Review by Ashande

Reviewed: 08/18/05

Quite possibly the best FPS you'll play

If you take a Wild West setting, inject one troublesome train robber, two very strange ladies with unknown agendas, a horde of zombies that puts Resident Evil to shame, a godlike vampire king, and a plot that might have come from Bentley Little's laboratories, what do you get?

Perfection. Or as close to it as you're going to find, I'd wager.

Darkwatch is the result of this - seemingly odd, I'll grant you that - unholy mixture, and is well worth every penny you might consider spending on it. I think the one bad thing about it is that not enough people are really aware of it; compared to other FPSes out there, it hasn't gotten much publicity. Working in a game store and seeing a crate come in that contains 30 copies of the Halo 2 Map Pack and 4 copies of Darkwatch (one of which was my preorder copy) makes me feel a little sad, since I don't think this game is going to fare well in the sales department, but hopefully I can convince at least a few people to support this game; it might mean we get more original titles like it.

Anyway; enough with the sermonizing. On with the review. I'll go by category, as per my usual.

GRAPHICS - 8/10

Much as I hate to rate this one first, most people are going to look at this one and almost nothing else. I wish I could grade it higher, but a few things nag at me, which brings the score down. Overall, the graphics are good; they're immersive, well done, and do an excellent job of conveying a sense of isolation and - in the outside areas, at least - the sheer space that exists in the western territories. In the graveyard levels, looking up at the sky really makes you feel like you're laying in a deserted field somewhere and staring at the stars.

The characters are almost (I'll get to that momentarily) all perfect, and the graphics as you inflict damage on your foes are well done; you'll see the spray of ichor (I hesitate to call it blood, really, since it's usually black and the things it's coming out of have been dead so long they probably don't have a lot of blood in them) and the dangling bits of flesh when you tear off a zombie's arm, and the animations when they stumble around, headless, after a well-placed shot are perfect. Monster variety in the early levels suffers, since most of the creatures are zombies, who all look almost identical except for some that wear a hat or carry a gun, but as you get further, the detail level gets incredible. When you finally meet some of the zombies created from your Darkwatch comrades, you can see the folds in their clothes, the ragged scraps of fabric hanging off their bodies where they were wounded, and the glint of their rifles as they take aim. Cassidy is well drawn, and fits her character well, and the cutscenes are all top-notch.

The main bad point, and that which drags this score down, is Jericho himself. His model looks "wrong" somehow, height-to-weight wise, and his face, while well done, looks more like a cartoon hero than a grizzled train robber-turned-vampire. This is mostly forgivable, since you really only have to look at yourself in a few cutscenes, but I think he could have used a lot more work, especially given that he's the star. His hand, which you'll see a lot more of, also looks somewhat odd, primarily due to a series of stitches running down the thumb to the wrist; I imagine that might be his glove, but it still looks rather odd.

You'll hear a lot of people complain about the palette being rather limited; this is true to an extent, but I don't think one should really file this as a problem. It is a horror game set a Wild West that's been infested with the undead. I don't see any problem, with that as the premise, of sticking primarily to black, brown, blue and red. It fits the surroundings and the mood.

Overall though, great graphics. Much more than I was expecting.

STORY - 10/10

What can I say? I love it; it has everything it needs. Secret societies, vampires, an old west setting, mysterious women, and spectral guides. :)

When the story opens, you take control of Jericho Cross, renowned - or infamous, if you prefer - bandit of the Mexican borderlands. He's out to make one last score; the ultimate score, or so he believes. There's a train tearing through Arizona with more guards than the average patrol at Fort Knox, so to Jericho's thinking, there must be something very valuable on board; he's right, of course, but not in the way he's thinking.

After boarding the train, you discover someone's already done most of your work for you and disposed of the majority of the guards. Creeping a bit farther in reveals some very ugly beasties feasting on the corpses. Apparently Jericho was born with a liver of steel, since this doesn't dissuade him from making his way to the treasure car and blowing the seals.

When he does so, you meet Cassidy, who tries to stop you and fails miserably, giving you a warning that the treasure isn't what you think it is just as the "treasure" escapes from the vault. Enter Lazarus, king of the vampires.

