Reviews: How the West was fun.
Jump on your horse and give a ?Yee-hah!? because Gun is rip-roaring good time that's more fun than chewing tobacco and roping steers (assuming, of course, that you find giving yourself mouth cancer and playing bondage with big smelly animals ?fun?, but I digress?).
The short and simple title could easily be renamed ?Grand Theft Auto Goes West? because the game borrows heavily from Rockstar's pinnacle action series. The game is set up as a sandbox where you can do almost anything you want, ranging from story missions to side quests to shooting up the townfolk. It's also very violent, uses harsh language (though is tame compared to GTA: San Andreas) and has those naughty icky sexual themes that get politicians all up in a tizzy. But unlike GTA, Gun is lacking a lot of the little extras and effort that make you want to pick it up again and again; Gun is undeniably fun, but its biggest weakness is that once you're finished, there's really no reason to touch it again (more on this later).
Developed by Neversoft, Gun is unusual in that it is one of the very few games set in the old West. It's a bit of a mystery why developers have long ignored the Western ? after all, it's a lucrative genre for the movie industry ? but regardless, it's a very refreshing change from the ubiquitous science fiction and military/war shooters that saturate the market. It's also unusual that Gun came from the people best known for the hit Tony Hawk series; after all, what do skateboarding dudes know about dude ranches?
One thing's for certain: they do know how to make good games. They are also smart enough to know gamers are much more sophisticated these days and want a good story to accompany good gameplay. And on that front, they deliver; Gun's gripping story is worthy of a summer blockbuster, filled with interesting characters, evil villains, unexpected twists and turns, and most importantly, heart-pounding action. This is all thanks to writer Randall Jahnson, the veteran Hollywood screen writer who penned The Doors
and The Mask of Zorro
The excellent voice acting further sucks you into the experience and accentuates the feeling that you're taking part in a big screen adventure. This is not surprising since Neversoft hired big name Hollywood stars who are perfectly cast in their roles, including Thomas Jane as the hero Colton White, Kris Kristofferson in an outstanding performance as Colton's father Ned, Tom Skerritt (Clay Allison), Brad Dourif (Reverend Reed), Ron Perlman (Hoodoo Brown) and Lance Henriksen in a deliciously evil (and slightly over the top) performance as the bad guy Thomas Magruder. Add in a great cinematic score and you can practically smell the dusty plains, leather saddles, big piles of horse poo, and um ? somebody crack open a window, will ya?
The story takes place in the late 1800s after the Civil War, during a time when violence, greed and gold fever ruled the day. The story begins in Montana where Colton White and his father Ned meet to hunt buffalo and wolves. This is actually the tutorial portion of the game but it gives you a very cool taste of the game's atmosphere and ambiance as you stalk the mighty beasts through the rugged Montana wilderness using authentic period weapons. Afterwards, you and Ned meet up with a woman of, shall we say, ?loose morals?, on a riverboat. Unfortunately for her and everyone else, the creepy Reverend Reed starts harassing the woman and Ned, demanding that they give him an unnamed item. When they refuse, Reed calls in waves of his lackeys to attack the boat ? all of whom only serve to die violent gory deaths thanks to you. Eventually, however, they become too much for you to handle. Ned then picks a bad time for a heart-to-heart family discussion when he drops a bombshell on you by saying, ?I'm not your father!? and then pushes you off the boat. Gee, thanks, dad. You black out and find yourself on the riverbank sometime later, only to discover to your horror that you are probably the only survivor of the riverboat attack. You then head to Dodge City to start unraveling the mysteries of who Reed is, what he wants that is valuable enough to kill for, and most importantly, who Ned really is.
Once you arrive at Dodge City, you are free to play the game however you want ? kind of. Similar to GTA, you can choose from story missions, fun side quests, or simply shooting up the town. Beware, though, that the townfolk don't take too kindly to trigger-happy strangers and will send a mob to attack you if you go postal. However, the ?mob? consists of less than half a dozen people and once they're dead, everything settles back to normal. There is no star system like in GTA, so you can't accumulate a higher ?wanted? level to attract tougher enemies and create outrageous mayhem.
