After seven years of solely making Tony Hawk games, Neversoft, the Southern California developer that's made a mint on perfecting the best skateboarding games on the planet, has branched into new territory with a rowdy, spirited action game based on the Wild West. The subject matter of Old West shooters is hugely popular with gamers, who anxiously awaited Rockstar's Red Dead Revolver last year and have shown substantial interest in more Western goodness.
Why is there a dearth of Western videogames? Why has the Western been neglected so badly? Nailing the right control and camera system has something to do with it, but riding, shooting and generally interacting on horseback is also a concern. It's the same reason that motorcycle and bike games are so hard to develop -- the character and bike must physically react independently of one another but also work in synchronization too. Camera angles have also been an issue. Neversoft hits those subjects head on and with general success.
Gun, however, is not the Western to beat all Westerns. Remove it from the genre, take it purely as a shooter, and it's less impressive. The vast landscape is too often vacant of action. The side missions are easy, even simplistic. And while the shooting aspects of Gun comprise an excellent set of weapons and the fun, arcade mechanism of QuickDraw, the lack of precision and wily controls will leave many gamers scratching their heads. What's the dealio? Step up to the bar, cowboy.
The Story of the Cross
Working closely with movie writer Randall Jahnson (Sunset Strip, The Doors, Mask of Zorro, Dude), Neversoft has crafted an excellent narrative. In the 1880s of Montana, Ned White rears a son that's not his own. Colton White learns this all too late as his father (superbly voice acted by Kris Kristofferson) pushes him over the railing of a steam boat before dying in an explosion. Colton awakes three days later with a token in his hand to the Alhambra saloon and finds that the mystery behind the steamboat attack, his father's death, and the token itself is all about to unwind through his actions.
As videogame stories go, Neversoft nailed this one good and hard. While several aspects of Gun might distract or frustrate you, the narrative won't. There is suspense, betrayal, surprise, and a good old-fashioned Western motive -- raw greed -- that drives it all. The character cast -- ranging from Ron Perlman as Hoodoo Brown, Thomas Jane as Colton White, Lance Hendrickson as Thomas McGruder -- is top-notch. Each performance is raw, gritty, and full of color. You won't get a bunch of campy jokes, excessive chatter, or any modern lingo slip-ups either. You'll hear great Western vernacular perfectly delivered throughout the game in a way that grabs and pulls you into the narrative and makes you want to finish the story.
Adding to the presentation is an excellent movie-like score, and decent but not great graphics. While some of the wrinkly, leathered skin on the faces of many characters looks right on the money, the weak animations and motion capture detract from the characters' believability. Given the strengths of each system, Gun ironically looks very good on PS2, and is less impressive on more powerful systems like the PC and Xbox.
The only unfortunate aspects of the storyline aren't found in the text or the delivery, but in Gun's implementation. Using hard cutscenes that interject into and split up the action to force the story along, Neversoft has gone the traditional route of cutscenes-mission-cutscene, cutscene-mission-cutscene. It's skipped the harder-to-do and more subtle scripting of in-engine, in-game characters the way that a select few first-person shooters have done (like say, Half-Life). The cutscenes feel stamped in, often forcefully, with hard edits. No doubt they move the story along, but there is little subtlety to the manner in which they're implemented. The result is a jolt to the system, rather than a smooth transition from end of mission to the next mission or the subsequent chapter segment.
When it comes to the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series, Neversoft is known for its excellent 3D engines, intelligent level design, and addictive gameplay mechanics. Gun doesn't tap into the developer's skateboarding design so much, but catchy mechanics? Oh yes, indeed. Complementing the healthy arsenal of peacemakers, Schofields, Colts, Winchesters, shotguns, and sharpshooter rifles, are hand weapons (knives, tomahawks and bayonets), thrown items (whisky bottles, dynamite, etc.) and archery arms (regular arrows, flaming arrows, and dynamite strapped arrows). The weapons unlock as you defeat bosses and complete missions, and each new weapon represents a step up in enemy difficulty. You will assuredly use that new weapon in every new mission in which you set forth.
