Review by BloodGod65

"This combination of Dracula and Tombstone doesn't yield the results you might expect"

There seems to be a general consensus among the gaming populace (at least among those who care) that the western is a woefully underrepresented genre. For Darkwatch, High Moon Studios has gone above and beyond the call of duty and not only given us a western game, but a supernatural western! Naturally, at the first mention of vampire cowboys I knew I had to play it.

The story follows in the footsteps of Jericho Cross, a train-robber on the western frontier. On what becomes his last heist, he unwittingly breaks into a train owned by the Darkwatch (the supernatural police of the west) and unleashes Lazarus, one of the most dangerous vampires on the planet. On his way out, Lazarus rewards Cross by turning him into a vampire. Cross then finds out that his only hope of retaining his humanity is to hunt down Lazarus and kill him.

At its core, Darkwatch doesn't stray very far from the first person shooter template set down by other mainstream shooters. You'll travel through linear levels, blasting away at enemies with an assortment of weaponry and encounter a few impressive set pieces.

Beyond that, Darkwatch begins to encounter problems. Even though the enemy list is pretty awesome – players can look forward to zombie Native Americans, flying banshees and giant, morbidly obese things that waddle after Cross –the enemy selection gets painfully boring after mowing through a dozen waves of the same enemy type in a single level.

Even when a new enemy is introduced – which is rare – it becomes boring in minutes. This can be attributed to the fact that enemy types are fought in clumps and there is rarely any mix to what the game throws at the player. A standard enemy assault consists of a few dozen sickle-wielding Reapers, following by a few banshees and a handful of explosive barrel carrying Keggers. The repetitive combat isn't helped by there only being ten enemy types in the entire game. Of these, two are restricted to a single level, another two only make a handful of appearances through the entire game, and one doesn't even come into play until the latter half of the story. So this effectively cuts down the enemy types to five for the first half and six for the last half.

Of course, High Moon's decision to just increase the number of enemies onscreen rather than find legitimate ways to raise the difficultly doesn't help matters any. Following in that lazy design philosophy, enemies constantly respawn, meaning the area Cross just cleared often fills back up with enemies and puts him in the middle of a killzone. But in the end, it still accomplishes the same thing - cheap deaths and aggravation. As an added insult, Darkwatch also uses special, powered up enemies that appear without explanation. In certain segments, “ghost” versions of enemies pop up. At times, Cross will even be forced to fight ghost zombies (or would that be zombie ghosts?), which is a stretch, even by the game's already fantastical fiction.

What makes combat especially frustrating is the fact that, at times, enemies are ridiculously hard to hit. Not only do the vast majority of them jump and flail around so much it is hard to get a bead on them, once you fire the game's hit detection seems to be working against you. I can't count the number of times I was using a sniper rifle and went for a headshot only to see an arm fly off. Even at point blank range, bullets will mysteriously go right around their target. It certainly doesn't help that that the “crosshair” is a big circle with a teeny-tiny dot in the middle, meaning that it envelops a zombie's entire torso at close range.

In addition to the typical arsenal of shotguns, rifles, pistols, crossbows, sniper rifles and rocket launchers (bet you didn't know they had those in the wild west), Cross has access to abilities granted by his vampirism. Not only is he protected by a “blood shield” (think the regenerating shields from Halo), he is also able to double jump and use other abilities as determined by his alignment. These range from increasing the damage of firearms or melee attacks to shooting chain lightning from his fingers, Palpatine style, and sucking souls out of people. In the later stages of the game these can be extremely helpful, especially when you've got dozens of howling zombies heading right at you. Due to the alignment factor, not all of these abilities will be available on a single playthrough, but it is pretty easy to get exactly what you want since the game tells you about the powers and what your alignment must be to get them. During the in-game segments that determine your alignment (such as sucking the vampiric poison out of someone or just killing them), the game even goes so far as to label the actions as “Good” or “Bad” in bold letters.

Aside from the typical run and gun action of the game, you'll get to jump on your trusty steed (which is also a vampire… No, I'm not kidding) for some old-fashioned train chasing. These segments are actually pretty fun, because your pistol doesn't need to be reloaded and enemies have a harder time hitting Jericho. The other vehicle (used for all of one mission) is basically a steam-powered dune buggy with Gatling guns attached to it. The controls are horribly imprecise and sluggish to respond, it becomes airborne by running over small objects and the guns are about as accurate as a tabloid doomsday prophecy.

Despite the supernatural trappings, the game plays out like most other console first person shooters. But as far as its graphics go, the game does have a unique style. Many of the environments possess a unique frontier goth feel, with lots of crosses and worked iron. The effect is suitably creepy, but after the first few levels pass, Cross spends the rest of the game slogging through bland deserts and ghost towns.

On the technical side of things, the game isn't impressive at all. Character models are ugly (Jericho's model is actually the worst in the game) and the texture work leaves a lot to be desired. After a while, all the levels just start to run together since most of them don't do anything to distinguish themselves from one another.

There isn't very much voice acting in the game (probably because Cross spends most of his time fighting corpses…) and what there is so bad you'll find yourself giggling like a schoolgirl. The main villain, Lazarus, follows the formula of bad guy monologue so perfectly he loses all credibility as a scary villain and the members of the Darkwatch sound like redneck stereotypes.

The soundtrack is only notable because Ennio Morricone's theme from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” plays on the main menu. As for the rest of the game, music is especially sparse and plays during a few cutscenes. When making a decision during the game that affects your good and evil alignment, a few notes play, but that hardly qualifies as music.

THE VERDICT
I can't deny that this game had an awesome concept, but unfortunately High Moon Studios completely missed the two most crucial first person shooter elements; spot-on hit detection and level design. Without these two backing elements, no FPS can compete in the market. Still, the game is occasionally able to rise above its critical flaws and deliver an entertaining experience – but not often enough.


Reviewer's Score: 6/10 | Originally Posted: 07/28/08, Updated 07/06/10

Game Release: Darkwatch (US, 08/16/05)


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