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Which Console Did You Buy/Receive Over The Holidays?

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Game Profile
High Moon Studios
GENRE: First Person Shooter
PLAYERS:   1-8
August 16, 2005

 Written by Glenn Wigmore  on April 04, 2006

Review: The good, the bad, the undead?

Darkwatch was initially displayed at E3 2004 and, at the time, was being developed by Sammy Studios. Sammy Studios has since become High Moon Studios and this Western-themed first-person shooter has released on the Xbox. The main twist for this title is the presence of vampires (and the undead) as the opposition, but also as a factor on the game's protagonist. Does this twist on convention really make that much of a difference to the overall package? Well, it certainly freshens up some of the usual backdrops that a FPS usually relies on, but Darkwatch still does fall into certain genre conventions.

The story places you in the boots and spurs of one Jericho Cross, a horse-riding bandit who totes all sorts of crazy ?hyper-Western? armaments. At the beginning of the game, Cross is involved in a train robbery gone awry; in his eagerness to gain access to the train's loot, he unleashes a Pandora's Box of sorts, one that contains all manner of undead creatures ? including the main boss, Lazarus. This action also has an effect on Jericho, as he becomes a vampire, effectively giving him all of the benefits and drawbacks of being a bloodsucker.

At this point, the game provides you with a companion named Cassidy. As a member of the Darkwatch order, Cassidy guides you towards other members of Darkwatch and explains some of your vampire quirks. And vampire quirks you will have, as you can access a set of powers that are based on how you play the game. The powers are pretty basic in terms of their impact on the gameplay, but they're implemented reasonably well and mix up the action a bit. Blood Vision gives you the ability to see undead ghouls lurking around the corner; this mode almost acts like a Splinter Cell night vision with a red filter. Other vampire powers include an increased jump ability that allows Jericho to vault to extremely perilous heights, as well as enhanced offensive and defensive capabilities. Again, these powers aren't all that original, but they're implemented well enough to add something to the experience.

In terms of acquiring powers in Darkwatch, that all depends upon the moralistic choices you make when dealing with the world's inhabitants. Basically, if you decide to reunite a family, that will lead you on a path to good and, consequently, give you more of the ?noble? special abilities; conversely, sucking the blood of said family members would send you towards damnation and reward you with more ?unpleasant? capabilities. Much of this ?good cop, bad cop? dynamic seemed to have a lot more potential when this game was in development; the final product only seems to cosmetically change in-game powers and that's about it. A more dynamic representation of how Jericho changes throughout the quest would have been welcome, plus additional and more creative challenges to morality.

The actual combat in Darkwatch is quite akin to the Halo series, for a variety of reasons. First off, the action feels comparably close to that of Halo, with the pace and frenetic nature of the gunplay being quite similar. That said, the action doesn't come close to the satisfying nature of Halo, especially with the pretty average enemy AI and environments that can be a little too cramped in some instances. The AI can provide a moderate challenge, to be sure, but it must be said that the baddies do a lot of standing around and yelling more than actually avoiding gunfire; this was probably, to a certain degree, a conscious choice by the development team, as the gameplay can venture into Serious Sam territory. Another Halo-esque feature comes from the two-weapon limit for combat. This works just about as well as it did in Halo, as many weapons you'll find are actually kind of cool so you'll want to keep them rather than let them go, but also like Halo, you'll find certain ones that fit your style.

The selection of weapons is fairly good with a basic pistol and rifle being the ?default? choices for Jericho Cross. Of course, Mr. Cross will also come to possess an explosive crossbow, which is actually quite effective for sticking into adversaries to make them blow up ? a good looking effect. There's also more explosive action in the form of a rocket launcher and clusters of dynamite. One weapon in your arsenal that shouldn't be overlooked is the melee attack; like Halo, the melee attack varies by weapon and is useful for taking out the armies of undead that you'll face. The impact isn't quite as satisfying as in Bungie's games, but the tactic remains useful for some of the cramped hallways and crypts that you'll be going through. The way in which the enemies are affected by the weapons is noteworthy as well, in particular the way individual parts (heads, limbs) can be blown off. It certainly is amusing to blow off a skeleton's head and still have the body lumbering towards you ? moments like this really contribute to the slightly exaggerated feel of the game.

