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Watchmen: Justice is Coming is an impressive tech demo


There's a whole lot of promise in the Watchmen: Justice is Coming game for iPhone/iPod touch. Unfortunately, the game is beset by some bugs and gameplay fumbles. The more I played, the more I got used to the quirks, but eventually there's a certain monotony to the game that left me rather unsatisfied. Hopefully, as Mike reported, Last Legion Games will take note and keep improving the experience. I'm not saying it is bad -- it is an amazing glimpse into the power of Apple's mobile platform -- but it's more a tech demo at this point than finished game.

The gallery will take you through most everything in the game that I've found thus far. Essentially you start with a male or female character, do a cute "personality test" and your stats are generated. Your bikini-clad crimefighter is born, and aside from a username/password for accessing the server, there's not much customization you can do -- yet. As you go through the streets you're able to check dumpsters, where you'll pick up more costume parts. As you fight more bad guys (there are preset NPC's throughout, but you can also challenge other human-powered characters -- this is a MMO, after all), you'll get more experience and you can eventually level up and enhance various skills.

Life in the game is simple, but there's a story too. In fact, the game has a point system based on your random adventures as well as points for the story. So you can ditch the story and wander around, or you can focus on finding your sister. I won't spoil any more of the story, but it's not bad, and the progression is well done. If you're a fan of the GTA series, where you can wander around or go on missions, you may be a little disappointed. There aren't missions, really. Just one story arc and a bunch of random encounters to be had.

I haven't finished the game, but I will say that, after I rebooted my iPhone to stop the incessant crashing, I find myself playing Watchmen every other day or so. Keep reading for more about the good, the bad, and the ugly in Watchmen: Justice is Coming.


The Good

Hey, it's an MMORPG on the iPhone! This alone is pretty cool. When I've played the streets have been a little, er, empty, but I think that's to be expected. The graphics look quite good, and it's awesome to see a little world rendered on such a tiny screen. Of course, the developers had to cheat a little, using a technique that looks a lot like the old Bungie Myth games for characters: 2D sprites moving in a 3D space. The effect is believable and only a geek like myself will notice. The audio is excellent, but I couldn't find a way to turn the music off. I'm sure it adds to the ambiance (and would you really want Kylie Mynogue singing at you while beating up cretins in the rain?), but the ability to turn it off completely would be welcome.

Leveling up and getting costume parts are the carrots on the stick, and these are done pretty well. You get just enough to keep you going. About every third dumpster has something in it, which worked for me. Also, you're able to expand your skills, although it's not very granular. You have a choice of improving areas, but it's not like Fallout, where you can directly increase points or explore additional skills like lockpicking or sight. See the gallery to look at character modification.

Fighting is turn-based and strategic. It's really about the only way to do it on a networked game with possible latency issues. One nice feature was the ability to add and re-arrange fighting moves (but not during combat). So you start with a punch and kick and elbow in your repetoire, and later you can swap those out with a slide, a knee to the groin, etc. You can only equip yourself with 3 attacks at a time. The attacks are intransitive, meaning it's like a game of rock-paper-scissors: some attacks fare better against others, but you won't find one attack dominating as it depends upon what the other guy uses. Check the gallery to see what I mean.

So, fighting is pretty good, finding stuff and leveling up is great, and the thing looks cool. What's not to like?

The Bad

This game isn't finished. I realize Last Legion says they will keep improving it, so I'll remain optimistic, but there are signs that a large team had to work really fast to get this in the store around the time of the movie's release. Case in point: status messages. In the lower left corner you'll see stuff like "Connecting to server" or "You won the fight." But another text overlay will sometimes overlap these messages. Also, the server connection alert should go away, but it stays there, obscuring your view as you play.

Those of us who lived through the rise of CD-ROM gaming will recall the incessant loading screens, and Watchmen will take you back to those bad old days. Nearly everything you do that requires a shift in interface will shunt you to a screen of Dr. Manhattan and an orbiting atom as you wait for something to load (don't worry, the Doc is "safe for work" in the pics). It's understandable, I guess, since there are numerous shifts in interface, and each mode is handled differently. Walking around you're really 2D, but when you fight, you are 3D. It seems there's also a lot of network activity, which again makes sense. After all, you've got your upgrades, skills and victories to report back to the server. All of this waiting gets old, however. I'm not sure if there's a fix, but there it is.

Speaking of network access, I should mention that between the 3D and network access your battery is going to drain fast. There's really nothing that can be done about this, it's a limitation of the device.

One thing that gets old really fast, and can almost kill the joy of the game: walking around is a chore. There's no way to run (although the subway works well for jumping to various spots in the city). The worst thing is that it is all too easy to get stuck. Stuck on the corner of a building, stuck on a lampost (they are everywhere), stuck on a car, etc. Just a little extra code would wiggle you out of these, but as it is, you spend a lot of time walking down the middle of the street just to avoid any geometry collisions.

The Ugly

The system messages are pretty pixelated, which is probably a compromise for performance. I've also mentioned how they can overlap, and that's just sloppy.

The animation when fighting is canned, so at times it's pretty laughable. Still, it's not terrible, but don't expect Virtua Fighter, to be sure.

The raindrops on the ground wind up looking a lot like noise. I also found myself wishing I could enter some of the buildings, but the game appears to take place in the streets alone. There are cars in the city, but none move, and I found myself avoiding the cop cars until I realized they are simply set dressing. I'd like to see a little more interactivity there. Surely I can't just go walking around with a gimp mask and wings without getting hassled by "the Man?"

Because the game is network-dependent, if you can't log in to the server (this happened to me once or twice), you won't get to play anything. You can't do anything, in fact. I'm not sure if the server had issues or what, but I was on WiFi, and everything else on my network was fine, so I'm guessing the issue was in the app or on their servers. I haven't tried the game on 3G or EDGE, but your mileage may vary -- a lot.

Also, because of latency, it can take a bit for other player characters to load their costumes. Remember, you can modify your character, so everyone can look pretty different. When you first see them, however, if they haven't loaded their skin, they look a lot like the mad scientist on Robot Chicken. Maybe that was intentional?

While you can chat with other players in the game, I found that since there were so few of us around we just wound up fighting. Maybe this will change in time, but given the limitations of just chatting with random people, I don't see groups of heroes forming, or any way to see if your friends are online. The OpenFeint platform is tuned for such activities, but Last Legion has built their own cloudMMO technology.

Bottom Line

I managed to grab the game at $.99, but it'll go up in price eventually. I think at this point they are just trying to get people in the system. I'm hoping the rough edges will be ironed out, and honestly I've been impressed with iPhone devs doing this. With few exceptions I find developers keep improving and tuning their apps to my heart's delight.

Watchmen: Justice is Coming certainly points to the amazing things you can do on the iPhone. Does it fall down at times? Yes. Is it playable? Yes. It is certainly worth the $.99 to show off (much as people were fond of showing Koi Pond to their friends). If Last Legion keeps updating the app, I think they will have a winner. I don't know that the average iPhone gamer will invest the time needed to play, but I'm very impressed with the first, tentative steps we see in this game.

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