Some of the most exhilarating and satisfying moments of Gun occur when leveling the reticule at an enemy's head with a sharpshooter or a rifle and literally blasting his head to pieces. It's bloody all right, but wow, it is fun. Neversoft's game thrives on this type of visceral, violent gameplay, and it works almost all of the time. You'll also use set weapons, such as machine guns and cannons, the latter of which are situated to your left, so aiming requires a little more precision. The archery aspect is extremely well handled too. SMALL SPOILER: When you switch teams and hunt with the Apache Indians, a smidgeon of stealth is required using the precision aiming of those quiet but deadly arrows. Upgrading them to flaming and explosive arrows just expands the fun factor.
Aiming to design a catchy, fun mechanic that taps into the Western gun-shooting sensibility, Neversoft devised its own take on Bullet Time. They call it QuickDraw, a time-slowing effect in which you blast enemies at a rate faster than they BLAST you. You've seen this device before, only Neversoft's QuickDraw is gauged by a meter. To build the meter, you shoot enemies. The more headshots you nail, the faster it fills. It's a bit like juggling in a fighting game: The twitchy combos and quick tension it builds is a hell of a lot of fun.
This technique comes in real handy when you're up against a posse of bad guys, but it's less useful against bosses and long-range enemies. When it works, it works swimmingly. You gallop past a rocky mountain cliffside and bam, all of a sudden your map fills with red dots. Your rifle really isn't the best weapon in such a situation. You press QuickDraw and it's like a shooting gallery of slow-motion thugs waiting to receive a flurry of bullets. QuickDraw is an excellent technique that I've used numerous times and it's an integral component to Gun's fun factor.
The biggest drawback to nearly all of the shooting, however, is the lack of refined precision control, a problem slightly compounded by the huge bounding box or target perimeter of each character. You'll notice how easy it is to shoot stuff right from the first time you miss a bird in the training mission. The game is too lenient when it comes to targeting. Presumably this is because the analog controls for all consoles don't lend themselves to precision controls like the PC. But even the PC's controls aren't as accurate as any first or most third-person shooters. Sure, you can adjust the control sensitivity, but it doesn't make up for the wide-swinging controls. The controls are quick, loose and wiley. Neversoft added another mechanic that functions in QuickDraw mode enabling players to flick the analog controller instantly to another opponent, and it works well, but it doesn't erase the fact.
Gun is an open design game. In other words, it's similar to Grand Theft Auto in that there is the ability to randomly pick a variety of missions in a giant landscape in any order you want. Gun is not as big as GTA, nor is it as packed with creatures or things to do. But I'll get into that in a second. Each time you complete a mission, Gun is obvious about telling you which mission will lead you to the next story-based chapter. It's hard to get lost. The story missions comprise multi-faceted parts, so you'll reach one goal, fulfill another, and then reach a climax, whereas the side missions are simple, straight-forward affairs that require less thinking or action.
While a handful of missions are intriguing and compelling -- the stagecoach and the fort missions, among others, made the strongest impressions on me -- you'll find that the main missions are either too easy or too short. You'll really want to fiddle with the four difficulty levels to keep the game compelling, much in the same way that you might have in the Tony Hawk games. These contrast sharply with the numerous, challenging, and trial-and-error boss fights. The boss fights are old style and hard, designed with relatively recognizable patterns, but built around the notion of out-and-out slugfests. You will spend a lot of bullets on an enemy, and he you. I'm a big fan of tough boss fights, and these trial-and-error fights will frustrate you, but there is always a pattern that makes it work out right.
The vast landscapes of Gun mean that Neversoft had had to fill up the game with lots of stuff to do. Like so many developers who create their first open-design game, Gun is open, big, but unfortunately vacant. When you create big games, you should fill it with stuff to do, things to collect, mini-games to play, and items that compel you to explore. There is a modicum of things to do, things to explore, and side jobs to do, but not nearly enough, and this emptiness will leave you wishing there was more. Sure, the Wild West was a big open place, but that doesn't mean a big empty videogame is fun! To be fair, Neversoft's efforts aren't in vain. You can ranch, mine for gold, hunt animals (including the mystic white buffalo and grey wolf), and hunt down wanted criminals, but GTA has spoiled us with huge worlds packed with far more stuff than this. Even without comparing to GTA, Gun feels empty.
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