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Watchmen: Justice is Coming
With Watchmen arriving at movie houses around the globe, the iPhone game attempts to brings the grim world of the costumed hero to you.
There’s a whole heap of Marvel in my comic collection but, I’m afraid, not so much DC. I preferred my heroes to have hyphens and make cheap puns. Plus, Batman just ain’t a superhero, however you cut it: real heroes have powers.
Shielded from the darkness of the DC-universe, I never read Watchmen. Never got to bask in New York’s crime-ridden ’80’s underbelly. Failed to experience a mankind-enveloping conspiracy unfolding, page after page, the distinction between hero and villain smudged like a fresh inkblot test.
And so, in preparation for the iPhone game — a massively multiplayer online adventure — I purchased the Watchmen graphic novel. Now, having read this classic book, I’m ready to shine my healing torch of justice into an ocean of violence and crime, representing all that is good and just. I am The Ambassador.
The idea behind Watchmen: Justice is Coming seems to be to take the MMO experience — think World of Warcraft, Age of Conan etc. — and transport it to the iPhone. It’s a seriously compelling prospect: forming your own crime-fighting syndicate and entering a dark, bustling fictional New York, teeming with hidden evils.
Having just read the graphic novel, everything seems almost real to me — the source material is so rich, setting the stage for a vast online adventure. Therefore, there’s much at risk and much that could be wrong; like more paranoid members of the Watchmen contingent, I got the feeling that there would be something awful waiting for me.
Before donning costume and taking up residence in the rotten core of The Big Apple, as The Ambassador, the first thing I had to do was set up an account. It’s fairly standard character-generation stuff, choosing skin color and a name, but there’s a clever twist thrown in with the Rorschach inkblot test — determining your hero’s personality type.
However, there’s no palpable impact as a result of the setup process. The Ambassador popped up on a New York sidewalk, wearing civilian clothes, nothing particular heroic about him and the result of the Rorschach test seemingly rendered irrelevant.
Moving around the streets is easy enough — pressing and holding your finger on an area of the screen starts your character walking in that direction. Unfortunately, you’re just another guy, wandering the streets, getting your drab city clothes soaked through in the everlasting rain, rifling through dumpsters in search of new clothes.
Indeed, aside from fighting, that’s how you up your XP and acquire new costume pieces: dumpster diving. Before you’re even ready to start fighting, it seems your first mission is to saunter around the curiously deserted back-alleys and street-corners in search of garbage.
Maybe it’s a tip of the hood to Rorschach’s trashy drop-off point in the graphic novel (a can rather than a dumpster), but it just doesn’t seem appropriate. We’re heroes — we get our hands dirty handling criminal scum, not digging through garbage for cast-off costumes.
The Watchmen graphic novel didn’t seem to be about fighting, or violence, or good vs. evil per se; the story seemed to be something a step ahead of traditional comic book fare. It’s a shame therefore that the MMO eschews all of this and seems to boil down to fighting.
The city streets seem to be empty much of the time. Maybe it’s because it’s early days for this MMO, occasionally though you’ll pass by another player and they’ll pick a fight with you. If you agree to fight, you’re thrown into a mini-game — an odd little affair which involves tapping a couple of buttons, no skill is apparently needed.
Another option for those of a violent disposition is to go hunting for Knot-Tops and other criminal rogues. These fights with computer-controlled characters can be accessed by locating floating red exclamation marks on the streets — something else which just doesn’t sit right, detracting from the atmosphere of the Watchmen universe.
A Perfect Grid
Despite the fact that the game plays out on an isometric grid — harking back to the old days of adventure games, an impractical viewing angle that I’ve never appreciated — the atmosphere is something which it almost gets right.
The New York of the graphic novel is grim, falling to pieces under the weight of fear, criminality and hysteria. The New York of the iPhone game — while devoid of the hustle and bustle — is a forlorn, broken location. It’s totally appropriate and feels just right. Or just wrong, as the case may be.
Walking the streets, I wandered past the Gunga Diner and kissing silhouettes nearby. I stood next to the Newspaper stand so often visited by the reader in the graphic novel. There was even a visit to the cemetery, where I paid my respects to The Comedian. It’s all, quite pleasingly, present and correct.
Graphically, the game is undeniably impressive, certainly drawing comparison to early PlayStation titles, even reminding me of the original Metal Gear Solid at one point. Although there don’t seem to be any sound effects, the soundtrack swoops and moans, dripping with melodrama and intrigue.
Under the Hood
Unfortunately, all the melodrama generated by the dark soundtrack and the aptly depressing scene-setting achieved by the graphics doesn’t help the game’s cause. In actual fact, this grim atmosphere feeds in to the frustration felt because of the game’s many bugs and flaws.
Other players seem to always want to pick a fight. This is a world of heroes and, although it’s mentioned in the graphic novel that heroes frequently end up in combat the first time they meet, it just doesn’t sit right. Why should all the heroes be fighting each other? There’s no scene-setting, no grand over-arching plot. (There is a plot, but it hardly seems to explain why there’s a proliferation of violent heroes on the streets.)
Plus, I’ve frequently been thrown in to a fight that I wanted to walk away from: the yes/no option is broken, it doesn’t work and it’s so frustrating. Once a fight starts loading, you’re taken off the streets, in to fight mode. This mode frequently doesn’t load, there are usually connection issues, and the game either locks up, disconnects, or takes around five minutes to reconnect you to the street server.
The game falls asleep too. So while you’re waiting to be reconnected to the streets, if your iPhone goes to sleep, it may not actually connect when it finally does wake up. It just feels unpolished, rushed and, frankly, rude on the part of the game developers.
The interface is clunky, it’s frequently unclear just what is a clickable object or button and what isn’t. Plus, there’s no visual or audible feedback from pressing buttons or interacting with objects. It’s disconcerting that from source material teeming with so much vitality and expression, can come such a lifeless and, at times, dull game.
I enjoyed the graphic novel so much, plus I’ve been waiting for an iPhone MMO, something with a compelling narrative and real mass appeal. Unfortunately, this isn’t a worthy companion to the graphic novel and certainly not the iPhone MMO I’ve been waiting for.
The game feels rushed and, as is a trend with games based on movies, is most probably a hastily created cash-in. It seems to have very little relation to the universe it’s based upon; instead it’s probably best described as a lazy, bug-ridden chat-room with pretty graphics.
With more players and less bugs, this could really be something special. For now though, The Ambassador is packing up his costume and retiring. Perhaps he’ll return when the world is ready for heroes like him.