REVIEW
Watchmen: The End Is Nigh

By Shaun Hatton - March 14th, 2009

WATCHMEN: THE END IS NIGH

As a graphic novel, Watchmen did wonders to legitimize the comic book as a medium for mature storytelling. The tale of dysfunctional heroes set in an alternate world where Woodward and Bernstein were unsuccessful in their Watergate investigation, Nixon stayed on as President, and Vietnam was an American victory is a far cry from the bright, glamorized world of super heroes found in other comics of its time. The world of Watchmen is a dirty one. Its heroes don’t wear costumes consisting of only primary colours with giant logos emblazoned on their chests. It rains. It smells. People die – even the good guys. In many ways, I would consider it to be as refreshing as Blade Runner was to the genre of science fiction in film.

Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, has a narrative tapestry woven from several perspectives and times that each tells different facets of the larger story. In panel form, we see scenes play out from different angles, flashbacks, flash-forwards, and parallels between the main narrative and the plot of the fictional comic book Tales of the Black Freighter. In between chapters, we’re treated to excerpts from novels and newspaper clippings that exist in that world.

At its heart, however, Watchmen is not so much a story about costumed vigilantes as it is about humanity. Through the manner in which the main protagonists fit into the story (which is as precise and delicately planned as the placement of gears in a watch), we come to understand the past, present, and future of this fictionalized world. In doing so, perhaps keen readers will come away either knowing a little more about themselves or at least thinking about their place in the world.

WATCHMEN: THE END IS NIGH

The download-only game Watchmen: The End is Nigh attempts to make use of similar storytelling techniques – as much as a modern videogame will allow for, that is – to give players a glimpse of some earlier exploits of two heroes from the novel: Rorschach and Nite Owl II (who will henceforth be called only “Nite Owl”). From the novel set in 1985 we learn the two were once partners back in the glory days of costumed crime fighting, and that Nite Owl eventually quit to lead a normal life. Rorschach, however, never had a normal life and thus had nothing else but vigilantism.

The game takes place in 1972 and begins with an animated comic sequence that looks as if animators traced some of the graphic novel’s panels and brought them to subtle life. These aren’t cartoon-quality – but they get the job done and capture the visual aesthetic of Gibbons’ work excellently. Both Nite Owl and Rorschach are voiced by the actors who play them in the film adaptation of the book, and they both do a great job of bringing the characters to life both in the cut-scenes and during actual game-play. The intro does a great job of setting up who these two heroes are via their banter. Rorschach smugly writes-off Nite Owl’s choice of newspaper as liberal trash. The interchange is cut short by a police radio alert of a blackout and riot at Sing Sing prison, which just so happens to be the first chapter of the game.

After the animated graphic novel cut scenes, the story continues via in-game dialogue between the two heroes and villains. Usually, the villains are just shouting obscenities, and although it does get somewhat repetitive after a while, it’s not as bad as when the dialogue between the heroes get repetitive. Throughout the entire game, even in single-player mode and no matter which hero you choose to play as, you are accompanied by your teammate (unless the two of you are split up momentarily). The banter between the heroes works best when it relates to the unfolding of the game’s plot, but when they’re talking about their current situations, certain phrases, and even entire conversations, are repeated. In the one chapter, for instance, there are two instances where Nite Owl must use his strength-boosting suit to lift open a garage door just high enough for Rorschach to slip through underneath. The first time we need to do this, the expositional dialogue is necessary. However, the second time this game mechanic comes up is just minutes afterward (arguably too soon to have to even use it again), and we’re treated to the same short conversation yet again. In any other brawler, I wouldn’t even bat an eyelash at this. But this is a game based on one of the finest achievements in the comic book medium, and it’s a comic book that is known for its excellent writing, so a repeated conversation is one that is also out of place.

WATCHMEN: THE END IS NIGH

My only other complaint about the in-game dialogue is that while playing single-player, your partner will whine a lot about you not helping him out. For the most part, this is because you have your hands busy with your own fights, but it gets grating after a while, especially during the last boss fight where you seem to do all the work and take all the damage.

As far as the actual story of the game is concerned, it’s a fine self-contained plot with room for a sequel (or a prequel, even). The short version is that someone escapes prison and you have to capture him again. The long version involves plenty of spoilers, including mentions of cameos by other Watchmen heroes. Fans of the book will enjoy the subtle attention to detail given to Rorschach and Nite Owl, including their different but equally effective fighting styles and the way the characters move in addition to how they actually look. My favourite detail is how the inkblot pattern on Rorschach’s mask is always shifting its shape, much like it does in the comic. I spun the camera around and zoomed it in just to check out this detail. Playing as the character, you obviously won’t see much of his mask, after all.

If you’ve ever played a beat-‘em-up title before, you may know what to expect in terms of game-play for Watchmen: The End is Nigh. Each of the Six Chapters involves you going from Point A to Point B while beating up on waves of enemies. Along the way, you’ll find power-ups that include new moves and combo attacks. All of them are vicious. But don’t let that fool you into thinking you can just walk into a mob and start smashing buttons; that’s a great way to get yourself killed. Instead, the battle system involves some timing. More powerful enemies will have to first be disarmed before you can put them down – and they’ll block your attacks, too. Combos are performed via a sequence of button pushes – but you can’t just spam the sequence repeatedly. Each combo requires that you time your next hit as the previous one lands. And while this is happening, keep in mind that other thugs can still attack you. Under certain conditions, if an enemy is stunned and ready to be finished, an icon of a button will appear above his head. Pressing the corresponding button on the control pad will execute a finishing move that is as deadly as it is beautiful. In many ways, you might feel a little guilty for beating up on the nightlife so much. Or, you might just think it’s funny. I guess it depends on which hero you relate to more.

