Love it or hate it, it's impossible to ignore the hype that's built up around the upcoming "Watchmen" film. Whether it's the Internet fanboys debating how accurately the movie will represent the original graphic novel or the legal back-and-forth between Warner Bros. and Fox (which was so perfectly timed that it could have easily been a publicity stunt), the "Watchmen" film has been at the forefront of the entertainment press for the last few months. It's no surprise then that a Watchmen video game is in the works. What is surprising, however, is the fact that it's not a full retail title, but rather a downloadable game that's targeted for the PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
Set in the early 1970s, Watchmen: The End is Nigh occurs before the events of the graphic novel and the film, though it isn't a straight prequel. It's simply a peek into the backstory of two major characters: Rorschach and Nite Owl.
Spread over six chapters, The End is Nigh has you taking control of one of the two heroes in a fight against crime. Designed as a traditional brawler, Rorschach and Nite Owl share a basic set of moves, though each has a different special attack. Given his aggressive nature, Rorschach builds up a rage meter while fighting. Once the rage level is maxed out, Rorschach can unleash a flurry attack on his opponents. Nite Owl, on the other hand, has used his knowledge of gadgetry to whip up a basic, but effective, stun gun. Like Rorschach's special attack, you have to wait for it to charge, but once the battery is primed, Nite Owl can zap nearby enemies with a high-voltage charge.
The special attacks are useful, but they won't carry you through the majority of the game. You'll start out with a basic attack and dodge, unlocking more advanced moves as you progress. The attack system requires you to press the buttons in a controlled cadence. Get an advanced move correct, and the button sequence shows up on-screen. Start smashing buttons like mad, and your character will simply flail wildly while the AI dodges.
Because all of the advanced attacks have specific button combinations, the linking system is designed around matching attacks that start and end on the same button. For example, if your first attack ends with a dodge move and your second starts with a dodge, you can link the two together into a combo. It's possible to keep doing this with multiple moves, so long as you keep to the timing.
As a master of the martial arts, Nite Owl is the more polished fighter, with flowing moves and a tendency to dominate in one-on-one situations. He's also a more honorable fighter than Rorschach and won't stoop to using weapons. Rorschach, on the other hand, has no issues with picking up a baseball bat, crowbar or something similar and using it to bash in an opponent's skull. This difference in fighting style should help keep the two characters from feeling like carbon copies of each other. Rorschach also has a lock-picking mini-game that is used during your adventure.
Finishing moves are trigged once an enemy has taken a certain amount of damage, and they're performed in a Quick Time Event style. Press the corresponding button as the icon flashes on screen to level your hapless opponent. We only got to see a few of the finishers in the time we spent with the game, so we're hoping that the developers included plenty of variety here. After all, seeing a gruesome finishing move once is impressive. Seeing the same move over and over is boring.
Since Rorschach and Nite Owl fight as a team, the two heroes will always be side by side. Whoever you're not controlling will be piloted by the AI. During a demo, we were told that the partner AI was designed to hold its own. You shouldn't expect your partner to do all the work, but the developers also didn't want the player to have to worry about babysitting the AI all the time. At the very least, you won't have to worry about your AI partner dying.
With two characters, The End is Nigh is ripe for co-op play, and the game has a split-screen option. We're more than thrilled to cheer the split-screen play (it seems to be a dying breed in games these days) but disappointed at the fact that there is no online co-op. Drop-in/drop-out online team play is starting to become a standard, so when games are lacking, it's quite noticeable.
If we have one worry about The End is Nigh, it's the replay value. The game looks very good for a downloadable title, with an engine that could be on par with a retail release. However, while we were sitting there bashing in enemy heads with a developer rep playing alongside, the general sameness of the enemy forces became apparent. Perhaps it was just the level we were on, but the attacking fighters very much seemed to be clones of one another. Given the effort put forth to differentiate our two heroes, it was a bit disappointing to see that your enemies were generic. We're hoping that all six levels don't end up feeling like clones of one another.
Whether or not Watchmen: The End is Nigh is a hit, what we can promise is that it doesn't appear to be your typical movie tie-in game. Rather than go for the quick cash, the developers appear to have put forth a genuine effort to expand the Watchmen canon and appeal to existing fans, and we've got to give them credit for that.
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