If you like nothing better than spending a couple of hours sitting in front of the television set competing in multiplayer sessions with your buddies, then High Moon Studios' long-awaited Darkwatch is exactly the game you're looking for. Intentionally designed as a cross between Halo and Silverado, Darkwatch was created by a dedicated team of first-person shooter fans that wanted to make an FPS for guys like themselves. Spend enough time with the game on your own and you'll be able to identify their enthusiasm for the genre too, as there are obvious references to titles such as Half-Life, Medal of Honor, and the aforementioned Halo everywhere you look.
The good news is that Darkwatch manages to pull off the majority of its tributes rather successfully (whether you're talking about the obvious Halo Warthog copy known as "The Coyote" or the excellent use of the Havok physics engine found in most modern PC shooters). So while you can certainly see the game's various inspirations, Darkwatch never really exudes that tired "rip-off" vibe associated with most of today's lesser known first-person actioners. In essence, it's a product that manages to stand on its own two feet without having to work some kind of revolutionary new mechanic or engine to do so.
That doesn't mean that Darkwatch isn't without its cool little gimmicks, though. At the forefront of its marketing pitch, for example, is a Knights of the Old Republic-style morality system that challenges players to choose between good and evil. The choices they make will then alter their path as well as the abilities of the main character, which creates some differentiation in level progression. Unlike some titles that keep the consequences of your decision-making somewhat subtle, however, Darkwatch always makes it obvious when the time comes to make a choice (thanks to a simple "good or evil" menu that pops up when these situations arise). Sure it takes away from the flow of the action a little bit, but at least it's helpful.
In fact, this morality system is a fairly prevalent aspect of the single-player campaign, as earning the super powers associated with your alignment can improve the amount of attacks for use against the horde of angry undead. When used in conjunction with the "vampire jump" and "vampire vision" abilities, you're potentially quite the formidable force. Unfortunately for you evil folk out there, Darkwatch does seem to favor good-hearted users over the bad ones as the nice guy powers are a lot more useful than the wicked bits. But at least High Moon penalizes you for being indecisive, since teetering between the two forces doesn't reward you with anything but wasted cutscenes... so kudos to that.
Of course, the most impressive thing about Darkwatch's single-player experience is how it controls. It's one of the most responsive first-person shooters I've played without needing a mouse and the smooth movement and highly customizable configuration means that fans of other games can jump right in without a hitch. Targeting your enemies is fast, easy, and accurate too, and that's just as it should be.
Also worth mentioning is Darkwatch's excellent enemy AI. While it's not on the same level as say, Far Cry or Resident Evil 4, the computer's intelligence and behaviors do manage to pull off a couple of impressive feats. Gunslingers, for instance, will dodge your bullets and melee attacks, Banshees coordinate in assault patterns to force you into their sonics, and the more basic low-level creatures team up in packs to rip you to shreds. The CPU's whole mentality is pretty solid and packed with enough aggression to kick even the most hardened veteran in the teeth on the higher settings.
Unfortunately Darkwatch has a couple of holdups that prevent it from reaching the same lofty acclaim awarded to other console FPS darlings like Red Faction and TimeSplitters. The first and most obvious of which is the somewhat uninspired single-player campaign. So while sure, the game does have Coyote and horseback stages along with the ability to select the order of certain missions, the stage design rarely moves beyond caves and canyons and it can create significant collision and movement problems when fighting groups of melee enemies. To be more specific, if you ever find yourself near a crevice or wooden structure that forms a roof above you and you happen to befall an enemy spawn point, it's not uncommon to get "stuck" in corners while sustaining enemy attacks. Another disappointing element is the storyline itself. There are an awful lot of cutscenes and morality choices that make the whole thing up, but the ultimate conclusion isn't very surprising or rewarding and there's no real sense of closure for such a dialogue-heavy game. On that same token, there are far too many cutscenes to begin with -- constantly breaking up the flow of the action and frequently providing little payoff. At least we get to see some top notch voice-acting from Rose McGowen as the sultry Tala, though, and the red hot love scene has to be seen to be believed.
The vampiric powers that Jericho Cross can earn through the aforementioned morality system aren't as useful as they should be either. The evil melee attack and good fear powers are pretty decent, but you can blast your way through most of the game without needing to rely on anything more than your vision and jumping abilities. I was also disappointed in the horse and vehicle stages as they were short and so infrequent that it seemed almost pointless to have them in at all.
What ultimately saves Darkwatch from becoming "just another decent first-person shooter," though, is its excellent multiplayer features. This is particularly true of the Xbox version of the game that boasts extensive Live capabilities and 16-player simultaneous craziness. There's a slew of cool modes available to Internet players too, including the traditional deathmatch and team deathmatch, capture the flag, and soul hunter. The stage designs and vampire powers are put to much better use on these maps when compared to single-player as well, and I can foresee people spending a lot of time with it long after they've finished with the story campaign.
Regrettably for PlayStation 2 users, the multiplayer aspects don't extend online at all and are limited to an exclusive two-player co-op feature. It's a lot of fun, but it's definitely no supplement for the superb Xbox Live Internet play. To its credit, High Moon has thrown in a few other PS2 exclusives to sweeten the pot even further (a special grenade type known as "splitters" and an extra level with an armored locomotive boss among them), but if you have both systems and are on the fence as to which one to get, the Xbox's multiplayer makes it a no-brainer.
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