|Release Date:||September 15, 2006 (UK)|
|Reviewer:||James Barlow (Malis)|
|Buy now at Amazon.co.uk|
Night Watch is a game that fails to live up to the sum of its parts. An adaptation of Russia's highest-grossing film release ever, Night Watch's world is one of world of vampires, magic and violence. All promising things for a computer game, and ones that lend themselves well to an RPG. However, a dated feel and shallow game-play ultimately lead to an unsatisfying experience.
The backdrop for Night Watch is certainly grand in scale. Living amongst the world's more normal people are the 'Others' - humans who possess incredible powers. Others are born to either the forces of light, or the forces of dark, and the two use humans as their pawns in a vicious struggle. Such was the scale of their war, the two sides signed a truce several centuries ago in an effort to stop their eternal battle from destroying the world. However the truce remains fragile, and both sides distrust each other. Taking place in modern day Moscow, the forces of light form the 'Night Watch' who's mission is to police the dark, while the 'Day Watch' keeps the forces of light in check. Are you confused yet? Because if you are it doesn't get any easier from here.
For such a simple concept (dark against light), Night Watch remains stubbornly convoluted. Thrust into the action straight away, we join Stas, a normal man who discovers he is an Other. Yet Stas has an unbelievable level of pre-knowledge for someone who's never encountered Russian sorcerers before. Ten minutes after being told he has special powers, he's nonchalantly shape-shifting into a bulldog without too many questions. Add another five and he's happily bantering with vampires and werewolves. Just another day in Moscow?
Yet it's this casual approach to story-telling that really hurts the game. As the player, we need someone to anchor us in and fully explain what's going on, as we learn through their eyes. Stas offers no such relief in Night Watch. The plot remains horribly messy and confusing, which is not a good thing for an RPG. I say RPG, but in truth Night Watch plays much more like an interactive novel at times, overloaded with lots of very long cut-scenes. Every event is told using an in-game engine cut-scene, often intruding on combat scenes. Perhaps this wouldn't be such a problem if not for the dated engine.
For although the graphics in combat mode are solid enough, with a nice level of detail and the odd flashy magical effect, when the game zooms up for a cut-scene, it really starts to show its age. Simply put, Night Watch's cut-scenes hark back to games of yesteryear. You may recall how games of old used to have characters doing repeated animations in a loop (like scratching an arm) as they spoke during a cut-scene. For a game so heavy on narrative, cheap animation such as this really detracts from the overall experience. Furthermore, no emotion is displayed in the characters faces - the engine simply isn't up to it - and we're left listening to complicated story devices while a blank faced man waves his arms about. Although the voice-acting is surprisingly good, it just feels so hollow coming from such dated avatars. It is possible to skip through the story, but the game would become nothing more than a slide-show of tactical battles.
Perhaps that wouldn't be such a bad idea, as the actual game-play side of Night Watch is enjoyable enough. At it's core, Night Watch is a tactical RPG in the vein of the classic Fallout series. Battles are turn-based, and all actions in a turn are governed by action points. It's a time-proven system, and one that is pretty fun. Control is simple and intuitive, with a left mouse click controlling most actions, and a UI that doesn't intrude. Perhaps my biggest gripe would movement - it simply costs too many action points to move, making it often wiser to remain still and let the enemy come to you. I'll make special note of the sound here; the rocky riffs of the soundtrack are pretty decent, and as I mentioned earlier, the voice-acting is solid and funny in all the right places.
As with any RPG, there's different classes for your characters. Night Watch features three; shape-shifter, sorcerer and mage. Shape-shifters can transform themselves into beasts for close-combat effectiveness, while mages blast thing from afar. Sorcerers can buff your group up, and enchant normal items into magical ones. It's a shame that there aren't more classes, as you'll quickly get used to all the spells and abilities on offer from just these three. Night Watch also introduces the 'gloom' - a sort of parallel world to ours that Others can step into at will. When in the gloom you'll see the same battlefield but in a ghostly haze of whites and blues. Here characters have more action points, allowing for better combat, but at the cost they lose energy every turn. It's a truly interesting idea, and one that could be open to a host of tactical combat strategies. Yet sadly most battles will see you step into the gloom with your enemy, fight for a bit, then move onto a cut-scene. Rarely do you have to juggle your party between worlds, leaving the gloom as nothing more than necessary part of combat.
It is genuinely fun using your party to overcome stacked odds, and some spells are satisfying to use. Telekinesis for example, sends your opponent flying back, taking damage for everything he hits. Weapons and items are normally a staple of RPGs, but play a minimal role in Night Watch. Due to it's modern day setting, health packs come in the form of enchanted apples and chocolate, which drop frequently enough from fallen enemies. Magic flashlights become beam weapons, and strip light bulbs energy swords. Guns can also be used if you pick them up off your enemies, which add another option if you're low on energy points. Scenery is destructible, and there are rag-doll physics on display, but Night Watch never makes enough use of them to spice things up. Battle scenes tread a fine line between shallow and repetitive, or fun and rewarding.
Night Watch is a game that promises so much, but unfortunately fails to deliver. Whilst I found the actual combat side fairly solid and enjoyable, the shallow nature of game-play lends to repetitiveness in long bursts. Clunky cut-scenes with a dated engine sadly do not help. This is a shame because at its core, Night Watch has some good ideas and fun game-play. Although close to being an exciting RPG romp, it sadly just falls short. Unless you're a true fan of the film or books, it's unlikely you'll find the tactical RPG you hoped here.
- Good voice-acting and music
- Combat can be satisfying at times
- Simple and effective UI and controls
Not so good stuff
- Dated engine
- Combat becomes repetitive in long bursts of play
- Too many cut-scenes
- Confusing story