Darkwatch is the simple story of a man, his horse and his journey through the American West. Well, actually, it’s the story of a vampire, his demon steed and how that vampire unwittingly starts an undead apocalypse. Darkwatch, developed by High Moon Studios, is a 2005 shooter that scores high points for originality. It’s a Vampire Western, the only videogame in that genre. Loading up Darkwatch for the first time you’re greeted by the unmistakable theme from Sergio Leon’s spaghetti western, “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.” It’s a fitting way to ring in gaming’s first and, so far, only Vampire Western.
One bad hombre
Darkwatch puts you in the boots of Jericho Cross, the most anti of antiheroes. Darkwatch’s creator’s seem to have been inspired by Jonah Hex. Jericho is a thief and all around scoundrel. Darkwatch starts off with an all too human Jericho pulling off a train heist, but boy, does Jericho ever pick the wrong train. As fate would have it this train isn’t transporting gold, but a prisoner named Lazarus Malkoth. If Jericho Cross is the best we can do for “The Good” of our piece, then Lazarus Malkoth is most definitely “The Bad.” Lazarus is in the custody of the Darkwatch, which is somewhere between the U.S. Marshall Service and the Watcher’s Counsel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They specialize in policing the undead, which come in several gruesome varieties. Somehow the Darkwatch managed to imprison Lazarus in a steel vault. During the course of Jericho’s attempted train robbery, Jericho manages to blow the vault, unwittingly freeing Lazarus, jump starting an undead apocalypse and one of the wildest first-person shooters from the last console generation.
Once freed Lazarus proceeds to kick several shades of shit out of Jericho and for good measure turns our protagonist into a Vampire. Fortunately for Jericho, he runs into a beautiful Darkwatch Regulator named Cassidy Sharp, who helps him adjust to his newfound status as a vampire gunslinger. Jericho and Cassidy go on the run from a relentless Lazarus. Soon Jericho is deputized as the first vampire member of the Darkwatch. It seems that it’s going to take a vampire to catch a vampire. Before the end credits roll Jericho will find romance, double crosses, as well as an opportunity to pull a double cross himself. Jericho is as much of a hero or villain as the player decides.
“You move like they do.”
First-person shooters are a love/hate affair of mine. It’s a genre that’s been done to death. But an FPS Vampire Western is a welcome departure from the glut of World War 2 shooters. Making the protagonist a vampire offers up some interesting, novel gameplay mechanics. As a vampire, Jericho can jump farther than any person. You’ll find it takes a little getting used to as a simple touch of the jump button can easily carry Jericho 20 feet into the air. Double jumping can take him much higher and farther. Jericho can also shoot an undead gunman right between the eyes from a football field away with his blood vision. It’s Darkwatch’s version of the zoom function in any other FPS. Throughout his quest to put a stop to Lazarus, Jericho will earn new abilities. What kind of abilities depends on how Jericho comports himself as vampire. At points in the game you have a choice of helping or hurting victims of Lazarus’ apocalypse. Virtuous choices will grant you powers like silver bullet, which makes your shots much more powerful, or Vindicator, which let’s you unleash chain lightning upon the undead. Give into temptation and feed upon the living or the souls of the dead and you’ll unlock dark powers like blood frenzy and turn. Blood frenzy imbues your melee attacks with more power and turn pits your enemies against each other. Play the game on the fence and you’ll be able to partake of both good and evil powers.
With all the things Jericho can do, the developers risk creating an overpowered tank, but that is greatly offset by a limit imposed by Jericho’s vampirism. Namely, sunlight, which negates all his powers. You can and will frequently be killed in the daylight because you can’t recuperate the way you can at night (or in the shade). Your character is at a distinct disadvantage in daylight, so the light actually becomes something to avoid. It’s commendable that the developers are able to make the gamer fear the light and feel at ease in the darkness. Second, the enemies are pretty tough, and many of them can jump even farther than you can and a fair number have uncanny aim. On higher difficulty levels you might think that Jerciho Cross is the underdog in this fight for the west.
For an FPS, Darkwatch has a fair amount of gameplay variety. You’ll mostly be blowing the arms, legs and heads off undead riflemen, braves, gunslingers and (very annoying) flying banshees. But the game also throws in some enjoyable vehicle sections, if you count a horse as a vehicle. The guns are FPS standards with a few anachronisms thrown in to appease the typical twitch gamer. I have it on good authority that there were no rocket launchers in the old west, but then again there probably weren’t any vampires named Lazarus Malkoth either. If one wants realism then perhaps documentary films are a better bet than vampire western themed video games. With the powers that Jericho gets to use, Darkwatch succeeds in taking many FPS elements and achieving a game that is much greater than the sum of its parts.
One Purdy Picture
Darkwatch is a good looking game. It was released in 2005 and I played it for this review in 2010. It obviously can’t stand up to the heavy hitters of this current console generation, but it’s still a good looking game. The game’s artists are to be commended on the games environments, creature designs and animations. Darkwatch really excels in its gruesome creature designs and animations. A standard session of Darkwatch will see you shooting the heads or arms off the undead and their reactions are rather lively considering their undead nature. One of my favorite monster types is the Bandito because it does the best job illustrating the gory hit detection. You can shoot chunks off this monster and see the model change with each shot.
How the West Was Won
In the end Darkwatch is easy to recommend for those who like Vampires or for those who like Westerns. If you like both then this game is pure win. It has fun gameplay elements complemented by a great, original setting. While the enemy types aren’t numerous, what’s there looks really good and moves very well thanks to great use of rag doll physics and gory hit detection. In addition to excellent art design and very good in-game graphics, the game boasts great cut scenes with professional voice talent. Darkwatch is not a particularly long game. On normal difficulty you should be able to complete the story mode in less than ten hours. I’ve never played it online, and it’s doubtful you’d find a lot of people online still playing it so many years after release. Looking at Darkwatch strictly in terms of gameplay, it doesn’t set the FPS genre on fire. The setting is unique enough that it was an easy buy for me.
You should be able to find this game at your local game store used for either the PS2 or the original Xbox for about the same price as a new paperback novel. The game is also backwards compatible on the Xbox 360. I reviewed the Xbox box version of the game, and it probably has sharper graphics than the PS2 version. Finally, if you couldn’t tell from the images in this review, this is NOT a kid friendly game. There’s a lot of blood, dismemberment, nudity, cussing and even a sex scene. The sex scene is nothing you couldn’t see on prime time network television, but it’s notable for having occurred in a game that saw wide console release. In short, Darkwatch earns its mature rating.
FTC Advisory: I purchased a copy of this game. In addition, I don’t receive affiliate fees for anything purchased via links from my site.