The Good, the Bad and the Painfully Average
Darkwatch tries. It really does. The characters speak with a Western twang familiar to anyone who has seen any Western from Shane down to Young Guns II. It’s got horseback riding and train robberies and… and… oh yeah, gunslinging. Lots of gunslinging. Hell, the title screen is even scored by a slight—as in, verging on copyright infringement—variation of the famous theme song from Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns.
All of these aspects serve to set the mood of the game and scream to the player, “Dude! You are so in the Old West!” The game succeeds in this respect phenomenally. There’s no question that Darkwatch excels at channeling the cultural codes that we have come to assign to the notion of the “Old West” in the contemporary world. It fails, however, in its attempt to make its gameplay as compelling as the fictional world it evokes.
The narrative opens with a classic, Western-style train robbery where the notorious outlaw and main character, Jericho Cross, picks the wrong train to rob. He battles his way to the cargo hold only to find out that this train is owned and operated by the shadowy organization known as Darkwatch. As Jericho learns later, Darkwatch is responsible for the quarantine and extermination of vampires in these here parts, and their cargo sure ain’t gold bullion, pardner. No sir, them ol’ boys at Darkwatch only transport the finest in undead vampire lords (conveniently named Lazarus). An’ sure as the winter winds make my bones ache, Jericho Cross goes and opens the dang-blang vault they’ve got Lazarus locked away in and gets himself bitten, naturally sending him spiraling off towards his own blood suckin’ fate. Lucky for ol’ Jericho, a member of Darkwatch named Cassidy takes pity on him and agrees to take him to the Darkwatch headquarters and cure him of his vampire infection. [End grizzled, old prospector persona.]
The meshing of the mythology of the Old West and vampiric lore, the most interesting aspect of the game, allows for a unique recasting of American history. The story takes place in Arizona in the late 1800s and the game does an excellent job of establishing and immersing the player in the setting. The selection of period weapons includes six shooters, carbine rifles, shotguns, and the obligatory first-person shooter rocket launcher (I don’t think there were too many rocket launchers lying around the Old West, but then again, there probably weren’t a lot of vampires running around either). However, the under developed characters serve to counteract the level of immersion the game otherwise provides in spades.
This was the first major flaw I found in the game’s narrative. Games such as Darkwatch are heavily driven by their story, and when that story offers unfulfilling character motivation for the actions that move the plot along, it really ends up feeling like you’re just moving through the limited motions the game allows of you with no real purpose. Darkwatch doesn’t establish any real reason as to why Cassidy helps Jericho other than, well, she’s a nice person and always helps out train robbers who have just unleashed the most powerful vampire in the Western hemisphere by breaking into the vault that she was guarding. She suddenly becomes Cross’ guardian angel; guiding him, instructing him, coaxing him onward despite the terrible infliction beset upon him. Sorry, but I don’t buy it. After a few chapters of the game, I had to fill in the motivation myself which was: having a half-human, half-vampire join the Darkwatch would be totally awesome.
Having Jericho as a member of Darkwatch would give the organization authoritative command over the various vampiric powers that he acquires throughout the game. These include “good” powers such as silver bullet, fear, and mystic armor, while the “evil” powers include such vampiric classics as blood frenzy, black shroud, and soul stealer. Most of these powers are surprisingly useful and your survival will depend heavily on their conservation and use.
As Jericho progresses through the game, he arrives at junctions where he is able to move closer to the good (human) side or closer to the evil (vampire) side. These junctions always involve a choice between purging a helpless victim of vampire infection or using them as a snack instead. This reductive determination of good/evil characters is pretty standard for video games, making it all the more clichéd. Oh yeah, ignore the countless hordes of vampires that I just slaughtered pretty much single-handedly because none of your Darkwatch regulators can aim worth a damn and paint me as the bad guy because I got a little thirsty after all that killing. Perhaps I’m being nitpicky and the CPU processing power of the current generations of consoles isn’t enough to calculate a notion of good or evil based upon the criteria that I’m considering, but if we as consumers don’t insist that game developers move away from the traditional methods video games have established for storytelling, we’ll continue to be fed the same derivative ideas.
Darkwatch is not a bad game by any means. It’s simply not a good one. It’s as painfully average as they come. When you play it, you can see what it wants to do and what it wants to be, but when it falls short all you can really do is grimace and say, “Aw… well at least it tried.” Darkwatch takes a unique blending of genres and transforms it into a mediocre, run-of-the-mill shooter. Devoted fans of cowboy dime novels or vampiric lore may enjoy the chance to romp and play a game that does an excellent job of representing their respective interest, but casual gamers and FPS aficionados will find the jugular vein of Darkwatch rather unsatisfying to their thirst.