Not Quite Reloaded
The world has changed since the Duke epitomized the American male with a gun on his hip and a star on his chest. This was a time when it was okay for Mexicans to be presented as drunken bandits with bullet belts and for Indians to speak in monosyllabic sentences while attacking peaceful settlers, all of them portrayed by white actors in various shades of make-up.
The original Gun, so many years later, was a good, if incomplete game for home consoles. What it lacked was a good multiplayer option; what it included was a lot of archaic racial and societal stereotypes.
This led to some image problems for publisher Activision, given flak by the Association for American Indian Development for including racially disparaging comments and politically incorrect depictions of Native Americans. Activision has officially responded to this complaint, but stopped just short of apologizing. Now they are back with the newest iteration of the game for the PSP, Gun: Showdown.
I commended the developers in my review of the original Gun for admitting to the fact that life really was hard in the Old West, for everyone. As nice as it would be to present a Western franchise in which a blonde, laid back cowboy teams up with a Chinese national or a film with an Australian gunfighter and a mute black sidekick, well, that just isn’t the way the Old West was. It was harsh, it was dirty, and most of all, it was filled with racism. Showdown includes many of the same scenes and comments from the original that had characters talking disparagingly of the Irish and Mexicans, inconsequentially about the Chinese and fearfully about the Indians.
That said, they did remove “scalping” as a means of raising money in Showdown. It was hardly utilized in the console version of the game even if it could be performed on any non-story character. Good riddance—if they did want to include scalping it should have been more of a story element and, at the very least, carried some moral consequences.
Beyond the political correctness issues, Showdown is the latest in what I honestly feel has potential as a great game franchise on the PSP, a system that most agree also has a lot of potential, even if games for it have rarely met that level of greatness.
I liked the first Gun, really, but it fell far short of what it could have been. It had the makings of a great Western, but the game ended too quickly and lacked a multiplayer that would allow two friends to face each other at high noon.
I also like the PSP, but it’s a system rife with problems as well. The primary problem, at least in the case of Gun: Showdown, is that you have a game designed for systems with two analogue directional sticks on a system that has only one. The result is a game that’s hard to play and, due to the memory limitations of the system, less interesting.
I loved that the original game included more realistic animals that only attack when provoked (unlike, say, being attacked by random bats and bears in Tomb Raider) and the existence of nearly random bandits on the plains (even if they always appeared in the same places). This game has neither, and as a result, there is little to do in this game but make the long treks between missions and complete the straightforward, keep-trying-till-you-get-it-right assignments. They even left out the civilian bystanders (though they didn’t do anything but walk around and get stabbed in the older version).
There are, of course, additions to the new game that are improvements as well.
Your horse is finally significant. It was frustrating, from the perspective of a Western fan, to play as a cowboy that didn’t care which horse he rode. On the console game every horse (with one exception) was exactly the same, wild or domesticated. The limitations of the PSP mean only one horse is available for the majority of Showdown, but at least he’s given a name: Bandit. The ability to whistle for him (à la Zelda) is also a plus. I hope the next game (if there is a next game) includes a variety of horses with different uses and abilities.
More importantly, Showdown adds the much-needed multiplayer to Gun, albeit stunted. You can play against friends, you can play as characters from the story (some can even be unlocked Legend of Zelda-style by typing in different profile names), but the gameplay just isn’t the same. The controls are modified, which is understandable as it would be hard to incorporate a “Quickdraw” feature that slows time when multiple people are playing, but with only one analogue stick it is extremely hard to aim. Shooting a target with four directional buttons is possible, but it takes the fun out of deathmatches. That’s assuming you can even find someone to play—needing two games to play two players was fine when Game Boy premiered in 1989, but in this day in age when a guy with two screens can race karts and throw shells at several other friends with only one game pack, well, that just doesn’t cut it. The PSP is strong enough to have multiplayer games with one UMD. Make it happen.
Quickplay is a godsend, or at least it should be. The trouble with many games made for the PSP is that they rely on console-style gaming. Unfortunately it can be hard to spend hours at a time playing a portable game unless you plan to play at home, in which case, you’d probably just use a console anyway. Understanding that dilemma, Neversoft included a Quickplay option that allows for short, story-free game sessions. You can hunt quail, bears or people, or try your hand at Texas Hold ‘Em. Unfortunately they got the bright idea that all Quickplay options except bird shooting and cards should be unlockable. Even if a player gets halfway through the storyline or wins every hand at cards, its unlikely they will unlock much of anything before getting bored and moving on. To top it off, the one-player card game has the same problems it did before: you have limited options when playing and the computer players fold nearly every hand.
What it all adds up to is that Gun: Showdown is a good, if politically incorrect, game that makes a few improvements on the original at the cost of several of its best features.