Version tested: Xbox 360
This second go-round for the downloadable Watchmen movie spin-off is a game thrice cursed by bad timing. Firstly, unlike its predecessor, this entry arrives long after the film itself dropped like a stone from cinemas, and even now the DVD release is fading in the rear-view mirror. Whatever pop culture momentum the movie managed to build up has long since dissipated, leaving this ill-fated tie-in dangling in the wind.
It's also bad timing because this second salvo of monotonous, mindless brawling arrives in the same week that Batman: Arkham Asylum proved that even a superhero game with a simple combo-and-counter fighting system can be about more than monotonous, mindless brawling. Given the intricate nature of Watchmen's original source material, the decision to flatten its lofty peaks into a one-note beat-'em-up seems even more ludicrous now.
And, finally, it's bad timing because it arrives hot on the heels of a sterling run of Live Arcade games that have often put their full-priced brethren in the shade. The price for this chapter has been dropped from the outrageous 1600 Microsoft Points charged for the first to a slightly more reasonable 1200, but when that same amount could buy you something truly wonderful like Trials HD or Shadow Complex it's all but impossible to forgive the puddle-shallow gameplay and shonky production on display.
Few will be surprised to learn that this game is virtually identical to the last effort, following squabbling crime-fighting duo Nite Owl and Rorschach on another mission that involves lots of clumsy dialogue and a relentless amount of punching. Any hopes that we might at least get a game based on another aspect of Watchmen's rich universe were dashed long ago, but it's still galling to see that what we're getting is little more than a reskin of a game that already felt tired and second-hand in March. It's the same handful of animations being used every time you go through a door or use a special finisher, and if you weren't sick of them by the end of the last game, you'll be scrubbing them from your retinas should you suffer to the finale of this one.
Even the enemy types are tediously familiar. The opening level sends our vigilantes to a strip club on the trail of a young girl who Rorschach suspects has been kidnapped and sold into prostitution and porn. This grim premise is somewhat undermined by the fact the game takes place in 1977, and all the patrons of the club (who immediately attempt to kill you, naturally) look like Disco Stu from The Simpsons. The second stage, meanwhile, simply reuses the knot-top gang-members from the previous game, complete with the same animations and attacks.
It's in the third and final stage that the game crosses the line of good taste though. Barging into a sprawling vandalised mansion that doubles as a brothel for the game's boss character, Twilight Lady, Rorschach and Nite Owl start pummelling women to death with gory abandon. Of course, cartoon street-walkers with stockings and whips have been a mainstay of the scrolling beat-'em-up for over 20 years but Watchmen's uber-gritty fighting style and ostensibly realistic setting takes that quaint tradition and brings out all that is distasteful and creepy about it.
There's just something that feels inherently disturbing about the way our heroes will pounce on a prostitute, whose bouncing breasts have received more animation attention than the rest of her rigid anatomy, knock her to the floor and proceed to smash her face in with repeated angry punches, blood spurting with every slow motion impact. That the dialogue features female voices squealing "I'd call for help...but I think I like it!" while Rorschach growls endlessly about "filthy whores" and making them "pay for their indiscretions" lends the whole level a truly queasy atmosphere.
This is undeniably sexualised violence, and it only gets worse when they finally catch up with the girl they're trying to save and discover - SPOILERS AHOY - that she actually wants to be a hooker. It's wretched, sophomoric crap - closer to the latter day output of the increasingly embarrassing Frank Miller than anything Alan Moore ever intended - and the sort of thing that makes gaming look so terminally adolescent to the rest of the world.
Taking a long shower and moving on to more tangible criticisms, it's also a much smaller game this time around. The first Watchmen game dragged its heels over a painful six stages, but this one can only muster three. That's a blessing, quite frankly, but when you can almost complete the game twice in the time it would take to watch the movie on DVD questions of value have to enter the equation.
It doesn't even feel right calling this an episodic game, such is the repetition on display. Episodic implies distinct chapters, but apart from three or four cut-scenes totalling maybe five minutes of new plot, this feels more like a reskinned re-release of a game barely six months old than a continuation of an ongoing saga. Things pick up near the end, when there's a twist of sorts that finally intersects this insipid narrative with the story we know from the book, but it's too little, too late.
All the old complaints regarding gameplay are still horribly relevant, of course. There's the beginning of a decent combo system here, but sluggish movement and unresponsive controls put a damper on any attempt to play as anything more than a crude button-masher. Scenery clipping is constant, and the camera is an unruly thing, jerking about during special moves and requiring constant right-stick attention to keep enemies in view.
As before, the two heroes look passable but all other figures are crudely cut-and-pasted mannequins. The environments aren't bad, but repetition remains a problem. Too many areas look absolutely identical, so much so that they've had to include a button prompt that points you in the right direction. Common enough in openworld titles, but in a game that unfailingly follows a single linear path, that's not a good sign.
The AI is laughable across the board so the only threat comes from being cornered by multiple enemies. Keep your distance and they'll often just stand there, looking at you, or running on the spot into a wall. Your AI partner isn't much better, calling for assistance more than they offer it, but even that's pointless since it's impossible for them to die. It's quite possible to get through some encounters by waiting in the corner and letting these inept AI drones slowly bludgeon each other to death. It's borderline criminal, therefore, that the game still only offers offline co-op play. Even though the levels offer only half-hearted attempts at challenges that require two players, to not offer online play makes this rickety farce feel even more outdated than it is.
Watchmen Part 2 therefore manages the rather impressive feat of actually being a worse game than its bone-headed predecessor. The gameplay is as leaden as before, but now there's even less of it, and a good chunk of it comes drizzled in an icky misogynist sauce. It's certainly the most unpleasant afternoon's gaming I've endured in a long time. If you can't find a better recipient for your Microsoft Points after the stellar line-up of the last month, you probably deserve every poorly rendered punch and kick coming your way.
2 / 10