Developer: High Moon Studios, Inc.
Genre: First Person Shooter
Release Date: Q2 2005
If someone asked you to describe where you thought the next big FPS was going to be produced, you might answer eloquently, "Some big game company or some developer tied in with some big game company." These days, you would be making a pretty safe bet, if you didn't know what you were talking about, but rising out of the shadows is independent developer High Moon Studios. As the video game market begins to show some signs of maturing (the eat-or-be-eaten corporate atmosphere), some are turning the wagons around and heading toward the model of small boutique firms. Sammy Studios headed for the high plains, created Darkwatch, and changed their name to High Moon Studios.
The renaming of Sammy to High Moon almost sounds like a pun on the Darkwatch game, as the lead character, Jericho Cross, takes on the evil undead in the middle of the night – much like the showdowns in the Wild West at High Noon. Darkwatch is a Western FPS set about 20 years before the Civil War in the sun-drenched, wind-swept lands of the American Southwest, as the West was being won. Quietly, another battle between life and death raged on in those lands, and under the cover of night, much of it went unnoticed by nearly all of mankind.
In those remote lands, our main character has worn out his welcome. Jericho Cross came to the West after a slight altercation with his father back East, and the rumor is that dad didn't live to see another dawn. Jericho lost his left eye in the fight, but escaped into the night with his life and his freedom. His life drifting through the West slowed as he found some easy work: robbing trains for a living. The only problem was that Jericho had no idea how popular a one-eyed train robber could become in so short a time. Now, with nearly every living being knowing his face and name, it was time to head south to Mexico, but not before one last job. There was this train rolling through, in the middle of the night, and it had enough armor to transport a king. Jericho knew that the only way to go out was with one last bang, a major heist that people would talk about for years, and one that would set him up for life. As it happens, rumor passes of an armored train coming through the area in the middle of the night.
In these times, anything heavily protected must be worth a fortune, so Jericho set out to snag the loot. The moment he enters the train, it's pretty obvious this isn't your normal bank transport. There isn't cash everywhere, but there is a meat locker and blood spattered everywhere in the forward cars of the train, just like the sloppy stipple paint job your neighbor did to her walls the last time she was drunk. At the head of the train, we finally find the vault, but it is very strange, with a rather wicked insignia on its bulkhead, and Jericho blows it wide open. He's expecting loot, but what Jericho Cross gets is less than nothing, it's downright bad. Inside the vault was not cash, but an ancient vampire lord known as Lazarus Malkoth, and not only does he escape, but he takes a nibble on Jericho before taking off.
And so the story begins, with a not-so-likeable lead character, who negates the work of hundreds of people over countless years to capture a vampire that Jericho unleashes back into the world in an instant by following his greed. Just a moment too late, a member of Darkwatch is present to reprimand him for his commensurate stupidity. She, of course, wants to catch the big, nasty vampire, and she finds the ace in the hole to get the self-interested Mr. Cross to assist, as Jericho is beginning to turn into a vampire from the bite Lazarus Malkoth gave him. The only way for Jericho to save himself is to catch up with the supernatural bad guy and end his newly-refound reign over the undead.
Some developers might be a little wary of putting such a questionable character at the heart of their game, but it doesn't seem to bother High Moon a bit. After all, Cross is a one-eyed bandit who killed his father, and is at that "one last heist" stage of his career. Hopelessly self-interested, and on his way to being a washed-up bad guy, Jericho is one of the last characters many would pick to be the main character in a FPS. So why did High Moon choose such a questionable character? It seems they just didn't care; but they had their reasons, and Jericho Cross may have been a very smart choice.
High Moon did make Jericho a very snappy dresser, with a costume that looks similar to Zorro with a ridiculously oversized hat brim but also some of the western feel that makes you think of Clint Eastwood in "High Plains Drifter." Indeed, there could be some overdone flair here, but since most of the game is spent in first-person mode, the look of your outfit probably won't get too overwhelming.
