A Vampire Western with Originality and Beauty.

How often do you ask yourself, “why are there so many Vampire Western shooters out there and not more on, say, World War II”? Yes, I said that right, Vampire Western. For those of you who don’t play obscure table top RPGs or read cult comics there is indeed a genre devoted to horror in the American Wild West. It follows along the anachronistic lines of Van Helsing, without usually being quite so awful. Sammy Studios has decided to break into that relatively untried video game market with Darkwatch a stylish, innovative first person shooter with enough atmosphere and personality to make it a serious contender for game of the year in 2005.

For those lucky enough to see the movie played at last E3 you’ve already seen a taste of the heady atmosphere surrounding this title. The art direction is intriguing and decidedly gothic with rich dark colors filling the movie with ambiance. Throw in some sticky undead, glowing red eyes, and Matrix inspired action and you can a clip that tickles with over the top delight without diving into the realm of the silly. Capcom should have watched this before making the cheese fest that is the Devil May Cry 3 demo. The movie I saw back in May definitely piqued my interest, but it wasn’t until actually seeing the game play last week at Digital Life that I truly became impressed with Darkwatch.

We as gamers have always been lured by eye candy. Gorgeous cinematics can often woo hapless players into buying less then stellar titles; so naturally I was cautious when first looking at the Darkwatch demo. The sample set out to showcase the fundamental virtues of the game, including it’s two modes of game play. You start Darkwatch as Jericho, a member of an elite paranormal hunting organization known as Darkwatch who just happens to be infected by vampirism. Yes, the stereotypical fight-fire-with-fire cursed hero is back, but at least he has an interesting back story and a cool character design.

Moving on, Jericho starts the level on horseback chasing after a train in a convenient 3rd person perspective. Instantly I was struck by several innovative game elements. Unlike some FPS “vehicle” levels, the horse is not on a predetermined track. The player could easily manipulate the horse while shooting. Well, it was easy after playing it a few times. You could ride completely around the train, killing undead minions with aplomb. The early demo controls seemed tight and easy to pick up.

Graphically, Darkwatch held its own in the game play screens. Jericho’s character design in particular was fluid and resplendent with a fluttering cape. Not to mention the fact that his horse looked extremely scary. The background environments weren’t as lush, but it is hard to make open American scrub land look interesting. Also in the 3rd person horseback stage it was hard to get a look at the enemies unless closing in for a snipe shot.

Once we’d had our fun riding around blasting people, a scripted even drew you into the primary mode of play: first person shooting goodness. The graphics in the first person mode naturally allowed for more detail and atmosphere and I wasn’t disappointed with how the inside of the train looked at all. The first person mode also allowed us to see more of the weaponry available, including a 24 shot revolver and automatic shotgun of doom. The designers clearly decided to sacrifice 19th century realism for the sake of game play, but when your concept is as over the top as Darkwatch’s is – it just works. Additionally all the Darkwatch weapons Jericho uses are armed with wicked blades to make them melee weapons as well. Judging by the amount of close quarters shown in the demo, the melee capability is a welcome bonus.

Moving through the inside of the train was standard FPS puzzle fare – find the locked door, find the key after killing a bunch of people, and then open door – but the lush graphics made up for the lack of original level design. The interior was a delight to look at with rich textures and a cohesive Darkwatch style. Also in this level we discovered the fun of ragdoll physics as we sent enemies flying off the train. Somehow that never gets old.

The shooter aspects of combat clearly show the influence of the now legendary X-box title, Halo, right down to rechargeable shields and the ability to only carry two weapons at once. At least the shields in Darkwatch are nicely explained away as vampiric powers. Other FPS staples such as night vision are accomplished via Vampiric Sight, and jump packs are replaced by superhuman agility. Apparently Jericho can gather even more supernatural powers as the game progresses, and these powers are entirely dependent on the actions you take as a player.

I know it sounds like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic – that’s most likely where they got the idea – but the game can be played along an evil path, a good path or any mix in between. (Now that you mention it that sounds like Fable too

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