from the side of the screen and narrate your gameplay at some point - though the game isn\'t outright cheesy, it seems to just be trying way too hard at some points, right down to the main theme music which tries vainly to combine Ennio Morricone\'s theme from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly with a kind of horror vibe. Your arsenal is again, awfully familiar stuff - pistol, shotgun, rifle, sniper rifle etc. Like our old friend Master Chief, Jericho may only carry two weapons at a time and must drop one to pick up another, but to be honest, outside of a few areas where a long-distance i.e. sniper weapon was handy, it doesn\'t seem to really matter what you\'re packing on any given level. There are some balance issues - your melee attack, in which you strike enemies with the bladed butt of your weapon, seems impossibly lethal, and you\'ll find that it\'s almost not worth your while to pull the trigger in most engagements - it\'s too easy to simply wade through a pack of enemies decapitating them with repeated smashes from the wrong end of your weapon.

The story is moved along by some very good-looking pre-rendered cutscenes, although the story itself is weak. The organization you are recruited into, the Darkwatch, seems to exist to sort of generally fight evil, but with little history or context or explanation, you\'ll find it hard to really care about what\'s going on plot-wise - it just becomes a trek through some very linear levels blasting the hell out of anything that moves.

Jericho is capable of doing a \'double-jump\', as well; usually a staple feature of platform-style adventure games, you can double the height of a jump by re-pressing the jump button at the apex of a leap - in essence, jumping off of air to jump even higher. Unfortunately, the physics are a little floaty and it\'s nearly impossible to jump accurately - this, coupled with the fact that Jericho seems to have fairly bad footing and tends to slip off of things he\'s trying to land on, makes some of the battles impossibly frustrating, and any areas that are essentially jumping puzzles will have you cursing in frustration. When jumping in combat, you will literally find yourself flying all over the place, and it\'s quite easy to get confused as to where you are, where you\'re going, and it becomes next to impossible to fight. Some of the levels - such as a \'training room\' which is essentially a fake western town built in a pit - seem as though they are hastily-refurbished multiplayer maps thrown into the main game in order to stretch out a few more hours of gameplay. There are levels where you are simply dropped into a large map and forced to fight twenty minutes worth of endlessly-respawning enemies until a preset number of them are killed, and they seem arbitrary and frustrating.

Jericho inherits some special abilities from his newfound vampiric status - a \'blood vision\' can be toggled on and off, essentially a slight zoom coupled with a sort of thermographic vision in which the screen washes out a vein-streaked dark red but with enemies glowing brightly. It\'s a pretty cool visual effect, where enemies stand out in a luminescent haze, with the traceries of their blood vessels visible in your vampiric hunger. As well, Jericho can earn special \'blood powers\' through the game - occasionally, you will come upon nearly-dead victims left behind by the game\'s villain, Lazarus, and at each point you are offered a \'good\' or \'bad\' option - such as killing or freeing them. By doing so you earn points toward purchasing special powers which are good- or evil-themed, such as \"Silver Bullet\" - a powerup that makes your weapon attacks much more lethal (thus conserving ammunition), or \"Turn\", which allows you to briefly cause weaker enemies to attack each other instead of yourself. Unfortunately, this theme of Jericho\'s internal struggle of good versus evil isn\'t really explored in any way, so you\'ll find it\'s fairly nonconsequential to commit \'evil\' deeds in order to purchase a particular power you might think is cool.

Multiplayer in the game seems to be a tip of the hat to all of the staples, and to be honest I don\'t expect you to pick this one up to burn up Xbox Live. A few years ago, any game that didn\'t support multiplayer was doomed to wither on the vine, and there were some excellent first-person-shooters that didn\'t support multiplayer that sadly did not get sales because of the lack. Despite strong game design and a rich story, any shooter that didn\'t support multiplayer was simply doomed. I almost hate to see a game like Darkwatch incorporate multiplayer simply because they feel they have to, because what you get is the same multiplayer experience that you\'ve already had in so many other games - the same deathmatch, the same capture-the-flag, the same closed-in maps. The multiplayer (which does support split-screen, by the way) just feels like a gothic-themed mod to, well, just about any other first person shooter you might have played this year. You might jump on Live just to try it out, but I can pretty much guarantee this isn\'t one you\'re going to be booking special nights to play online with, like Halo or Rainbow 6.

All in all, I\'m not saying that Darkwatch is a bad game - it\'s not. Like I\'ve already said, the game\'s visuals are pretty striking, especially considering the Renderware basis they\'re built on - the game is very pretty. It\'s just that it sort of waffles around with a weak story, and that, coupled with generic gameplay and some sloppy execution on the fine points, makes it hard to press on at some points in the game. And at a $40 price point at release, it\'s hard to justify laying down that much cash for a game that, in essence, you\'ve likely already played. It\'s an excellent weekend rental - that\'s about all the time you\'ll need to finish the single-player campaign - and if you\'re looking for multiplayer, there\'s just too much superior material out there you could be playing instead. Give Darkwatch a chance, but keep your expectations reined in.

Overall: 5.0 / 10
Gameplay: 4.0 / 10
Visuals: 8.0 / 10
Sound: 5.0 / 10


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