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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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Yee-haw. Cowboys and... Vampires?

It was a time for war. It was a time for heroes. It was a time for war... and heroes. It was a time for war, heroes, vampires and cowboys. It was a time for bad voice actors to try to sound like that man who does all the film trailers in that stupid voice. It was time for all of those things, with more cowboys and vampires. Lots of vampires. But it was not a time for fun.

It's an ineffable problem. There hasn't been a decent vampire shooter since mankind crawled out of the soup, nor a truly landmark cowboy shooter, either. So you decide to do something different instead? Don't be silly. You decide to merge the two. Cowboys and vampires. Genius.

Or is it?

The problem is, what with the end-of-generation malaise that inevitably sets in, we're jaded and restless, and if you're going to do an FPS, you have to do something big, spectacular and special. Having a concept - "It's like a vampire shooter, but with, wait for it (snicker), COWBOYS!" - is not enough, except for the most diehard of VamBoy fans.

The game opens with its laughably bad voice-over. The wannabe-it-was-a-time-for man growls his way though some badly written nonsense about, well, vampires probably. I wasn't really listening. That kind of voice isn't conducive to listening.

Once you have control of your twitchy cowboy, you are dumped at the start of a train and told to fight your way through vampires and blow open a hatch. This you dutifully do, as the rubbish creatures waddle in waves of gittish embarrassment towards you, and you hack them to death. So far, so bland. When you blow open the safe, only narrowly unimpeded by an angry and oddly-modelled woman who later turns out to be a colleague, you discover that you have unleashed a great evil on the world. It's curious how often that happens in games.

We like the moon. It is close to us.

A short while after, your new woman-at-arms screeches at you in the most unconvincing way some other absurd contrivance, (Oh noes! That have feasted on my sweetmeats. I am become vampire!), and that's all the plot. From thence until tedium, it's vampire-slashing all the way, with your slow descent into and battle against the forces of yawnsomely familiar gaming territory.

It wishes to appear to be some horrific chimera aesthetic between cowboy and vampire, which it only delivers in the loosest sense. In practice, the attempt to blend two styles has produced a look which is dark and eminently forgettable. There are scenes of 'Boy galloping across open desert, on lumpen horses, but because it's usually grim and dark, a necessity of the Vam', it ends up being satisfying in neither context.

The game is full of tributes to all manner of FPS brethren, such as Half-Life, Halo and Medal of Honour. Unfortunately, these tributes merely remind you how much you'd rather have been playing those games. Tributes to other games don't cover up for your own shortcomings.

Like other games which have featured open-ended "morality" systems as either gimmicks or a central tenet of the game, this good-bad aspect doesn't really work. Ultimately, the claim of open-endedness is seen to be a sham. Invariably, you are led down one direction rather than the other, the direction in which the game developers expect you to go; the direction of good. The rewards for being good are more fun and useful than the alternative. You'd only be bad to make things difficult for yourself.

I've come about the reaping. I hear your privet needs doing.

There are another couple of problems with the game that prevent it from rising above the mire of generic shooters. The most obvious flaw is that in one-player mode the game is drab. Fight your way through the vampire hordes in a canyon, ride a horse while shooting. Repeat.

There are also significant collision and twitchily irritant movement problems when fighting melee enemies. If you get trapped in a corner by a spawn-zone, you frequently get stuck until you are killed; much hilarity does not ensue, especially when it keeps happening.

The powers earned through the amorality systems really aren't that special, either. The melee attack is vicious and fun, but for the most part you can run, jump and frag through game without need to recourse to anything else.

The most unsatisfying element is the progress of the story. Eventually, the unending onslaught of cut-scenes grinds you down. Ooh, there are lots, too, full of those morality choices that make the whole game up but ultimately make no difference, since it's already been decided which way you'll go, and even then the ultimate outcome is the same, and neither surprising or entertaining.

Cowboys and Vampires. Which is better? There's only one way to find out. FIGHT.

Fortunately, apart from the voice-over at the start, the voice acting quickly matures into something which is quite enjoyable, even if they commit the standard game-voice crime of undue pomposity. The music is, again, curious and not entirely welcome of Cowboy thematics and vampire leitmotifs. Unusual, chromatic, well-orchestrated but not pretty. The music suffers from the same schizoid attitudes as the visual appearance, and it doesn't benefit from it at all.

The Xbox online mode is, reportedly, pretty good (replete, as it is, with online co-op mode, which is always a plus in our book), but given that we were lumbered with the split-screen-only PS2 version to review, we can't even vouch for whether such claims hold any water. As it is, the split screen mode on amplifies the manifest flaws of the single-player offering.

Ultimately, Darkwatch adds up to a generic and quickly tiresome shooter, with a contrived premise which, unfortunately, does nothing to elevate it. The most honest advice we can give is not to even think about paying full price for it. This game has little to offer that dozens of other shooters have done so much better.

5 / 10