Those who live by the gun, play Gun.
The Old West once ruled children's imaginations, but that was before video games replaced the cowboy with the space hero. As a result, there are hundreds of adventure/shooter games that focus on laser-totting, space suit-wearing, alien-blasting heroes, but very few about the American original -- the cowboy.
That's changing now, with several new games that try to bring the grit and grime of the Old West to life, and few with as much dedication as Gun. Developer Neversoft might be best known for making Tony Hawk a household name, but they put the urethane wheels away long enough to fire out a fine Western -- even if the game isn't quite what it could be.
Writer Randall Jahnson -- whose biggest hit to date is probably 1998's Mask of Zorro -- does an amazing job of capturing the spirit of Sergio Leone's Man with No Name trilogy while crafting an original and engaging yarn. Unfortunately the game is way too short. The main storyline can be completed in a matter of hours and the side quests, while fun, are not very emotionally stimulating. The game is good, but there is so much that feels missing. The only way you can interact with townsfolk is by "grabbing" and "executing" them (which is discouraged obviously), and the people you can talk to can't be physically harmed (except when the plot allows). Competitors in a game of Texas Hold 'Em offer no challenge and missions restart as soon as you fail them. The game is almost an amazing experience, but stops just short of that goal.
It was produced by Steven Ackrich, who also produced another underrated game that I think has more potential in future sequels than it did in the out-going generation of systems, Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee. In both cases these are games that make fun and successful games out of genres that have failed as games in the past, and in both cases the first installment seemed like a taste of what the games could be. My hope is that the next generation offers new avenues for these game lines. Yes, I know Gun is already on the Xbox 360, but that's more of an afterthought for the creators. Other than cleaner visuals, it still suffers from being way too short and underdeveloped.
There will be inevitable comparisons to other recent western games. I don't think Darkwatch really had the right idea because, as fun as cowboys versus vampires can be, it didn't look or feel like it took place in the Old West. The most similarity can be found with Rockstar's Red Dead Revolver, but I think Gun has better overall character design and attention to detail.
A lot of the special weapons are the same as you'd find in Red Dead Revolver -- Old West Molotov cocktails, train-mounted cannons, and Gatling guns -- but those are powerful standards for Old West action. Unlike Red Dead Revolver, Gun makes a point of using the names of real weapons from the period, for the most part. Colton has access to a cavalry model Schofield, a classic Yellow Boy Rifle, an Old Reliable Sharps, and even a few volley guns. I was a bit surprised not to see a Winchester '73 (made famous by the Jimmy Stewart movie of the same name) and even more surprised to see a Winchester 1887 (considering the game's narration tells you the year is 1880).
The attention to historic detail doesn't stop at the guns of course. Even if the game condenses several states (New Mexico through Kansas and a bit of the Dakotas) into the space of a few miles and lumps events like the linking of the rails and the end of the Pony Express, Gun is one of the more historically minded games on the market that is still fun to play. This is helped by an amazing voice cast that includes Thomas Jane (Punisher) as game star Colton White, a native of my hometown Kris Kristofferson (Blade's "Whistler") as his pa, and Lance Henriksen (Aliens' "Bishop") as the villainous Thomas MacGruder. Also of interest is the fact that many of the characters are based very closely on real-life lawmen and outlaws from the 1880s, and treated rather faithfully.
Tom Skerritt (Picket Fences) brings sympathy to the outlaw Robert Clay Allison, Ron Perlman (Hellboy) plays a menacing Hyman G. Neill, better known as Hoodoo Brown (if my name was Hyman, I'd call myself "Hoodoo" too), and voice actors Wade Williams and John Getz bring life to Hoodoo's cohorts Dirty Dave Rudabaugh and John Joshua Webb. Latino actor Armando Valdes-Kennedy also has a bit part as Billy the Kid's contemporary Josť Chavez y Chavez -- which brings me to my next point: it's refreshing to see political correctness both ignored and respected at the same time.
In Gun, Mexican characters are voiced by Latinos, Apaches are voiced by Apaches, and Blackfeet are voiced by Blackfeet thanks to actors like Jay Tavare and Myrton Running Wolf. This, despite the fact that Mexicans are primarily portrayed as banditos and Indians are considered savage killers for most of the game. The dialogue doesn't shy around the fact that in the Old West, Chinese workers really were seen as nearly worthless, Mexicans did have a hard time succeeding in Anglo-dominated areas, and Native Americans did attack most settlers as they were invaders into their lands, and it doesn't offer the explanations I just gave either. It just accepts that's how things were. Heck, here's an example of politically incorrectness: a foreman thanks Colton for his help then says, "We could step up the pace now... if I could keep the Irish sober." It's easy to forget in a day and age when "minority" is defined by skin-color, the Irish were once as mistreated as any other subgroup in America.
As far as gameplay, Neversoft is really on the right track for making an interactive Western. Horsemanship, gunplay, and especially the quick draw technique are all masterfully reproduced. Again though, short-comings are apparent. You can shot or stab, but you can't get into a classic barroom fistfight. You can ride horses with saddles or bareback, but there is no difference between a farm-raised horse and a wild stallion. It is nice to see other touches for realism though. For example, animals in most video games blindly attack any player, but in Gun animals don't care anymore about humans that they would in real life. Sure some wolves might attack, but most would prefer to go about their business undisturbed.
Gun is a good game, but it feels premature. With any luck it is the first in a series, and hopefully the next can take full advantage of the latest hardware to make one bang-up game.
22 December 2005