Darkwatch Hands-On Impressions

We take an exclusive look at Sammy's upcoming first-person shooter that mixes vampires with the old west.

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Darkwatch is the upcoming first-person shooter from Sammy that puts a new twist on the popular, standard genre. The game is set in the Wild West, which admittedly isn't a new concept for an FPS, what with Dead Man's Hand and Red Dead Revolver both taking bows this year. However, the game changes up the standard Western conventions thanks to its supernatural slant. You'll assume the role of Jericho Cross, a criminal who finds himself drafted into the mysterious Darkwatch organization after a botched train robbery finds him serving as the juice box for a powerful elder vampire.

Jericho Cross has a bone to pick with the undead, thanks to that whole half-vampire thing.
Jericho Cross has a bone to pick with the undead, thanks to that whole half-vampire thing.

The experience leaves Jericho a changed man for good and ill. On the good side, he becomes a hybrid human-vampire with a nifty suite of powers that includes enhanced speed and sight. In the ill department, you'll find an unquenchable thirst for blood that makes Cross prone to destructive rages that usually wind up with someone or something getting chomped. (Just ask Jericho's horse.) Thanks to a healthy dose of irony, Darkwatch opts to bring Cross on board to aid in its fight against the undead. This is primarily done to employ Jericho's superhuman abilities. The game will send you on a peril-filled quest to fight the forces of the undead and, as luck would have it, to discover the mystery behind the Darkwatch's origins. As you'd expect, all sorts of shenanigans transpire, and Jericho winds up performing a whole lot of killing. We recently had the chance to take a peek at the work-in-progress, PlayStation 2 version of the game to see just how well it handles.

The level we played was actually part of the demo Sammy showed at E3, which provided a sampling of the gameplay Darkwatch will offer. The opening segment--where you're riding Jericho's trusty steed--offers a taste of what some of the mounted gameplay will be like. In this particular case, you'll have control over your ride, and you'll be able to guide him anywhere you like. You'll even be able to perform melee attacks with him if your foes get too close. Other scenes include rail-shooting sequences where you'll use ghost pistols to dole out death.

Later in the level, we made our way through a town rife with the undead forces of evil. We dispatched them through a combination of Jericho's own unique talents, firepower, and use of the environment. While gunfire and exploding barrels are the norm for dealing with enemies in most FPS games, Jericho's vampire abilities add a nice variation to the proceedings. Vampire sight is a Predator-style vision shift that lets you spot undead even in near-total darkness. Vampire jump offers a Metroid Prime-style leap that makes Jericho's standard jumps seem like bunny hops. A less obvious power is Jericho's bloodshield, which absorbs damage. His trio of powers works well together when facing the standard foes we've seen so far. However, we got a look at some of the later enemies you'll face in the game, and we expect that Jericho will need the extra oomph provided by both the additional weapons and vampire powers that will be added to the game.

You'll travel to many creepy western-themed locales as you kill lots of stuff.
You'll travel to many creepy western-themed locales as you kill lots of stuff.

Control in the game is mapped out well and makes use of a solid scheme. You'll move Jericho with the left analog stick, and you'll aim with the right one. The D pad will cycle through your weapons if you press up and down. So far we've seen a standard revolver, a shotgun, and a sniper rifle. Pressing left or right on the D pad will let you lean to either side, which comes in handy when you're pinned down or need to peek around corners. You'll jump with the triangle button, and pressing it twice will let you perform a mighty vampire-power-fueled jump that will send you flying through the air. The X button will serve as a context-sensitive "use" feature. The square button will trigger your melee attack. The circle button will let you reload your weapon. The R1 button shoots your weapon, and if you tap it once, you'll discharge a single shot. However, if you hold it down, you'll unleash a volley of fire that is accompanied by a sweet animation of your hand slapping the hammer of the pistol for some old-fashioned semiautomatic action. The R2 button pitches grenades, if you have them handy.

The graphics in the game are looking good, and there's a heavy emphasis on style, atmosphere, and functionality. The character models in the game are suitably unsettling and feature an impressive amount of fine detail. The environments we've seen cover a wide range of locales and looks. You'll see the obligatory Old West clichés on hand, such as the old town and the local church--although each is given a fresh spin thanks to the presence of the undead. However, in addition to these Western staples, you'll see snowy areas set in mountainous terrain and some foreboding caverns, to name just a few landscape elements. The areas you'll be going through will feature a variety of destructible objects that range from minor items, such as breakable bottles on saloon shelves, to far-more-useful items, such as exploding barrels that can take out clumps of flesh from your foes. The use of the Havok physics engine ensures that the items or foes you interact with move in a realistic fashion. The early version of the game we played moved along at an impressively smooth clip, for the most part. However, there was some obligatory frame rate inconsistency given the game's incomplete status.

The audio is still a work in progress, so our version of the game wasn't ready for prime time just yet. There was a good helping of undead screeching, and the frightened cries from townspeople (who were peppered throughout the level) certainly helped sell the whole experience. We were also able to check out some of the in-game cinematics to get a feel for how they're coming together. While Darkwatch will use cinematics to tell its story, they will be shown at a brisk clip to keep the game's pace from bogging down.

Vampires and cowboys, much like chocolate and peanut butter, is a combination whose time has come.
Vampires and cowboys, much like chocolate and peanut butter, is a combination whose time has come.

While our playtime with the game showed off a good chunk of what Darkwatch has to offer, there was still quite a bit we haven't seen yet. Though some of Jericho's vampiric abilities were in the game already--including his vampire sight, vampire jump, and damage-absorbing bloodshield--there are still quite a few left to be seen. Along the same lines... We still haven't seen exactly how the game's "judgment" system, which affects your alignment with good or evil, works. Likewise, we haven't seen how the vampire powers that will become available to you will work. We also haven't seen the other vehicle that Jericho will make use of, which is an armored dune buggy-style car that caught our eye.

Most importantly, we haven't seen more of the story, which, based on the snippets we were shown on our visit, will definitely present an interesting narrative path to follow. Darkwatch's tale, coupled with a mix of good, evil, and ambiguous characters, will certainly keep you guessing. The game's story is also being crafted to be unapologetically M-rated, though not so much in terms of its gore (although there's plenty of that if you're looking for it) but in terms of its content. Jericho is going to have pretty complicated relationships with some of the ladies he runs into, one of which results in a rather twisted carnal encounter.

Although the game is still a ways off from release, Darkwatch is shaping up to be a promising title that packs plenty of style and interesting gameplay. While the game is still rough, there's certainly a lot of potential to realize. We're pleased by what we've seen so far and are anxious to see how the game turns out in the end. As far as we're concerned, it's high time someone mixed vampires and cowboys. Hopefully Darkwatch can make it all work out. Darkwatch is currently slated to ship early next year for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox. Look for more on the game in the coming months. Until then, however, check out the exclusive developer interview on our media page.

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