The battle between good and evil is waged in all mortal souls, but rarely has it been more starkly put than in Darkwatch, a genre-mashing first-person shooter that shrouds the Old West in stylish gothic horror. As Jericho Cross, an outlaw gunslinger newly bitten by a vampire overlord, you couldn't have a less ambiguous choice between good and evil: Presented with a fresh victim, you can either suck out the infection (good) or feast on his/her delicious, delicious blood (evil). Each option grants you a different set of powers, sending you off on divergent narrative paths. And since 99 percent of the people who will buy Darkwatch will likely embrace the dark side at every opportunity, the designers are to be commended for working just as hard for the conscientious 1 percent.
The game opens in 1876 Arizona with Jericho robbing the wrong train vault and inadvertently releasing the super-powerful vampire Lazarus, who immediately unleashes an army of the undead. Before you can say "D'oh," you're recruited by a member of Darkwatch, the ancient demon-fighting organization that kept Lazarus under wraps all these years. Using a variety of period weapons (dual revolvers, old-fashioned carbines) and a few slightly anachronistic ones (a crossbow that shoots exploding arrows, a rocket launcher), you face an onslaught of zombies, bloodsuckers, and ghosts en route to an inevitable showdown against the Big Bad. While only certain special powers deviate from the gameplay of a garden-variety FPS, the controls are tight and pick-up-and-play intuitive, and the cool, blue-black atmospherics have the quality of a graphic novel. Best to err on the side of evil, however: The ability to turn your enemies against each other or suck souls from a great distance is far more seductive than anything decency has to offer.
Beyond the gameplay: Unlike this year's charming but shoddily designed Samurai Western, which brought the Japanese slash-and-dash aesthetic to the Old West, Darkwatch excels at re-imagining the era for its own creative purposes. Though Jericho remains a mysteriously stoic hero in the Clint Eastwood mold—complete with Ennio Morricone-esque music cues—the cutscenes are full of compelling macabre turns.
Worth playing for: You don't often get to sire your own snorting, undead horse, but the sequences on your trusty companion Shadow are an especially exhilarating mix of Wild West gunplay and Evil Dead demon-blasting.
Frustration sets in when: A certain amount of disorientation is to be expected with any FPS game, but at times, several factors—a dark, enclosed space, the need for the double vampire jump, and a ghostly "Banchee" that floats around your field of vision—conspire to give you an ice-cream headache.
Final judgment: Darkwatch does little to advance the form, but few FPS games are this meticulously designed and orchestrated, and even fewer have you wondering what will happen next.