Fitting with the Wild West, Jericho has a trusty steed through the saga of Darkwatch to keep him on the trail of Lord Malkoth. The horse's name is Shadow, and he comes courtesy of the Darkwatch team. In reality, he is a demon who has taken the form of a horse to serve Jericho's needs, and his loyalty is more than good will, as he's kept on Earth through the use of Jericho's blood. One of the earliest episodes pits you against an airborne Malkoth while on the back of Shadow. In third person mode, you are able to aim at Malkoth in a 360° circle while Shadow carries you faster than any Earthly steed could. As Malkoth swoops back and forth overhead, Jericho can slide off to either side of Shadow to use the demon horse as a shield. Malkoth wouldn't stand a chance if you could fire in this position, but it takes both hands to hold on to the side of the horse. This scene demonstrates one of the many points where timing is much a part of the offensive tactics Cross will need to master throughout the game.
Another element of timing comes when you find the crossbow in Darkwatch. With explosive-tipped arrows, you can lodge them in the head of one of your undead opponents as he is heading into a group, and a few seconds later, he takes out a few of the rotting-flesh undead corpses back to an unanimated state with him. The other bright side of the explosive arrows is how your near-misses may still cause some damage from the pending explosion.
Darkwatch has many of the other stock FPS weapons, including a rocket launcher, sniper rifle, and shotgun on steroids, but don't count the Redeemer, your stock weapon, out of the game when you get access to others. With a 24-shot clip, the Redeemer packs quite a punch for a pistol, and has a good rate of fire. The weapons seem to be enough at this point to manage most of your foes, but if you end up in a close combat situation, don't despair, cowboy. Each of the Darkwatch weapons comes equipped with a very sharp and quite effective blade. Not only is this handy when using the crossbow gets a little to close for explosive comfort, but also when the Redeemer isn't quite enough to get the job done before the undead are standing on your toes. Swinging the blade end of your gun really shows off the strength Jericho's gained from Malkoth's bite, as the undead enemies usually get tossed a few good yards from a direct strike.
As you progress throughout the game, you will get a chance to drive the Coyote, a steam-powered wagon that not only has undead squishing steel wheels, but also Gatlin guns to mow down the competition when they aren't underfoot. Although the strength of the Coyote may seem a bit of a mismatch, with the ability to slaughter the possessed bodies of dead humans, don't be so confident. Although the deadly steel wheels and firepower of the guns make for incredible offensive force, the Coyote lacks the suspension and responsiveness of today's weapons of destruction. The Coyote is a rough-riding, tipsy piece of equipment, and the weight of the boiler which drives the deadly machine makes her less than swift at maneuvering. Combine this with the kamikaze undead carrying barrels of TNT rushing at the Coyote, and the machine begins to exhibit some vulnerability.
This is another key element in Darkwatch. Times exist in the game where Jericho's firepower or abilities seem so superior that you almost feel a rush of confidence. Then something happens like the kamikaze bombers to crush your self-esteem. If High Moon continues to capitalize on this emotional rollercoaster throughout the game, it could be the pièce de resistance to prove Darkwatch a premiere game of 2005.
Also on the emotional side of Darkwatch is the saga of Jericho's soul. Cross starts out the game well on his way to being a damned soul, but is understandably upset when some vampire takes it from him. Now, faced with some strange unknown existence, Jericho would much rather have his soul back, damned or otherwise. This is where the character of Jericho comes in. Because he starts out as an individual more evil than good, there is some real potential for him in the game. After all, he ends up fighting one of the greatest evil entities on Earth in his time. By making decisions at key points in the game, he can either choose to move toward good or evil as he continues his quest, gaining powers associated with his choices along the way.
Since Jericho starts out as a villain, it is believable that he would continue to make choices that continue to darken the soul that he's trying to get back, and it is also possible to conceive that Jericho would make the right choices for good as he comes to know the members of the Darkwatch crew. After all, if you were trying so hard to get your soul back, wouldn't it be an enlightening experience to make you value the afterlife? Maybe, but that will be up to you as you play through the saga of Darkwatch.
In the end, Darkwatch may very well be proof that the big consolidated firms are not invulnerable to serious competition. High Moon has become the proverbial David in the industry, a small and independent bunch. As development of Darkwatch continues, it's our bet that the game will play well on both the Xbox and the PS2, for two major reasons. First, Darkwatch has the potential to be a fabulous game; second, the commitment of High Moon to Darkwatch extends throughout the organization. During our hands-on, not only did we get to meet Meelad Sadat, head of PR, but we also met High Moon's President, John Rowe, and the passion for this game permeates the entire company. That's the beauty of boutiques; quality takes priority over quantity, and we welcome them whole-heartedly as the force to keep everyone spending money on making games good, not just advertising them.
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