WATCHMEN: THE END IS NIGH

Rorschach fights up-close and dirty, and even makes use of the weapons of his disarmed foes. His attacks are quick and vicious, and he’ll also keep punishing foes after they’re down. He fights like an animal, but walks calmly with his hands in his pockets. And his scarf never comes undone, nor does his hat fly off. What a gent! Nite Owl’s attacks, on the other hand, are more calculated and distanced. His powered suit gives him more strength and thus he doesn’t have to wail on enemies as much as Rorschach. Rather than use a fallen foe’s weapon, Nite Owl throws them aside, favouring his martial arts techniques over bottles, crowbars, and pipe wrenches.

Fighting plays a huge part in the game, but for the more adventuresome who choose to explore the stages a little longer, there are some secret areas to uncover. I haven’t yet found them all, but getting into one of them involved picking a lock, which required me to play a sort of mini-game in which I used a paperclip to pop up lock pins. In comparison to the lock picking in Fallout 3, I found this to be both more challenging and more rewarding. There are achievements associated with finding all the hidden tokens in the game, but choosing to ignore them does not affect the overall enjoyment of the title.

At just over one gig, Watchmen: The End is Nigh packs in a hell of a lot of awesome. Here, the dank and murky world is re-created to look real, complementing the movie, yet is still inspired by the feel of the book. The six chapters take place in different environments, but all happen to be set at night. In stages where it’s raining, the effect is outstanding. Drops hit puddles, characters splash through them, and glows of spotlights and neon can be seen reflected in them. This is what a Batman game should look like. The protagonists have been designed based on their movie appearances, and they look amazing. When attacks connect, particularly the finishing moves, the camera pans around the character performing them to give you a better view of your opponent getting beaten down. Enemies, on the other hand, only come in a few varieties. You’ll fight the same set of standard thugs repeatedly, and sometimes you’ll be fighting three or more guys that look exactly the same. In the prison level, this isn’t really noticeable since everyone’s wearing jumpsuits. And overall, I didn’t mind because it was still as fun to beat them up the hundredth time as it was the first. The use of Doc Manhattan’s hydrogen insignia as a loading/saving icon is a nice, subtle touch, too.

WATCHMEN: THE END IS NIGH

Every punch and kick successfully dealt to an enemy hits with a satisfying, meaty, and deep thwack. Additional attacks are often accompanied by the sounds you’d hope to hear from your enemies if you really were a masked vigilante hell-bent on beating the crap out of people. Your enemies will get their teeth knocked out, shoulders dislocated, elbows bent backwards, and ribcages crushed – and though the visuals shown during these attacks are violent, the accompanying sound effects make them absolutely brutal. Again, you will either laugh or cringe because of this. As if this wasn’t enough, enemies howl in pain. You’ll be amazed at how high a big guy’s voice can get if you smack him around the right way. Each stage has its own score treatment, with the overall sound of the music being a brooding orchestral tone. The instruments flourish upon encounters with waves of enemies and then die down once the last foe is defeated. At times it appears as if weather conditions such as thunder and high wind are actually a part of the score, lending their own voices to the choir. Nothing about the music seems out of place, and together with the sound effects, graphics, and control heft, it makes for a fun experience overall.

At six chapters long, it’s arguable that the game is relatively short. On the upside, it does have a lot of replay value. You can play through as either Rorschach or Nite Owl, and in some stages, each character has access to different areas. In addition to this, there’s a vertical split-screen co-op mode where each player takes control of a different character, and this is a lot of fun. While it lacks any online play options, sitting with a friend on the same couch to play a game will always be more fun to me. This way, you can elbow your friend in real life if he/she steals your kills! Another benefit of playing the two-player mode is that you won’t have to hear your partner’s in-game character crying out for help every five minutes.

Watchmen: The End is Nigh is the first episode in a series of games. Developer Deadline Games did the right thing by taking their time with it and not rushing to complete a half-assed full game just to get it published in time to coincide with the film’s release. This first game wraps up, albeit on a cliff-hanger, leaving room for further adventures of Rorschach and Nite Owl. This is by far one of the better movie tie-in games I’ve played, and one I find myself going back to. If you’re a fan of the book or movie, and you like beat-‘em-ups, check it out.

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    4 responses so far:
  2. Man, I have to say that this game is hella fun.

    I certainly enjoyed playing co-op with a certain Rorschach-obsessed friend of mine.

    And while the savagery of Rorschach’s fighting style is very attractive, being Nite Owl II has its advantages, too. :)

  3. Posted on Mar 16, 2009

    Yeah it was great to check out the multiplayer aspect with you, even though you were stealing a lot of my kills.

  4. Me stealing YOUR kills?

    I think, good sir, that you have a bit of a misleading comment there.

    I was, in fact, making sure that I compensated for all the kills you would steal from me in the FUTURE.

  5. By Reay
    Posted on Mar 23, 2009

    > I was, in fact, making sure that I compensated for all the kills you would steal from me in the FUTURE.

    I would tell you what the future holds, but my vision of it is blocked by some type of radiation; the kind that would be made by millions of monitors and television sets turned on and playing this game…

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