In a twisted sort of "gift," he decides to give you his curse as a "reward" for letting him go; now you're not only the roughest, toughest bandito in the west, you're also a vampire. Cassidy, feeling a little altruistic (maybe), offers you some help, if you help her take care of Lazarus. And then the real game begins.

I can't go into much else without ruining the plot, but suffice it to say there's a great number of twists and turns in store for you, as well as different "rewards" (or punishments, depending on your point of view) for behaving altruistically or slaughtering every innocent that gets in your way. As I said before, this could have been lifted from a Bentley Little novel, so if you like his tales of supernatural evil and ancient bones in the west, you'll like this.

SOUND: 9/10

For much of the game, the sound is unremarkable, but solid. Guns sound like they should, the zombies have good-sounding grunts, gurgles and screams when you remove their body parts through application of violent force, and the doors, crates and other interactive objects all make noises like you'd expect.

Two things push this score up; first is the Banshees and the noises they make. You will learn to fear laughter, for when you hear it, they have arrived. Quite possibly some of the most annoying enemies you'll find, they flit about, flinging (or, more properly, shrieking) balls of lightning at you, and always announce their entrance to the battlefield with a morbidly amused gale of laughter. When they get close to you, they start howling in what sounds like cheated agony as they try to dismember you, and when you hurt them back, you can feel the heartstrings pluck as they whimper, scream and try to back away.

Point two is the voice acting. Everyone sounds perfect, and everyone's voice fits their looks. Cassidy is tough but upbeat, Lazarus is quiet, vengeful and smug, and Jericho has just the right combination of badass and confused in his lines. Tone is always dead on, and the pacing of their speech is natural, not at all stilted like a lot of games of this type (*cough* Doom 3 *cough*)

Overall, probably the best acting job in an FPS, ever.

GAMEPLAY - 9/10

It doesn't get better than this. A lot of people have compared it to Halo, and while I can see a number of similarities, I hated Halo, and yet love this one. Probably due to the overall experience. Anyway, it plays just perfectly in 99% of the areas; no slowdown, Jericho responds promptly to all commands issued, and you have just enough buttons to do everything you need to do.

The control scheme is fairly basic; fire's on the right trigger, throw is on the left. Left pad moves, right pad looks around, D-Pad switches weapons. X for Melee smack, Y for jump. You've also got the reload and "examine" options, but those haven't really been of much assistance, though it's nice that they're there. You've also got a few other options for control schemes, such as Chieftan (closer to Halo), Lefty (switches the analog sticks and triggers around) and Hopalong (switches Jump and Throw Weapon). There doesn't appear to be an option to pick which button does what, but this doesn't really hurt the game, since the default scheme works great for me, and most people I've spoken with use either that or Chieftan.

One little issue with the controls is the jumping; when Jericho jumps, he free falls very slowly, moving like he's trapped in midair molasses. This makes landing jumps somewhat difficult, and also leaves you prone to being shot three or four times while you try to reach a far away enemy that you didn't know was there and thus don't have a carbine or sniper rifle to deal with. This problem only gets worse when you unlock the "Vampire Jump" ability, which lets you double jump for ridiculous distances. Overall, only a small ding, since you'll learn to prepare for these situations and carry a long-range weapon at all times if at all possible, but still somewhat irksome at first.

The system proper is relatively unchanged from the standard formulas; run around, pick up the stuff dead guys drop, flip switches, open doors, and keep going. Nothing horribly exciting there.

The damage system is near-identical to Halo's; after becoming a vampire you have, in essence, two health tracks; the first is your "Blood Shield." That's the natural resistance a vampire has to damage, which takes hits until it's gone and regenerates when you're not being hit. Go through your Blood Shield (which won't take long at all if you get in close with some enemies), and you start taking hits to your actual Health bar, which only replenishes by grabbing the gobbets of blood left behind when you gack a beastie, or by drinking from the blood canteens you'll find lying around.

Weaponry-wise, you've got a nice selection of toys to choose from, starting with a basic six shooter, progressing to the Redeemer pistol, a set of dual pistols, your standard-issue shotgun, a sniper rifle, a mini-carbine, and the almighty Rail Gun O' Doom. All these weapons have a standard attack and a melee attack, and unlike many games of this time, the melee attacks don't suck; you'll actually find yourself using those melee skills a lot, since many of the zombies go down much easier with them than with the bullets. Of course, the bullets do come in handy; don't try to melee with Darkwatch regulators. You'll die.

