Darkwatch came about at an interesting time in gaming history. A lot of early-aughts franchises were getting turned into movies, albeit largely bad ones, but movies nonetheless. You had ideas like Bloodrayne that were B-tier games but wound up crossing over to horror movie audiences thanks to the films — so a game in the franchise now had two potential fanbases to draw from. High Moon Studios, befitting their name, had high hopes for Darkwatch to become something big — but dame fortune wasn’t smiling upon them. Hardcore Gamer’s first cover story was on this game in 2005, and while the franchise may have fallen shy of its lofty expectations, the core experience remains a lot of fun. In the fifteen years since the game graced our debut magazine cover we’ve seen a lot of FPS games on the market, but nothing has quite managed to come close to Darkwatch. And with so much time having passed since Hardcore Gamer originally debuted with a robust Darkwatch cover story — and a game undeniably similar being announced for next year in the form of Evil West — we thought it’d be a perfect time to both celebrate fifteen years of Hardcore Gamer and look back to see if a decade-and-a-half of a publication’s existence would be enough time to change our perception of the haunted western title.
It’s impressive with so many years of hindsight to see just how well Darkwatch holds up to the test of time – especially in a crowded genre like first-person shooters. Some of that has to do with its premise, but a lot of it is how the shooting gallery-esque gameplay hasn’t been replicated and its mix of gameplay and cinematics blending into one another logically was far ahead of its time. Jericho Cross is a badass gunslinger (is there any other kind in fiction?) and he’s got one more train to rob, but this one is just a wee bit cursed. Instead of gold or treasure, it’s filled with Lazaraus — a supernatural creature that has minions all over.
Oh, and if you’re bitten you start turning into a vampire and unfortunately Jericho manages to get bitten despite a giant hat, waistcoat and shoulderpads. It’s like the Death Star having just a small opening that if hit could destroy it — leaving his face exposed. If this game was released in 2020 or if it gets a formal remaster, we can get some mask DLC that would resolve that problem by covering at least part of his face up and then he could get some shades as an unlockable. It’d be difficult to see at night, but thanks to his new vampiric tendencies, he doesn’t need perfect vision — he’s got wacky red and white x-ray style vampire vision! This is a cool effect because with a click of the right stick, the screen goes red and white, which makes it easier to see enemies at the expense of the environment getting a bit washed out.
The core game has you shooting the heck out of anything that moves while spilling as much blood as possible to feast on — with gory spectacles on display even by today’s standards. You start the adventure off seeing a cow getting mutilated before feasting on a horse and killing it — so right away, the game goes for the jugular and doesn’t let up. Every action you execute feels violent, whether it’s blasting foes away with your six-shooter, shotgun, or just pistol-whipping them to death. Headhosts in particular are satisfying as you’ll see the corpses flail around for a bit before finally falling and leaving even larger piles of blood for you to feast on. This offers up a nice incentive to do better with your aim rather than just relying on the aim assist. The bright red reticule helps out when you’re in a busy firefight, as you can tell it’s a good time to shoot, but is it the best time? That all comes down to the enemy, your weapon and distance.
The shotgun has great range and power, while the six-shooter is better in busy situations. It has a slick feature where holding down the right trigger allows you to fire off all six shots in rapid succession. This means that if you have a row of foes from left to right, you can mow them all down in one go with headshots. Melee combat is fantastic and you can either pistol-whip people or hit them with any weapon you’re wielding for massive damage. If you’re surrounded, then switching to the shotgun is great because you can just mow folks over in one hit and while you will take a bit of back and forth damage, you’ll take less over the length of the fight if you’re in close quarters. Larger arena-style battles lend themselves well to ranged attacks, as you can deal damage in a more piecemeal manner and reduce your own personal risk.
A lot of FPSes from this time period feel sluggish, but Darkwatch’s pace is nice and quick and feels modern. Beyond the core gameplay being quick, the pace of the story is as well as there’s always something going on. The transition from gameplay to cutscene is logical and you’re always able to get a sense for the larger world as a whole when you see sweeping pans in cutscenes before cutting back to gameplay. It helps make everything you’re doing feel like it’s contributing to a greater cause and that makes it easier to keep going. The shooting gallery-style of the gameplay is almost more like a rail shooter than it is an FPS, although you do wind up dealing with swarms of enemies.
The only downside I could find with the core game is that when you’re surrounded, you don’t get an arrow telling you where foes are at around you, but instead get slashed and then a blood splatter shows up to indicate the direction the attack came from. This forces you to fight more defensively as you can’t be sure you’re done with a wave of foes until a story scene kicks in to move things along. Your weapon arsenal is great and you have a slew of guns and even a badass crossbow that shoots slow-burning exploding rounds. Those aren’t great for swarming enemies, but they’re perfect for foes that keep their distance in the air or on the ground.
Visually, Darkwatch has held up remarkably well with its distinct character models and remarkably-high quality textures on guns, and solid ones on environments. Everyone you interact with stands out and they have a ton of details in their models. Scythe-wielding goons glow with explosives when they’re near-death, while crazy demon girls who soar in the sky wind up getting blown into bits when you use the explosive crossbow. Every weapon deals out a slightly different death animation in both its gun and blunt object form. My favorite animation for that was the crossbow basically being an uppercut, so you’d land this hard shot and see a foe’s head fly back. It works shockingly well at scratching a beat-em-up itch in that regard. Environments also have a lot of detail, but nothing looks better than the weapons, which are full of love and attention. While this does have some signs of age, especially with regard to its compressed cutscenes, Darkwatch looks astounding for a game released on nineteen-year-old hardware. It also looks and plays like a dream on the Xbox 360 with full HDMI output.
It’s great audio-wise and the use of dark country as a sub-genre nicely fits Darkwatch because you have a lot of dark Western-themed music on display as you demolish hordes of the undead. The voice work is strong and you have violent weapon effects on display too. Shotgun blasts sound nasty and shake the controller, while your revolver is more subdued, but still satisfying. Playing with a nice set of headphones showcased how strong the sound design is, as you get nice, eerie background noise — like enemies howling in the distance. It’s unsettling, but sets an ominous tone to everything you do and it’s a showcase to the high level of attention to detail paid with the game.
Darkwatch may have never achieved the success it deserved in its time, but with fifteen years behind it, it has held up remarkably in a crowded field. It plays like a dream, and while some FPS games like Black have held up well from that time, nothing has aged as gracefully as Darkwatch. It has a robust and deep weapon system that isn’t easy to match today given how different each weapon feels — even in an era of a slew of in-game weapon mods. Darkwatch is a must-play for anyone who loves gothic horror and wants something to scratch that itch in game form. It’s far more polished than Bloodrayne was outside of Bloodrayne Betrayal and it would be great to see it get a modern-day re-release via Xbox One/Series family backwards compatibility or a remake to modernize its gameplay even more. It’s a top-shelf experience across the board and deserved its place on our cover fifteen years ago — and it could hold that same spot today if need be.