Games

Darkwatch

Matthew Beale

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.'


Publisher: Ubisoft
Genres: First-person shooter
Price: $49.99
Multimedia: Darkwatch
Platforms: PlayStation 2 and Xbox
Number of players: 1
ESRB rating: Mature
Developer: High Moon Studios
US release date: 2007-07
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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.

5

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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