You can only carry two weapons at once, and while I admit I didn't care for the idea at first, you'll find weapons well enough and it doesn't really hurt the game that much. It really hypes up the action, when you're running low on ammo for your shotgun, but that regular just dropped a crossbow. It leads to some great dashes across Banshee-ridden fields to dive for a weapon that actually - hopefully - has some ammo in it to finish off your current foe. It also adds a strategic element to the game, as you have to plan your method of attack by what weapons you have available, what enemies are in the area, and what weapons you think you can snag from them. Expect to do a lot of swapping between the shotgun, the carbine and the sniper rifle, often in the middle of combat, snagging ammo and fresh guns off the corpses of your foes.

I forgot to mention the vehicles; early in the game Jericho will get himself a horse, and certain stages of the game are 3rd person shooting galleries where you try to keep Jericho and Shadow on the road, shooting everything that's coming at you, from all sides. In these levels, Jericho can opt to hang off his horse to either side, all the better to dodge bullets and fireballs, as well as most of his usual maneuvers. You don't have a choice of weapons while on the horse, though; just the standard Redeemer pistol.

Later on in the game, you'll find Coyote Wagons, which can wreak untold destruction on the enemies when used properly; they're steam-powered ATVs with cannons built in, and are a blast to just run around in, let alone actually playing the game. (I may be twisted, but I think a kart racer with the Coyotes would be incredible fun... maybe in the sequel? ;) )

Jericho will also find a great number of troubled innocents during his travels, either having just been bitten by Lazarus, being tortured by his minions, or otherwise being in the line of fire. Depending on how you react to these folks (generally it's fairly black and white, and most of the choices even print "Good: Save 'em" "Evil: Kill 'em" and let you pick, which dings this somewhat; I liked The Suffering's "we're not gonna tell you which is which" method better in this regard), Jericho will swing his soul either towards Good or Evil. Unlike most morality systems, though, your good and evil deeds pile up individually, rather than as a net sum; so you can feel free to mix and match.

Why would you? Because if you do evil deeds, you gain experience points used to gain "evil" powers; do good ones and you get "good" powers. You can mix and match these uber vampire powers, if you like, but be warned; the results can be troublesome, at times.

Jericho's powers are all useful, in their own ways, from the Fear power (2nd tier Good), which causes monsters to run screaming and then cower in corners, all the way up to Soul Suck (4th tier Evil), which pulls the spirits out of enemies within range for massive damage with an apparent potential for instant death. All these powers run on a timer; when time's up, you can't use them again for a while. How long is a while? Until Jericho is full of blood again. Killing your enemies fills up your blood meter, which, when full, allows you to use your vampire powers. This doesn't apply to Vampire Jump and Blood Shield, though; those are always on once you have them.

Darkwatch has several difficulty levels (Greenhorn, Cowboy, Deadeye and Shootist), though even on the lower levels the game can be utterly ruthless. Playing on Shootist is for the madmen and terminally brave, though it's great fun. Progress is organized into Chapters, which have several checkpoints in each, and the game auto saves at those points. You can't "force" a save at any time, like you can in some games of this type, which can be annoying if you're not sure how far you have to go before the next checkpoint, but as a general rule, they're fairly evenly spaced.

Overall, the gameplay is killer, despite a few annoying tics, and that pretty much wraps it up here.

A few other things of note: Darkwatch has several unlockable movies and an art gallery; you'll fill these in by playing the game in Gunslinger mode, which is basically doing speed runs through levels you've completed in Story mode. If you're not obsessive compulsive, the unlockables that I am aware of so far aren't all that great, so you can skip this if you like, but it's worth doing so you can get in some practice on the early levels, to prepare for the hell that is the later stages.

Overall, a great game, and one well worth having. One area that I can't really comment on is the multiplayer; I have no XBL, nor do I even have a second controller or know anyone who'd play with me, anyway, so... sorry, in that area. :/

Final Score: 9 out of 10; Jericho's model could use some tweaks, the save system might have been used differently, and jumping might have been made less annoying, but otherwise, I don't think there's much one could do to fix what's already near-perfect. If you can, buy it. If you can't, rent it. If you can't do that, then... well. Steal it from your friends who buy or rent it. ;) Kidding, of course.

Rating: 9

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