Warner Bros. Interactive's Watchmen: The End is Nigh is caught in the awkward place between being a comic book game and a movie game.
This is most visible in the difference between the story cut scenes and the in-game cut scenes. The former are done in the style of the comic with bright colours and the Dave Gibbons lettering in text bubbles. The latter goes for realism with dark, gritty settings and shiny rain-slick surfaces.
The two halves don't fit together well - but that's not to say the game is completely without pluses.
What Is It?
Watchmen: The End is Nigh is an 8-12 hour action adventure tie-in game to the movie based on the comic written by Alan Moore. Associate Producer Jerry Pritchard stressed that the game wasn't supposed to be a sequel or a prequel - he called it "a chance to explore more of the world." The plot stars "heroes" Rorschach and Night Owl as they try and solve the mystery behind a prison break that leaves Underboss on the loose. The game will be a download for PC and on Xbox Live and PlayStation Network.
What We Saw
I watched Pritchard play most of my thirty minutes with the game in a hotel room booked by Warner Bros. Interactive for their showcase. This covered the first cut scene and roughly a level and a half. During that second level, I was given a brief chance to punch while playing as Rorschach — the highlight of this being that he puts his hands back in his pockets after he hits people.
How Far Along Is it?
The End is Nigh is scheduled to release the same day as the film - March 6. The build I saw was near-final.
What Needs Improvement?
The Lack of Alan Moore: I'm not saying every Moore endeavour that goes on without him is a bad one - but Watchmen was his one of his lifetime achievements (right up there with V for Vendetta, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and From Hell). It feels somehow wrong to play a game that's "an original" Watchmen story and know that he didn't have a hand in writing it. If it were based off the movie, at least you could tell yourself it was an honest adaptation.
Pick a style: It doesn't make sense to have comic book cut scenes and cut scenes rendered with the in-game engine. I'm not talking about transitional cut scenes, like when the player reaches a door that needs unlocking and a short cinematic shows you where the key is. I watched one sequence that went from comic book scene explaining the prison break to an in game cut scene explaining why our heroes were going to the waterfront district. Jumping between the two styles was jarring and, in theory, you wouldn't need "extra" scenes to tell the story if the comic book scenes got it right.
What Should Stay The Same?
The combo system: You can't get by button-mashing in End is Nigh. Normally, I'd count that against a game, but the combos were easy to chain together and for the most part logical patterns of X, X, Y and so on. The combo system is also well-integrated: the more you do, the more your character's special attack gauge fills (Rorschach has Rage and Night Owl has Charge, as in electric charge) and the more combos you unlock.
The co-op setup: End is Nigh features split-screen co-op instead of online multiplayer.
Distinctive styles: I appreciate the game giving Rorschach and Night Owl distinctive styles so that it feels different to play as one or the other. Rorschach is a brawler with quick, weak strikes fit for melee fights. Meanwhile Night Owl uses gadgetry like electric shocks and slow, heavy hits that work well on one foe at a time. Once you've chosen a hero to play, you're stuck with him for the whole game; so there's replay value here.
The partner AI: From what I saw, the partner AI doesn't do stupid things like getting stuck to walls, running away randomly or ignoring you when you're getting your arse beat. According to Pritchard, the AI can't die and for the most part doesn't need babysitting - but it won't fight all your battles for you and just may allow you to die if you run ahead of him and get into fights.
I want to like this game, but I'm anxious that it will cost way too much. The official word from Warner Bros. is "quite a bit more than" US$10. The game is good, but if it creeps over US$20, I'll have a hard time justifying it to my wallet. I'm also suspicious about the statement Pritchard made that the game writers "worked very closely with the original writers of the comic" even after admitting that Moore had nothing to do with it. And Doctor Manhattan isn't even a playable character - major bummer.
If End is Nigh does well, we can expect more of these "episode" games - and maybe they will add my beloved blue physicist and other Watchmen to the playable cast. Pritchard says the developer is already at work on a second one even now. Sure, I love all things Watchmen, but if I have to pay way too much for this game, I'll turn my nose up to subsequent ones the way that Alan Moore did to Joel Silver.