Version tested: Xbox 360
It misses the point, of course. That much was evident from the moment it was announced that the movie adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' masterful rumination on superheroes would be supported by a beat-'em-up from Deadline Games, the makers of tongue-in-cheek romps Total Overdose and Chili Con Carnage.
The disconnect between source material and videogame may not be quite as extreme as that conjured up by the execrable Fight Club or the ill-fated Taxi Driver game, but there's still plenty of reason to wonder just who thought this was a good idea. Clearly aimed at movie fans who think that the psychologically broken sociopath Rorschach is totally fuggin' awesome, dude, the game delves into Watchmen's rich depths but emerges clutching only a mindless brawling template, peppered with ludicrous gore and swearing.
The dialogue deserves particular scorn, as Rorschach and erstwhile partner Nite Owl trade mealy-mouthed arguments about society and vigilantism. "What causes beings such as these to deviate so far from society's status quo? Broken home probably," growls Rorschach. "What is missing from these boys' lives that gang affiliation becomes their most prized possession?" mewls Nite Owl, like an appalled social worker. It's horrible, horrible writing, especially considering it comes from Len Wein, a long-established comic writer with far better work to his name.
These fumbles are especially disappointing, given that there are glimmers that suggest a more faithful Watchmen game could have been possible. The defiantly non-superheroey yellow and purple palette of the comic page is captured well, the enemies are often drawn directly from the comic - including the hapless topknot gang members - and there's even a throwaway reference to Charlton Comics, whose characters Alan Moore reworked as the basis for his cast of flawed vigilantes.
For all the stabs at authenticity, however, at its heart this is a short and stupid game struggling under the weight of its inflated price-tag. You choose from either Rorschach or Nite Owl, and pummel your way through six stages of relentless combat. It's a 3D version of the Double Dragon template, but not only did those retro beat-'em-ups have more style and grace than this lumbering effort, the movie marketing department already used the same frame of reference for an online game that actually fits into the Watchmen's alternate history far more neatly.
You can play solo, or offline co-op with a friend, but whichever you choose the game remains broadly the same. Rorschach can pick locks to find power-ups in one of the most annoying mini-games ever, and can also use weapons taken from defeated enemies, while Nite Owl relies on his electrically-charged suit and night vision. There are sporadic moments where the two separate and take slightly different routes, but this generally involves traipsing through a couple of empty areas before reuniting, so it's not clear what the point is, other than to give the illusion that you're playing a game optimised for co-op play.
It's certainly not enough to compensate for the game's crippling lack of ambition. While each level brings different foes to the table, from rioting prisoners to bikers, cops and mercenaries, they all fight in the exact same way, and use the same attack animations and voice samples.
Levels are short and linear, with the occasional stab at puzzling rather undermined by the fact that the levers and valves you need to pull and twist are always directly in front of you. You jog forward a few paces, and gangs of enemies pour out of the background. The traditional fast attack/strong attack/throw control set-up means that it's easy to start smacking down the punks, but there's little reason to seek out the collectable icons that unlock more combos. The timing of these attacks relies on hitting each button as the previous blow lands, and it's simply too fussy for a game where mashing gets the job done as often as not.
Combat isn't terribly difficult, since your health recharges over time and your foes are far from smart, but should you make the mistake of allowing yourself to be surrounded and punched to death, the checkpoints are just slack enough to cause frustration. You may only be a few screens back, but when that means ploughing through the same scores of enemies all over again, enthusiasm for the task at hand tends to drain away.
It's also one of those games that can look great in a screenshot, but falls to pieces in reality. Moody images of Rorschach glowering in the night are easy to conjure up - look, there's one over there! - but they give a false impression of the true production values. The main characters are well-rendered and the environments are detailed, but the crude polygon-modelled opponents, jittery animation and frequent glitches soon betray the sparse engine under the shiny hood. Attacks clearly don't connect, characters break through the scenery and the AI is similarly half-hearted, with lots of running on the spot, standing around looking confused or just swinging fists at thin air.
A brief and shallow adventure culminates in a painfully executed boss battle against Underboss. It's one of those fights where you can only chip down his health to a certain point before he becomes invulnerable again, and it can be a long, boring process getting there. He also attacks with a flamethrower, which will kill you in one hit. "Must avoid flame," suggests Rorschach, ever insightful. If you don't, you've got to grind your way through the whole process again. Pathetically, once you realise you can simply stand in the corner, and build up your special attack by pounding on the infinite supply of henchmen sent your way, the battle becomes insultingly simple, loopholes in the clumsy game design finishing the task rather than any skill or ingenuity on your part.
For its premium price, Watchmen offers very little of substance beyond the surface thrill of seeing iconic characters realised in a game for the first time. Look beyond that, however, and you find a game that has little in common with its source material, nor with anything resembling smart game design. A short game painfully elongated by mindless repetition, there maybe a half-decent melee game somewhere in the midst of all this movie propaganda, but you'll need super-patience to find it. Ah well, maybe the game of the animated series will be better.
3 / 10