The cowboy mythos is such a part of Americana that one has to wonder why there aren’t more cowboy video games. After all, they seem to fit right into several genres: first- and third-person shooters, as well as action and adventure. Frankly, it seems like an untapped market. Then again, maybe there’s a reason for that. Maybe 155 years after the San Francisco gold rush, cowboys and Westerns just aren’t relevant anymore.
With much thanks to The Godfather, Goodfellas, The Sopranos, and Rockstar’s own Grand Theft Auto franchise, the Western mythos has given way to the allure of the mafia. Truth be told, however, they’re very similar—good guys versus bad guys (or, quite often, bad guys versus other bad guys), lots of guns, glorified crime sprees—so it comes as somewhat of a surprise that no one seems to care about the Western anymore.
Red Dead Revolver
US: Jul 2007
So give Rockstar San Diego a gold star for trying to do the genre justice with their latest installment, Red Dead Revolver. (Actually, Rockstar SD acquired it from Capcom, so maybe they only deserve a silver star.) And give them another star (gold or silver, your pick) for the presentation.
From the opening credits to the menu screen, you instantly feel like you’re about to enter an epic Western directed by the great Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars). (The music, however, seems ripped from a 70’s exploitation film. So much so that I expected Richard Roundtree, William Marshall, and Pam Grier to make special voice appearances.) Everything seemed right; everything right down to the fonts and dusty lighting. But then it all fell apart.
By no means am I suggesting that RDR is a bad game, because it isn’t. It’s meant to serve as a warning that Red is just another third-person shooter/revenge fantasy game. Something we’ve seen countless times before, and will see countless times again. (Off the top of my head I can think of at least ten similarly themed games that I saw at E3 2004—including another Western. Though that one had vampires.)
At the start, you play a young Red whose Pa has just returned from a long journey with promises of gold and a new gun. And, because he doesn’t need his old one, you (Red) receive it and are seamlessly thrust into a training/tutorial mode. While shooting bottles, cans, pots, and scarecrows is all well and good and serves to get you aiming straight, the fun starts when bandits ambush the homestead—killing Ma and Pa. Red, of course, is too young and hurt to effectively seek his revenge right then. Though he tries.
Jump ahead a number of years, and Red’s a bounty hunter… well… hunting bounties. And it’s here that the game became a cluster of repetitive actions. And it’s here that the game became a cluster of repetitive… oh… sorry about that.
Red is rushed by several gun-toting men who he promptly kills. When that’s done, Red is rushed by several more gun-toting men who he promptly kills. And when that’s done, Red is rushed by even more gun-toting men who he promptly kills. All of whom look the same, or are based on two to three models per level. (At one point he has to kill a dozen or so Oompa Loompa-looking fellows. Creepy!)
Normally the limited amount of models wouldn’t bother me—I grew up on Super Mario Bros. after all, with its two main enemies: Koopas and Goombas. But it’s the fact that more guys rush out of nowhere to avenge their fallen comrades. Where were they 60 seconds ago when I was mowing them down? I’ve never been a fan of having to battle wave after wave of cloned AI killers.
What’s worse is how fast and sneaky they all are—even the morbidly obese guy covered in TNT zips around like lightning. Where’s the honor of facing your enemy in the street for a duel? Yeah, duels are present, but they’re few and far between. Instead, Rockstar San Diego opted for a straight up, fast-paced (some might say frantic) shooter rather than a true Western with the typical (yet fun) fistfights and high noon showdowns.
The argument could be made that Rockstar isn’t known for its slower moments (Manhunt being the exception), usually opting for frenetic violence. Okay, I can concede to that. But then where’s the Rockstar attitude and openended stories and cities? Rockstar has conditioned us to roam where we want when we want, so when they surround us with fences and shove the story along, it feels… well… wrong.
After the blazing gunfights Red’s given no time to collect the fallen weapons; instead, the next cutscene is forced upon us. Thus, you feel like nothing’s been accomplished. At least in Manhunt the cutscenes came once the mission objectives were complete. Here, there seems to be no rhyme or reason for the killing. No ultimate goal either, besides kill [insert random bad guy here] and collect the bounty.
It’s a shame too, because I really wanted to like Red Dead Revolver. I had high hopes that it would revive the Western genre not only in video games, but also movies and maybe TV. Instead we were sold just another shooter dressed up real nice in leather chaps and a dusty hat.