Darkwatch, once called Darkwatch: Curse of the West, has been released by High Moon Studios.  Darkwatch blends FPS elements, the Wild West, Vampirism, and heavy action into a game that never takes itself too seriously, but pays good homage to a whole melting pot of genres and games that came before it. 

Darkwatch is the story of Jericho Cross, a human outlaw who is about to get in above his head.  The game kicks off with Jericho boarding a high-speed train supposedly flush with riches ripe for plunder.  Much to his dismay, Jericho finds that this train is inhabited by the undead including the game’s primary protagonist – the demon Lazarus.  As Jericho faces off against Lazarus a member of the Darkwatch known as Cassidy joins him.  During the scuffle with Lazarus, Jericho jumps to aid Cassidy and is instead placed into eternal peril as he is is bitten and struck with Vampirism.  Cassidy spirits you off the train and towards the citadel of the Darkwatch sure that this legion of Vampire hunters can help you before your change is complete.  Your story begins here…

The graphics in Darkwatch are pretty fantastic given the crisp framerate.  The Xbox version I saw at E3 was far more sharp, but the PS2 version is certainly an acceptable alternative.  There is a great bit of detail in the environments and the effects are well executed.  Surprisingly, the PS2 version lacks Progressive Scan mode so what you see is indeed what you get. 

The levels certainly have an Old West feel but often feel railed and claustrophobic.  Undoubtedly a sacrifice made to contain the framerate, the levels are often very small and more often indoors.  The enemies and weapons in Darkwatch are well done.  Each weapon is modded with a giant blade to facilitate a little up-close action and the enemies sport some great fashion sense.  The primary skeleton hordes in the game run wielding dual scythes and the Gunslingers apparently died with their boots and their hats.  Snipers look like something out of Spawn, and the vile and bloated vampires come apart nicely with their ribcages exposed.  Now if only they didn’t exist in such a tight space.

All of that said, you won’t be curling your nose at this title, especially given the age of the platform. 

High Moon Studios knows how to create immersion with their sound.  From the time you throw the disc into the tray and you are greeted with the theme of “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” until the time that you hear your first spur jingle on the wooden planks under your boots it becomes obvious that there was a great amount of effort in the sound department.  Reloading the shotgun produces the sound of casings sliding against the metal frame of the weapon.  Similarly, the screaming of the Banshees as they hurl purple blasts your direction and their pained shrieks as you hack their arms off satisfy the horror Western feel expertly. 

The voice acting work in Darkwatch is of a similar quality to the sound effects.  Each character seems to have a good bit of life to them (pun intended) and they give their lines with feeling.  It sells the storyline much better than previous Capcom-released titles.  I give it two undead thumbs up.

As soon as you are turned you begin to earn new powers and it becomes important that you can easily flip between them.  Additionally, as your arsenal grows and you add items like a crossbow, dynamite, pistols akimbo, and more you will need to be able to rapidly switch between them.  Apparently the folks at High Moon have been playing FPS titles quite a bit over the last few years because they have locked these aspects down.  The left analog controls your movement; the right controls your aim.  Shoulders and face buttons access different weapons and powers and it is fairly easy to pick up and play without a great degree of learning involved.

The weapons in Darkwatch are not your standard variety, that is, unless you have a giant blade that extends under the edge of your rifles and pistols.  Each weapon features a melee attack that is sure to devastate your opponents.  The weapons can be carried two at a time, similar to the system prevalent in Halo and Halo 2.  The weapons include the Redeemer pistol, a rifle, a crossbow with exploding bolts, a sniper rifle, a double-barrel shotgun, a dynamite launcher, and a rocket launcher.  It is a game about Vampire Cowboys…did you honestly expect it to be all bows and arrows?   The enemies get tougher so your arsenal grows accordingly. 

Unfortunately the arsenal makes the game’s progression feel rather formulaic.  You can almost sense that the next level is where you get the crossbow, and then the shotgun, and then the pistols akimbo.  The coolness of the weapons is also a bit tainted by the lack of ammo in the game.  This means you end up reverting to the melee attack for a good portion of the game as there is simply not enough ammunition to warrant the weapon’s use, despite the cool decapitation effects that can come with a healthy head shot.

Darkwatch features a fairly decent storyline.  You’ll know it is time for more storyline by the extremely frequent cutscenes.  You seem to get a cutscene every time you complete a level section, and since they are so small that is very often.  Sometimes you’ll get a small cutscene telling you exactly what you need to do in a particular area regardless of the fact that it isn’t rocket surgery to figure out you need to press 3 dynamite plungers located throughout the room.  The game still holds your hands through the puzzles and never lets you stand long enough to become frustrated. 

The ‘never stand still’ style of the game is prevalent throughout the title.  You will run from the top of a train onto the back of a horse, then through a graveyard, then into some catacombs and beyond.  Each area is teaming with zombies, gunslingers, banshees, snipers, and more.  The levels are very much on rails so the pace of the game is a constant rush forward.  You won’t find yourself wandering a level to find the last switch or key, this is rapid run and gun action.

As you descend further into your own personal Hell, Lazarus will present you with frequent morality choices where you are given very black and white choices of good or evil.  Do you free this newly-bitten woman from her Vampirism or do you strip her soul for yourself?  Ultimately, these choices have little effect on the overall story but they do unlock four “Judgment” powers on the Evil or Good side.  You can try to split the difference and earn both sides but you’ll just end up with few powers overall.  On the good side you can get Silver Bullet, a power that increases bullet attacks with holy fire, the Fear power which causes enemies to run, Mystic Armor which offers additional armor, and Vindicator calls down chain lighting on your enemies.  On the evil side, you can pick up Blood Frenzy which adds additional power to your melee attacks, Turn which makes slaves of your enemies for a short time, Black Shroud offers additional armor as well as a reciprocal strike against those who would attack you, and Soul Stealer which allows you to rip the souls out of distant enemies.  All of the powers are charged and earned through moral choices and by defeating enemies to charge the bar. 

The run and gun aspects of the gameplay are very reminiscent of other FPS titles.  Much like Halo, you have a ‘blood shield’ that recharges over time as well as a health bar.  Its not anything we haven’t seen before but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.  The horseback portions of the game are again on a forward charge, but offer a welcome break to the on-foot action of the normal levels.  Additionally you get to drive a steam-driven vehicle from the Darkwatch, again providing a bit of a distraction from the run and gun formula.  Occasionally you get to team up with Darkwatch members to accomplish your objectives but for the most part you are playing the part of a lone outlaw..uh..vampire.   With the attention to detail, great physics, decent storyline, and original concepts you can’t help but wonder if this title would have been a smash-hit and three times longer if High Moon didn’t have to change publishers.  What we end up with is a better than average run-and-gun game with fantastic potential to spawn a franchise.

The game is not very long.  I was able to beat the singleplayer game in roughly 10 hours.  It is a fun ride while it lasts but much like the weapon selection falls back on a very familiar formula.  Unfortunately, on the PS2 you can’t turn to multiplayer to bail out your investment as multiplayer is all but cut.  You can play the game in cooperative multiplay that never really meshes with the overall story arch.  You can also play 2 player deathmatch but lets not kid ourselves…that is a major disappointment given the network adapter in the back of my Playstation 2.  Did we just run out of time?