Genre: First Person Shooter
Developer: High Moon Studios, Inc.
Release Date: August 16, 2005
This is a good FPS, but it’s also a great deal like Halo.
That said, if Darkwatch is a Halo clone, it’s one that’s actually learned from its predecessor; this is an imitation that actually is sincere flattery.
Really, the similarities are uncanny. A superhuman protagonist succeeeds where ordinary men die by the dozen, protected by a bizarre regenerating shield and accompanied by a voice in his head. The levels are almost always hectic, skin-of-your-teeth gunfights that pit you against hordes of gibbering, faceless enemies, scrambling for any and every slim advantage you can scrape together.
There are many shooters on console these days, but not many of them reach this level of lunatic intensity, or give you quite so many toys to play with. Darkwatch departs from historical accuracy fairly early on – if you’re the sort of person for whom the fun is ruined when you stumble across a pair of automatic pistols in the Old West, then stay away – but really, you’re shooting zombie cowboys. The Discovery Channel, this isn’t.
Darkwatch begins when Jericho Cross, an outlaw wanted for train robbery (and a proud graduate of the Gordon Freeman School of Laconic Protagonists), embarks on one last job. He leaps onto a train headed across the Arizona territory and blows its safe. Instead of gold, he finds the newly-resurrected ancient vampire Lazarus, whose release sets off a plague of undead across the entire frontier. As a sort of backhanded thank you, Lazarus bites Jericho and leaves him to die.
At this point, you have a choice to make. Jericho’s about halfway to becoming a full-blooded vampire, with many of the associated powers and weaknesses. You can give in to Lazarus’s taunting and embrace Jericho’s curse, becoming a monster who consumes the souls of the living; or avoid temptation whenever possible, saving the lives of other people who Lazarus has tainted. Your choices will affect the way the story plays out, and eventually, the ending you get.
Whichever moral path you take, Jericho’s developing vampirism gives him a host of abilities, such as an insane hang time when he jumps, thermographic “blood vision,” a swiftly-regenerating blood shield, and the ability to regenerate health by draining the blood from dead enemies.
You’ll also gradually acquire a series of new powers, based upon how you choose to play Jericho. Good players get to play with stuff like Silver Bullet, which enhances your firearms damage, or Fear, which makes lesser enemies cower before Jericho. If you opt for the Evil path, you’ll obtain powers like Black Shroud, which damages anything that hits you, and Turn, the ability to force an opponent to attack its former allies.
You can only use your powers so often, however; you’ll need to recharge them between each use by absorbing blood from fallen opponents. The rest of the time, it comes down to twitch reflexes and a few thousand bullets, which is where Darkwatch starts to get interesting.
Once Jericho’s escaped from Lazarus, he joins the organization in the title, a secret police force dedicated to destroying the supernatural threats to humanity. (There are a few of these, I know. They should really exchange notes.)
They, not being fools, hand Jericho a gun, set him up with a cleavagey skankbomb of a new partner (Tala, played by Rose MacGowan; I could really do without her), and send him out to blast the holy bejesus out of some undead. That’s where the fun really starts.
Darkwatch is often intense. You’ll get into an occasional boss battle, but the focus is on one small force vs. another, as zombies rush through the streets of ghost towns, undead gunslingers shower you with bullets, and you blast banshees out of the sky. You’re only allowed two weapons at a time, so ammo’s often scarce, and almost every enemy is durable enough that you need to land a headshot to take them down for good. Even with Jericho’s shielding, agility, and powers, it’s all too easy to die. You’ve really got to think tactically in order to succeed.
It helps that you’ve got a wide assortment of impressively not-Western weapons. I’m particularly fond of the crossbow, which drops a timed explosive onto an enemy, and, of course, the time-honored shotgun. You can also dig up automatic pistols, a range rifle, an accurate and powerful carbine, and – just to kick some final dirt on the coffin of the Old West – a rocket launcher.
Oh, come on. It’s awesome because it makes things explode.
The singleplayer mode’s short, admittedly, but it’s challenging enough that you’ll have a good time with it. There are a few really clunky levels, such as a somewhat clunky ride in a prototype jeep, and another stage where you have to use Jericho’s “blood vision” to see through a cloud of fog. There are also more than a few occasions where the designers apparently meant for you to die, as some kind of bizarre reset tactic; if you run straight into an area, it will explode, but you’ll be fine once you restart.
Once you’ve blown through the singleplayer mode – it’s short, but satisfying, and includes a slightly bizarre sex scene – you can take the Xbox version of Darkwatch online for sixteen-player deathmatches. The PS2 version’s stuck offline, with an extra weapon, an extra level, and a co-op mode to make up for the lack.
I’ve been discussing Darkwatch with a few people online, and opinions seem a bit polarized. If you’re looking for a satisfying singleplayer experience, then Darkwatch has you covered, with an interesting story, multiple endings, and a setting that hasn’t been mined dry by countless other shooters before it. It’s not bad in multiplayer mode either, if you’ve got Xbox Live.
On the other hand, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it feels pretty derivative. The personal shields, melee attacks, weapon setup, female sidekick, and even the floaty controls on the Coyote Steamwagon are all really reminiscent of the first Halo. It’s still a good game, and it brings enough of its own style to the table that you haven’t really played this before.
The bottom line is that, for all its flaws, I really enjoyed Darkwatch. It’s got its share of issues, but they’re something you don’t have much time to think about between waves of hostile undead. I’d recommend it to any console owner who enjoys a good FPS.
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