Video gaming seems to once again be waking up to the Wild West. (Or maybe they just got tired of doing WWII to death.) Early arcade games like Gunfight and Wild Western mined the setting, but it was not until recently, with Red Dead Revolver, that the western as video game seems to have come back in favor. High Moon Studios’ Darkwatch, published by Capcom, takes the western theme and adds the horror element of vampires. The result is a very playable first-person shooter that, while not the most original from a gameplay perspective, seldom fails to entertain.
In Darkwatch the gamer takes on the role of Jericho Cross. Jericho is a small-time train robber looking for a quick score when he picks the wrong train to rob. Our antihero cracks open the vault on the train only to find it does not contain gold but does confine one badass demon named Lazarus Malkoth. As he escapes, Lazarus bites and infects Jericho. It turns out the train was not just some Union & Pacific freight that happen to have a vampire vault on board; it was a transport train of an organization called the Darkwatch that has protected the world from vampires since the days of Rome. Now Jericho must find a way to save himself – if he can. He meets up with a Darkwatch agent who brings him back to the organization’s headquarters where he is initiated and becomes an agent of Darkwatch. Through the mystical power of the Darkwatch, Jericho’s transformation to full vampire is arrested. He still retains many powers of the undead, but does not become a full-fledged vampire. He now has to do what he can to save his humanity and clean up the mess he made by releasing Lazarus.
A mighty mess he has made too. The countryside is literally crawling with the undead. It seems that every corpse from every cemetery and Indian burial ground in the west has decided to get up and take the air. Add in a bunch of demon types, and it is one nasty situation.
Fortunately Jericho and the Darkwatch have some fairly advanced weaponry for 19th-century America. Jericho’s basic weapon is the Redeemer revolver. Also available are dual-wield pistols, carbine rifle, shotgun (for close encounters of any kind) and a scoped rifle for sniping. More destructive weaponry includes a crossbow that launches dynamite-tipped arrows that lodge in enemies and a rocket launcher with terminal guidance (I never said it was authentically western). All the weapons have varying secondary attacks as melee weapons, a function you’ll be using a lot if you want to live. In addition, Jericho will find and use some fixed cannon and gatling gun turrets, as well as experimental vehicles.
In the course of the game the player will take on many missions with the Darkwatch. Each is the fairly straight-forward shooter stuff of killing large numbers of grunt enemies and some tougher boss characters. Along the way Jericho will run into tortured souls and infected citizens. It is at these times some choices must be made. Jericho may choose the good path and free the souls or he may choose the evil path and prey upon them. The path chosen will determine what additional powers Jericho earns. It is best not to split these between the two thinking you’ll balance the powers. Each moral decision brings Jericho closer to the next and better power, so it pays for the player to stick to a path and build toward the later powers quickly. Either decision does not really affect the game significantly until well toward the end of the game.
Gameplay is very solid, if not the most original, with some nicely intense shooting action that is sure to please first-person-shooter fans. There is a lot of close-in action too. Becoming proficient in melee attacks is essential to success. The game features some rudimentary puzzles, but they are never so complicated or contrived that they completely take you out of the shooting action. I knew I was in for a fun ride when early in the game I was treated to a chase on horseback where I had to guide my running horse, Shadow, with the left stick and line up shots on enemies with the right stick. It was great fun.
In addition to the single-player campaign, Darkwatch also supports multiplayer games via split screen for four players. The normal games like deathmatch and capture the flag are present, as well as a vampire-inspired variation called Soul Hunter where the player attempts to fill his blood bar indicator before his opponents. Unfortunately PS2 owners will miss out on the 16-player online multiplayer experience that Xbox owners get. The multiplayer mode is adequate, but it feels more like a feature put in just so marketing could say the game had the feature rather than a fully developed experience.
Graphically the game is good, but it is really not going to win any awards. The characters sport more than adequate detail and are very fluidly animated. The environments are nicely conceived and have many destructable elements.
The audio is excellent. The many small details from horse hoof beats to gunfire all pack a real power to immerse the player in the western/horror world of the Darkwatch. The voice acting was even very good. Like Doom 3’s space marine, Jericho himself says little. This means there is not a voice other than the player’s to break the illusion that the player is Jericho Cross.
About the sharpest criticism that can be leveled at Darkwatch is that it really adds nothing original in the gameplay department. Aside from its extremely well executed western/horror environment, Darkwatch is a pretty generic FPS game with a weaker multiplayer mode. If you are like me and always up for another well-built first-person shooter, Darkwatch will not disappoint. If you just want a first-person shooter with an under-worked theme in your collection, Darkwatch is probably a good choice too. But if you only casually play FPS games and are looking for a new gameplay experience, you should give it a pass.