Genre: Tactical RPG
Developer: Nival Interactive
Release Date: June 2006
"At the end of things… The Blessed will say, 'We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,' and the Lost, 'We were always in Hell,' and both will speak truly." - C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
I think that, on some unconscious level, we all wish that there was a hidden world of magic and mystery that could only be tapped into on special occasions for an extra zesty shot glass of excitement. Certainly, this desire has been explored via film many times over, and games are equally guilty of indulging in this fantastical fancy. Is it any surprise that eventually someone would make a game based on a movie about a shadow world only a select few can see? Thus we have the upcoming Night Watch, a tale of light versus darkness and the conflict between the two that is fought by paranormally sensitive agents sworn to protect or corrupt the masses by any means.
Night Watch was released as a blockbuster film in Russia in 2004, and initially broke all box-office records when it first hit the theaters. The action breaks down in Moscow, and centers on a group of beings referred to as "others." These are people who are aware of the existence of a shadow-world referred to as the Twilight, a realm regular humans have no idea even exists. This awareness happens to include how to step in and out of these shadows, effectively disappearing into the ether if any normal witnesses are around to see.
Like all of us hairless simians, some of the "others" tend toward evil while others lean toward kittens and warm-fuzzy mugs of hot chocolate with marshmallows. These two sides oversee each other's activities in order to ensure that an ancient Armistice Treaty is upheld. At one point, both factions nearly annihilated each other and called a last-minute cease-fire in order to hash out this agreement as a self-preservation mechanic. Fast forward several millennia; Night Watch keeps tabs on the ennui and bad poetry of the darkness, Day Watch looks out for overzealous cheer on behalf of the light, and the Inquisition (possibly Spanish, if so, I certainly didn't expect it) sits in the middle, adjudicating larger conflicts between the other two factions. While this all sounds eerily like some sort of inter-office corporate drama gone terribly awry, one can also clearly hear the echoes of the Cold War ringing out in the plot.
In Night Watch: The Game, you play a young man named Stas, a new initiate into the Night Watch. Our hero starts out on a rooftop, trying to complete a paid hit on an innocent woman. Seems his dear old grandmother needs an operation desperately, and killing people with a bolt-action rife is about the only way Stas can scrape together the money to cover this medical procedure. I guess his credit cards have been maxed out or something, possibly due to the costs of a bolt-action rifle and ammunition. Is this "the ends justify the means" taken to some sort of warped extreme? I think so.
Best of all, the hit was suggested by the surgeon overseeing poor ol' ailing nana. I don't think the scriptwriters meant for this to be as comical as it is, but I can't help laughing at the absurdity of a doctor suggesting contract killing as a viable financial solution to medical treatment. ("Uhh, gee, thanks for the suggestion, doc. No, no I hadn't previously considered murder for spare change….") Forgive me dear reader, for I'm digressing most dreadfully. Before the dirty deed can be done dirt cheap, the Night Watch appear and rescue our misguided do-bad-to-do-gooder, pulling him into a life of hide and seek with vampires, werewolves, and nefarious wizard types. Along the way, you (as Stas, naturally) will gather more of these like-minded helpful types into a group that you'll weld into a mighty fighting force.
To deviate from my fanciful pontificating, let us bluntly state the facts: Night Watch is played from a top-down isometric point of view, and is somewhat of a hybrid of turn-based strategy and role-playing game. All non-combat action is point-and-click, not a million miles removed from the likes of Diablo except that this title is set in modern-day Russia and not in some medieval mythical world. Once combat is entered, the turn-based nature of the game comes into effect, with all of the standard rules preset: each character has a certain amount of action points per turn, and each action (movement, spells, attacking) takes up varying amounts of these points. In effect, you perform a skill or attack, click the "end turn" button, the AI does its turn, and you lather, rinse, and repeat.
Adding a further layer to this is the nature of being "in twilight." Basically, this nether-realm facilitates free movement, effectively doubling action points. It also shields your units from mundane weapons and gunfire. It goes without saying that as much of the fighting as possible will take place in twilight; it's just tactically sound. Also, just in case you think each victorious encounter brings nothing more than a swell of pride, fear not! Defeated enemies drop various items, and sometimes, you'll also find things just lying around that can be useful as well (Chocolate bars on the ground! The wrappers aren't sealed, either!! Tasty and sanitary!!!). This is partially where the RPG elements come in, as you manage your inventory and the items you want your little troops to carry.
Enemies defeated in combat and mission objectives completed also generate experience points. Build up enough, and each character in your party will "level," granting you a new skill or ability to train up. These are tailored to the class you choose, of which there are three: mage, shape-shifter, and sorcerer. Mages cast the most direct destructive magic, such as blasts of raw energy and telekinetic bursts that throw enemies around like ragdolls (extra points for blasting a thug into a car, causing the vehicle to explode). Shape-shifters are the all-purpose werewolf/dog/tiger types, with a wide array of animal forms and melee attacks. These bestial pugilists can also lick their wounds to regenerate health. Feel free to insert off-color joke here. Finally, sorcerers can create utilitarian magic items like health-regenerating apples and chocolate bars (here you thought eating them off the ground was beneath your cultured upbringing) or particle-beam flashlights. They also get some direct-damage spells, but they aren't quite as effective or flexible as the mage. In combination, the abilities of all three classes complement each other well and make for some brutal combination attacks.
Night Watch has promise; that much is certain. It has a feeling and style quite similar to the pen-and-paper RPG called In Nomine, although its concept is so unique that no one could ever call it a clone. The challenge that lies ahead for Nival and CDV will be marketing this game in North America without the brand recognition it will enjoy in Europe due to the overwhelming success of the film. Western gamers also tend to be reluctant to break out of the FPS/RTS/MMoRPG mold, but for those who crave something different, I would say that this is a title to (night) watch out for. Not many games on the market are as genuinely one-of-a-kind as Night Watch is.
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