Many may view an action game wearing the Watchmen name with skepticism, and this is certainly understandable. Alan Moore’s original 12-issue series, published by DC comics in the late 1980s, hardly conformed to norms of the superhero genre. To a slightly lesser extent, this holds true for Zack Snyder’s recently released film adaptation as well, upon which the game is based. Watchmen has been described as a deconstruction of the superhero genre, and to place characters and backdrop of such a franchise into a brutal beat-em-up is certainly deserving of skepticism. But upon actually playing Watchmen: The End is Nigh, fans may find themselves surprised: the franchise’s essence is surprisingly well-preserved here. In addition, the game features solid mechanics and some slick production values.
Watchmen: The End is Nigh is set over 10 years before events of the comic/film, back when Rorschach and Night Owl were partners, battling gang-related crime in the streets of New York. Fans of the comic may recall a scene in which the two briefly reminisced over a battle against a villain named Underboss, and that’s what the story here is about. During a prison riot, Underboss manages to escape and it’s up to Rorschach and Night Owl to track him down again. It’s a very simple story, made enjoyable by a surprisingly well-written script that was penned by none other than Len Wein, a name likely familiar to comic book aficionados. Wein has been writing comics for some time, and his more notable credits include the creation of the New X-Men, a run on The Amazing Spider-Man, and Swamp Thing. Aside from the dialogue in the cutscenes, Rorschach and Night Owl frequently exchange words during the course of levels, and it’s often quite good – so good it’s too bad there isn’t more of it. The dialogue is enhanced by a top-notch presentation, with cutscenes done in a style that emulates the art style seen in the original comic series, and voicework provided by Patrick Wilson and Jackie Earle Haley, the actors who played Night Owl and Rorschach, respectively, in the film adaptation. The feeling of authenticity here is impressive – it feels like a legitimate side-story to Watchmen rather than a lame excuse to throw together an action game.
The gameplay is simple, straightforward, and enjoyable. In their quest to track down Underboss, Rorschach and Night Owl travel through New York’s alleyways, amusement parks, and sewers, taking down never-ending hoards of thugs. The mechanics are fairly standard beat-em-up fare: the player has fast attacks, heavy attacks, throws, and plenty of finger-twisting combination attacks at their disposal. In addition, there is a heavy dependence on counter-moves, which gives the combat some parallels to Assassin’s Creed. Surprisingly, the game manages to avoid devolving into a button-mashing frenzy. Enemies tend to block normal attacks, and combination attacks require slower, timed button presses to pull off. Enemies with weapons will dish out massive damage, so counter-moves are necessary in order to disarm them, and also to simply stay alive when faced with dozens of enemies at a time.
The two playable characters handle fairly differently: Rorschach employs the down-and-dirty fighting style that Watchmen fans would imagine, with fast, brutal attacks and the ability to take down multiple foes at a time. He also has the ability to steal and use his foes’ weapons, which include crude objects such as wrenches, baseball bats, and jackknives. It’s worth noting that plowing into a group of thugs with a baseball bat, taking each of them down with a single hit, is incredibly satisfying. His finishing moves, which can occasionally be performed after an enemy has taken enough damage, are shockingly brutal and gory: Rorschach breaks arms, cuts throats, and crushes the skulls of his foes. On the other hand, Night Owl’s fighting style is more finessed, with slower, stronger attacks and a heavier focus on one-on-one combat. He doesn’t have the ability to steal and use weapons, and his finishing moves aren’t nearly as brutal either, although they still look great.
The combat is fast, brutal, and manages not to become overly repetitive. It would have been nice to see more variety in the gameplay, however, because the combat is practically all the game has to offer. Occasionally the player will have to pull a lever or two, but that’s about it. It’s also worth noting that the enemy A.I is terrible, which manages to cheapen the challenge from time to time. The game only lasts a paltry four to five hours, but in truth this may be a good thing. A shame, because with some more varied mission design and a few more boss battles, The End is Nigh could have been a truly impressive beat-em-up. As it stands, it’s solid and fun, but nothing spectacular.
Graphically, The End is Nigh is possibly the most impressive-looking downloadable title ever released. Character models for Rorschach and Night Owl look spectacular; impressive detail and rich textures go hand-in-hand with some smooth animations in combat, bringing the characters to life. The environments look great as well, with some truly impressive detail to be found if the time is taken to look. The heavy rain that constantly falls on New York City looks great, and light and shadow effects are done brilliantly. A minor complaint is that most of the environments are a little too dark, occasionally to the point where the action onscreen is almost entirely blacked out. There’s an in-game brightness adjustor, and the player will likely find it necessary to turn it up a notch. The graphics truly manage to capture the gritty Watchmen aesthetic that was originally set down by the comic series, and that in itself is an accomplishment.
Sound is worth mentioning as well: the voicework for Rorschach and Night Owl, as previously mentioned, is excellent. The music is nothing special but manages to compliment the gameplay well. Additionally, the sound effects are really quite impressive, particularly in combat. The sound of bones crunching and knives tearing flesh really enhance the visceral nature of the fights.
The question is this: is Watchmen: The End is Nigh worth a $20 purchase? The gameplay is surprisingly fun, but it’s over in a mere four to five hours. The dialogue and plotline is sure to be enjoyable for Watchmen fans, but it’s nothing to write home about. In this reviewer’s opinion, serious fans of the comic and/or film would do well to give The End is Nigh a shot. Just prepare to be tortured by thoughts of what could have been.