Question one: You're a train robber who— and I can't stress this enough— does not know that monsters are really real. You climb aboard a train and discover that all of the passengers have been brutally slaughtered by reanimated skeletons wielding sickles. Do you:
A) run screaming from the train?
B) run screaming from the train and then have a nervous breakdown because the basic elements that support your belief in a rational world governed by science have been stripped away from you?
C) continue on your train robbery without comment, shooting monsters as you find them?
Question two: You're an employee of a vampire hunting organization, charged with protecting an important cargo. You're one of the only two female members of this organization, so your large breasts strain the integrity of your skin-tight leather bodysuit. The train you're on has been boarded, and your compatriots have been slaughtered by the undead. You fight your way through them to discover a stranger who, for all you know, is behind the attack on the train, just as he lights the fuse on a bundle of dynamite, which if allowed to detonate, will set free the king of the vampires. Do you,
A) shoot the stranger in the back of the head then step over his dead body and extinguish the fuse?
B) clump the stranger in the back of the head with a gun then step over his unconscious body and extinguish the fuse?
C) threaten the stranger with a gun and ask him what he's doing, wasting time and allowing the fuse to burn down and the dynamite to explode, freeing the king of the vampires?
If you answered C to either of these questions you are either dangerously stupid or a member of the Darkwatch creative team. Or maybe some combination of the two.
I can't remember of the last time I saw a game with as much going for it as Darkwatch. A dynamite premise, excellent production values and art design, and a manual that contains the single greatest line of descriptive text since the days of the Nintendo Entertainment System1. Yet the game manages to somehow go completely wrong. Games with unrealized potential aren't an uncommon sight these days, and Darkwatch manages to sink below normal levels of mediocrity in order to become something far less then the sum of its parts. How did it fail so completely? I'll tell you how: with a carefully designed two-pronged strategy of terrible storytelling and bad gameplay.
A Wild West first-person shooter, Darkwatch tells the story of Jericho Cross, train robber-turned-day-walking half-man half-vampire. In addition to all of its other flaws, Darkwatch has the most hilariously bad story I've seen in a long time. It is an extended showcase for one-dimensional characters, terrible dialogue, lame plot twists, and the most amazingly wrongheaded decisions I've seen anyone make since the original Dead to Rights.
Part of this problem stems from the fact of the game really doesn't have a main character. Yes, Jericho's quite effective at snarling and brooding during the cinema sequences, but he never evidences any actual character traits. Giving the main character no dialogue is supposed to make him more relatable, to allow the player to more easily slip into his shoes. Of course this only works when the character acts in a way that the player can comprehend.
The lack of dialogue also saves the developers time and money coming up with good path and bad path responses for the main character depending on what moral choices they make during the game. For those who are worried that their moral compass isn't exactly centered, don't worry; the paths are clearly marked, hilariously so. Every time a moral quandary arises, the game actually tells players which is the good option and which is the evil option. As if people couldn't tell for themselves that devouring someone's soul was a bad thing.
What the game's plot lacks in coherence and quality it more than makes up for in sheer of volume of nonsense. Things are constantly happening in Darkwatch, stupid things which are never followed up on in any way. In one level, Jericho is in the middle of the Arizona desert; the next he's at an icebound outpost. From there he teleports to a frozen laboratory, and suddenly he's back in the desert. Various clues are dropped and statements are made about Darkwatch itself being secretly evil, and then none of them are ever followed up on. At one point someone accuses Jericho of betraying the Darkwatch, but betrayal generally requires some sort of action and Jericho is such a passive nonentity in his own game that he barely does anything at all, let alone something that could qualify as betrayal. Worst of all, the villain's scheme is so poorly thought out that once all of its details are laid bare, it falls completely to pieces. Supposedly the key element of the plan was turning Jericho into a vampire, but had the villain just killed Jericho, the plan would have not only been far less convoluted, it would have been much more practical, as it wouldn't rely on the whims of a stoic, murderous, train robber.
So the story sucks. Unfortunately, there isn't any fantastic gameplay here to rescue the project. Darkwatch is, at its core, a resolutely standard first-person shooter. Its weapons range from the lowly pistol all the way up to the mighty rocket launcher. The only thing unusual or new about these weapons is their appearance, and even that doesn't do much to stave off the boredom.
As most FPS designers know, the pace at which new enemies are revealed is a key element in maintaining interest throughout the length of a game. The developers really dropped the ball here. Five of the game eight types of villains appear in the first hour, and all of them in such high volumes that it's impossible not to get bored of them rather quickly. What's worse, no thought seems to have been given to enemy placement or creating interesting action set-pieces. Right at the beginning of the game, I was introduced to "signs of evil," twisted trees that spawn enemies until they're destroyed. I thought this might be an interesting mechanic—always having to find the area's spawn point and destroy it before I could get a breather. It turned out that the tree was just something of an arbitrary goal, though; enemies spawn basically everywhere at all times, creating a frustrating never-ending feel to the fights.
This would be fine if the game was designed to be some kind of Serious Sam-esque blast-fest, but the enemies are powerful enough and the weapons too weak to allow for that style of play. There aren't even any mini-bosses to mix up the gameplay. And the two final boss fights are so similar that it's more like fighting the same boss twice rather than battling two distinct foes.
Strangely, the game contains two attempts to break away from the rote FPS trap that the rest of the game falls into: a riding level and a driving level. Sadly, they're both so dull that I question the sanity of including them in the game. The riding level is basically a rail shooter, in which Jericho is riding his vampire horse, blasting away at skeletons on skeleton horses. This should have been fun, but it takes place all on a flat, featureless plain, and there's nothing to do but point in the direction of the enemy and hold down the trigger button. Sure, Jericho has some neat side-saddle dodge moves, but the enemies are so sparse and weak that there's really no cause to use them.
The other strange level involves Jericho driving the clearly Halo-inspired Coyote all-terrain steam attack wagon. This sounds a lot more fun than it actually is. The wagon can roll over enemies and shoot them with gatling guns, but it's only faced with enemies that Jericho has already defeated with much less powerful weaponry, so the level ends up being short and unsatisfying.
It's almost like the developers knew that they needed to do something to freshen up the formula, so they came up with horseback levels and driving levels, but then they discovered that they didn't know how to make them fun. Then, despite their mediocrity, they were left in the game because too much time and money had been spent on the mechanics to throw them away completely, no matter how much they hurt the overall game.
Early in Darkwatch two characters escape from the vampires by detonating a train car full of dynamite. This should have provided a handy visual clue about the game's nature: it's a complete train-wreck. It takes one of the greatest premises to come down the pipe in a while, and runs it into the ground with Van Helsing-style steampunk ridiculousness.
This could have been a great original title, but instead it's a waste of shelf space with just one redeeming feature: it only takes around five hours to beat. Well, to be fair, there is one other good thing—it does contain the single greatest closed captioning line I've ever read in a video game2.
1 "He founded the Darkwatch in 65AD to battle true cause of Rome's downfall: vampires."
2 "Triumphant laughter that swells to over the top laughter."
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.