The combat does vary somewhat from the traditional shooting, specifically during the boss battles and horseback sequences. Boss battles are usually entertaining in most any game and Darkwatch is really no different; many bosses will actually fly around above you and cause all sorts of havoc so you'll have to keep your focus. None of them are really memorable encounters for gaming lore, but they do manage to ?milestone? the experience and give you a sense of purpose as you truck along. The horseback sequences are also kind of entertaining, as you'll be flying along in a third-person perspective while shooting various baddies all around you. The presentation of this horseback gunplay isn't all that great, featuring no real environmental objects in the distance or danger for the horse (rocks, etc.). The camera isn't that effective for tracking adversaries in this mode, either. Even with this wide-open ?on rails? feel, these sequences still mix it up a bit. There's even a ?car? section where Jericho pilots a contraption right out of Army of Darkness ? buckle-up, bonehead.

The campaign should last most players somewhere between 10 and 12 hours, but it might end faster if you're familiar with certain FPS conventions (checkpoints, weapon management, etc.) The experience definitely could have used a bit more length, and you can also tell where certain features that were promised in development were cut (remember: this game was originally slated for next-generation consoles).

As for the multiplayer offerings, Darkwatch delivers a pretty standard experience that doesn't really try anything new. You'll have access to split-screen and System Link modes, as well as 16-player support over Xbox Live. Game modes are conventional for the most part and include deathmatch, team deathmatch, and CTF variants. There's one original mode called ?Soul Hunter,? but it mainly consists of collection goals rather than killing; unfortunately, more often than not, these modes of play just don't get much love from the majority of users. All of the basic Xbox Live features are in place so you can expect to manage your friends, join quick matches, and search for games based on parameters (time, map, kill count, etc.). Some maps in multiplayer have been made specifically for the mode, whereas others are straight out of the campaign. The multiplayer does feel somewhat tacked on, but it is functional and can be mildly enjoyable when firing explosive crossbows and the like.

The presentation of Darkwatch is uniformly good for the Xbox, with graphics looking somewhat better than those found on the PS2. Atmosphere is certainly created with the dark lighting and ominous mountains, plus certain creatures have a degree of menace in how they move and fight. The reload animations for Jericho's guns are pretty cool, as are the impact and gun flip of the melee strike. Enemies animate decently, with some baddies being a tad bit jerky in their movement ? nothing too bad, but noticeable. Most textures on buildings and environmental details are good, but the lack of any detail during the horseback sequences is kind of annoying (in fact, any mission on a train has no detail for miles, either). Again, this type of omission isn't terrible, but it does kind of kill the illusion the game is trying to create.

The sound is generally well done, and the Ennio Morricone-inspired music is pretty cool (gotta dig that remixed The Good, the Bad and the Ugly track in the title screen). Most sound effects are on point, but some sequences do get a bit on the quiet side. Nothing is really drastically wrong with the mood the developers have set, but it could have been even creepier with a bit more dynamic music and environmental sound effects. Voice acting is actually decent for an FPS, but don't expect to really care about too much of what's going on with the short game duration and simplistic script.

The mileage of Darkwatch may vary from one user to another, but the game provides just enough punch to its single-player component to make an argument for liking it. The multiplayer won't add a ton of value, but picking up Darkwatch at a bargain price is certainly an okay move if you like Western-themed games, vampires or reliable FPS action with a decent sense of pace.

Bottom Line
Darkwatch manages to ? somewhat ? rise above ?average? status and creates an atmospheric Western-themed shooter that has some vampires thrown in for good measure. Many of the gameplay quirks are just twists on tried-and-true conventions, but the single-player experience provides some decent gunplay, and there is some multiplayer action to keep the guns blazing a little bit longer.

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