Darkwatch Updated Hands-On

We give our trigger finger a workout as we check out playable PS2 and Xbox demos of Capcom's upcoming first-person shooter.

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Currently scheduled for release in August, Darkwatch is a Wild West-themed first-person shooter in which you'll assume the role of a gunslinger named Jericho Cross who is bitten by a vampire in the game's opening sequence. We recently had the opportunity to check out playable demos of Darkwatch on both the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, and we're pleased to report that the game has come a long way since we saw it in October of last year.

The demo versions of Darkwatch that we've been playing feature eight playable levels from the unlockable gunslinger mode, which will let you play through levels that you've beaten previously. The scores you receive will be based on how long it takes you to complete the level, your accuracy, the number of headshot and melee kills you racked up, and which of the game's four difficulty levels (greenhorn, cowboy, shootist, or deadeye) you were playing on.

Like many current-generation first-person shooters, Darkwatch has more than a few things in common with Bungie's Xbox-exclusive Halo games. After being bitten by a vampire, for example, Jericho's health bar is complemented by a "blood shield" that automatically replenishes over time whenever he's not taking damage--much like the shield employed by Halo's Master Chief. Like Master Chief, Jericho is also only able to carry two weapons simultaneously, which he can use to perform both ranged and incredibly satisfying melee attacks when he's not hurling sticks of dynamite at his enemies.

Jericho's arsenal comprises some of most lethal-looking ranged weapons we've seen in a shooter to date, and it's not because they're sophisticated or even ahead of their time in the game's Wild West setting, it's because almost all of them incorporate large blades that make them every bit as effective when enemies get up close and personal. Pistols have blades on their handles, the shotgun has a large blade mounted on its butt, and our favorite weapon, the crossbow, has multiple blades attached to the front of it. Because ammunition for all of the weapons in the game is limited, you'll often want to take advantage of the powerful melee attacks that these weapons afford you so that you have plenty of ammo available when you need it. Enemy snipers, for example, will often fire on you from vantage points that make them impossible to get close to, and using melee attacks on skeletons that are charging at you carrying barrels of explosives…well, it's just not a very good idea.

The sniper rifle is especially useful for picking the heads and limbs off enemy snipers.

When you're attacking (or at least defending yourself from) enemies at range, you'll find that the weapons at your disposal are quite varied, and are often best suited to taking out particular types of enemies or enemies that are a certain distance away from you. The pistol that you start with is, predictably enough, one of the least powerful weapons in the game. Although, it's great for shooting at the aforementioned skeletons' explosive barrels, and can be "fanned" for a rapid-fire rate when things get hairy. Dual pistols can't be fanned, but they can stop enemies at range and are deadly when used in melee combat. The shotgun is devastating at close range but not particularly effective otherwise. The carbine fires a single, powerful shot that has great stopping power at any range. The sniper rifle has a powerful scope on it, and can be used to take the heads (or limbs) of many enemies off with a single shot. The crossbow fires bolts that explode after a few seconds. These bolts are powerful enough to take out a few enemies simultaneously if you manage to stick one onto an enemy, who then runs toward his cohorts in a panic. Last, but definitely not least, is the rocket launcher, which is slow to reload and not to be fired at close range, but it is powerful enough to take out large groups of enemies with just a single shot.

The Good, The Bad, and The Undead

Like the weapons that you'll be using against them, your enemies in Darkwatch are a varied bunch, both in terms of their appearances and their tactics. Skeletons armed with scythes will generally just charge toward you, for example, while their TNT-carrying counterparts will often weave from left to right as they charge. Zombie gunslingers and other enemies armed with ranged weapons will often shoot at you from positions that afford them some cover when it's available. For the most part, it's only the snipers who don't make a point of moving around as they attack you. Other enemies include obese, waddling vampires who won't go down until you've hit them with multiple rockets or sticks of dynamite; banshees who hurl energy-based projectiles at you as they fly around; and powerful jumping creatures whose heads seem to be the only parts of their bodies that take damage.

Darkwatch enemies are generally smart enough to realize that the sticks of dynamite you throw at them are dangerous.

Most of the enemies you'll encounter in Darkwatch are intelligent enough to get out of the way if a stick of dynamite or an explosive crossbow bolt lands near them, but the rest of their actions invariably feel scripted. That's not a criticism, since their behavior is mostly both believable and entertaining, but getting through some of the game's later levels definitely gets easier once you memorize the locations and movements of the enemies after a couple of failed attempts. With that said, the versions of Darkwatch that we've been playing forced us to restart without any weapons and ammunition that we had collected previously if we died more than a couple of times before beating a level, which kept things challenging.

The level design in Darkwatch is linear for the most part, but there are plenty of situations in which you'll have the opportunity to experiment with different approaches. One level will see you defending a saloon alongside a number of friendly characters as enemies attack from multiple directions, for example. And at one point, you'll be tasked with ridding an entire small Wild West town of vampires, zombies, and other nasties. Other memorable sequences that we've been able to check out in our demo versions of Darkwatch include mowing down enemies with turret-mounted Gatling guns, as well as a boss fight that's played entirely on horseback.

The horseback levels make for a welcome change of pace, and give you a chance to play with unlimited ammo.

The horseback levels are just one of the features that promises to make Darkwatch stand out in the competitive first-person-shooter genre. The other most obvious one is the vampire powers that Jericho learns to use as you progress through the game. Early on, for example, you'll gain the ability to double-jump, which lets you leap great distances when you're attempting to reach new areas or evade enemy attacks. Many of the other vampire abilities in Darkwatch are categorized as either good or evil, and which ones you learn will be determined by your actions at key points during the game. You won't need to get stressed about which actions are considered good or evil, though, since the relevant dilemmas are invariably presented in text form with two outcomes for you to choose from, clearly labeled good and evil.

Unlike some of the earlier versions of Darkwatch that we've played, the latest demo versions are running very smoothly and feature some nicely done cutscenes. We can't wait to see how the levels that we've been playing will fit into Darkwatch's intriguing storyline, and you can bet that we'll bring you more information on the game just as soon as we get a chance to do so.

We also can't wait to try out some of the game's weapons in multiplayer modes of play. The Xbox version of Darkwatch will support up to 16 players on Xbox Live and four on a single screen. The PS2 game will let you play through the entire game cooperatively with another player, and will feature other exclusives such as an all-new horseback level with a boss fight, and "splitter grenades" for your arsenal.

Capcom plans to release Darkwatch in North America on August 16. The European version of the game will be published by Ubisoft, and it is currently scheduled to arrive in stores on October 13.

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