Back in 2008, I remember going to a grocery store next to where I worked at the time to pick up the new issue of EGM and saw this cover:
I had two thoughts upon seeing the cover: The first was why a magazine like EGM would put a Watchmen video game on the cover and promote it as that month’s main story and the second was who in their right mind thought it was a good idea to turn something like Watchmen into a video game? I should correct myself, I knew exactly why there was a Watchmen video game coming out, because there was the Zack Snyder film coming out in early 2009 and it was common practise, no matter how much it made sense, to turn any property into a video game to make a quick buck.
I’ll approach this with an open mind I then thought, I’ll read the cover story and maybe whoever is behind the game will have an interesting spin on the material to justify its existence as a video game. I made it to the story after reading everything else up to that point and within the first few pages I knew there was no way that the game, titled Watchmen: The End is Nigh could be good the second I saw words like “brawler” and “beat-em-up” show up. How could you take material as excellently crafted as Watchmen to the point where it’s studied in universities and turn it into one of the most brain-dead form of video games imaginable? Okay then, maybe it will be an okay beat-em-up despite the license being used in one of the worst possible ways. Finally having played Watchmen: The End is Nigh, it doesn’t justify its existence as a Watchmen game, or even a decent 3-D brawler. Though it does have some nice presentation values and exceptional voice work from the cast of the film, even the most devout fan of the source material should steer clear of this cheap cash-in.
Watchmen: The End is Nigh was originally released as two separate chapters that are independent from one another before being collected together onto a retail disc, which is what I am in possession of. Both are set before the events of the film or the graphic novel and deal with the days when Nite Owl II and Rorscach were vigilante crime fighters and partners. The first episode starts with the duo showing up to a prison riot that eventually turns into an investigation into the resurgence of a criminal known as Underboss. The second takes place five years after the first and takes place in the days when Rorscach and Nite Owl’s relationship is on the breaking point. Rorscach seeks out Nite Owl’s assistance in tracking down an eighteen year old girl who has gone missing and presumably sold into the sex trade.
The way in which both episodes are collected onto a disc is very peculiar. I install every game on my hard drive to reduce the noise and strain on my Xbox 360, yet after doing the install procedure for this game, it was like I didn’t when I was playing it. Also strange is that in order to switch episodes, such as when you finish part one and head to part two, the game prompts you to return to Xbox Live arcade like it’s still acting like a downloaded game despite the fact that it isn’t.
Of the two parts, Episode One is much better as it’s not only twice as long, having six chapters compared to Episode Two’s three, but it’s also much more engaging. Episode Two feels very rushed and is more or less a simple hunt for the captive girl and her kidnapper, while Episode One tries harder to fit more into the canon of the Watchmen universe and is easily a better told story. No matter what episode you’re playing though, the story isn’t exactly the most compelling, even though it’s told in a very stylish way.
The cut-scenes in both sections of The End is Nigh are told in the style of motion-comics as opposed to using the in-game assets and are easily the best part of the entire package as it’s in these scenes that the game feels most like a Watchmen product. Helping matters is that the two actors who played Nite Owl and Rorsach in the film, Patrick Wilson and Jackie Earle Haley respectively, reprise their roles and do really terrific job where others may have just phoned in their performance and called it a day. Even though the material isn’t exactly up to the standards of the name, it’s always great to hear Haley’s take on Rorscach which was also one of the highlights from the film.
When not watching cut-scenes though, things are not as great. The graphics aren’t exactly bad per se, just uninspired. The character models for the two protagonists are detailed and look like they were taken from the film, but the environments are another story. Part One pulls out all of the tropes from the “generic video game level” play book like a prison, alleys, even a sewer. Part Two isn’t that much better, as you’re running around a seedy strip club, even more back alleys and a mansion that seemingly goes on for forever. The levels themselves are also confusingly simple in that there’s not that much to hunt down and the game funnels you down one path, yet it’s easily to get turned around. One stage for example I ended a fight with some bad guys and moving what I thought was forward until I hit the start of the stage. You can point yourself to where you need to go by hitting the left bumper, but I feel it was something that came out of necessity as the developers realized that the levels they designed were so bland that you could lost in them.
The mechanics are just as deriviative as the environments and you pretty much know what you’re getting into the second you pick up the controller. You have a light and heavy attack, a throw, a basic counter and each character has their own set of special moves activated by hitting the triggers. Nite Owl, who I used, can drop a smoke bomb and electrify those in proximity with his suit and Rorscach receives a rage mode that allows him to deal out more damage. You can unlock more combos by finding easy to find tokens within the first part, and for more casual players, the window for inputting the commands are very generous so no one should have any trouble pulling off a five-hit button combination that mixes both the heavy and light attack buttons. Though basic and similar to what you would find in pretty much every game of this type, the mechanics are sound and you’ll never find yourself wresting with the controls or getting frustrated should you just want to play for the story. That is, until part two.
Not only is Watchmen: The End is Nigh an overly formulaic beat-em-up, it’s also incredibly easy. Your health fills up after every encounter and for the entirety of the first episode, the opposition will never pose any challenge. Things take a frustrating turn for the worse in the second part though, where the game throws larger enemies that are not only damage sponges, but can kill you in three hits before you can land even one. The counter move, activated by default by hitting the RB along with the X button, suddenly stops working, causing you to wait until your power meter fills so you’ll have a fighting chance before each encounter. This difficulty spike is very jarring, as the game suddenly goes from being easy but also okay, into controller throwing frustrating.
Fortunately the game allows you to play cooperatively with a friend locally, which always helps escalate a mediocre game, and even if you play solo, the AI will take control of whatever character you don’t use and they’re still pretty helpful. The game seems to be proud of its co-operative “puzzles”, but this is more or less limited to having to pull a lever at the same time on either side of the door, lifting a door open for a second character or grappling to an unreachable area with Nite Owl to meet up with Rorscach elsewhere, so nothing terribly original. In the case of the latter two circumstances, this does cause the duo to be separated for a brief time, though not long enough that you would miss something by only playing through with one character.
Whether or not Watchmen every needed to be a movie is still up for debate, but one thing is for certain, it never needed a video game, least of all one like this. The motion-comics are great looking and the inclusion of the cast of the film adds a nice touch of authenticity, however as a video game, The End is Nigh is a game you’ve probably already played, and in many cases, better. By no means unplayable and not exactly either the worst brawler you’ll play either, The End is Nigh still never justifies its existence as either a video game, or a product from the Watchmen universe. Anything with the name “Watchmen” attached to it should be average, and that’s exactly that this episodic game collection is.