The side quests are a lot of fun but are pretty short; some only take a couple of minutes. Fortunately, there is a lot of variety, including running timed deliveries for the Pony Express, tracking down wanted criminals to collect bounties, rescuing settlers, hunting wildlife, working as a ranch hand, mining for gold, and even competing in a Texas Hold ?Em poker tournament. I especially enjoyed the ranch hand side quests where you get to herd cattle on the great plains of the Midwest, making you feel like a real cowboy. The poker tournament is also fun but is way too easy; first, it's free to enter so you're not really gambling since you can't lose anything. As well, the first half of the tournament allows you to cheat by swapping out a card in your hand for another one, and your AI opponents pose little challenge since they bluff more often than not. If you lose all of your chips, no problem ? just hit ?Retry? and you start all over again from scratch with no penalty. However, if you don't know how to play poker you're in a bit of trouble since there are no instructions.
Completing both story missions and side quests earns you money and boosts your attributes in various categories, including Gunhand, Quick Draw, Melee, Horse and Health. You can also buy weapon upgrades from various shopkeepers.
You only have a limited number of side quests at first but can unlock more as you progress through the story missions, which mainly consist of plugging bad guys full of lead. You fight in the third-person view with a very generous targeting system that makes combat pretty easy; basically, if an enemy is even close to your aiming reticle, they'll get hit. Your arsenal includes authentic period revolvers, rifles, knives, an Indian hatchet, bows, dynamite and even whiskey bombs, the precursor to the Molotov cocktail. You can zoom in with rifles and bows for more accurate shooting but for real fun, you will want to whip out your trusty six shooters and use Quick Draw mode, the 1800s version of Bullet Time.
While in Quick Draw mode, you zoom into first person view and time slows down, allowing you to accurately place your shots. You can't stay in Quick Draw forever since the meter runs down, but you can replenish the meter by accomplishing skill shots like head shots, stringing together combo kills and having dead-eye accuracy. One of the really cool benefits of Quick Draw is that when you shoot enemies in the head, you can see chunks of flesh ? including what looks like an eyeball ? go flying through the air in dramatic slow motion as their bodies collapse in classic ragdoll fashion. Yummy! You can also blow heads and limbs clean off, and scalp fallen enemies who aren't dead yet, all accompanied by big sprays of blood. Needless to say, this isn't a Western game for the kiddies; the developers decided to give us a more realistic representation of the old West, where life had little value and the gun was the ultimate authority.
However, they did add a bit of Hollywood embellishment ? like how you can shoot weapons out of enemies' hands just like Clint and The Duke. How cool is that? You can also shoot riders off horses and then hop onto their four-legged critter in a Western version of carjacking (horsejacking?).
Ah, the trusty horse. You will learn to love your equine friend as not only a source of transportation but as a 2000 pound weapon as well, since you can use it to trample enemies into a bloody smear on the desert floor. Nice! The horse handling mechanics are not only excellent but a lot of fun as well. You can freely rotate the camera while mounted on your trusty steed, which allows you to shoot in any direction. Your horse can also jump over obstacles like fences and crevices, accompanied by an enthusiastic whinny. If you need a burst of speed, you can dig in your spurs but be careful because riding your horse too hard can kill him from exhaustion ? and since the world map is huge
, you don't want to be caught in the middle of nowhere with nothing but your boots for transportation. Fortunately, your horse will regenerate its health from hard riding or gunfire if it is allowed to rest for a few seconds.
Your horse is really the heart of this game since it is what makes it so unique. Galloping around stomping on enemies (or even innocent townfolk) is just too much fun and gives that cool touch that other games simply don't have. It also best illustrates the game's attention to realism. The horse animations are fantastic; just watch the muscles move in the hindquarters and how the stirrups move independently of your legs and you'll see what I mean. Oh, and don't forget to check the trail of hoof prints you leave behind. The outstanding sound effects really add to the ambiance, with creaking leather, the metallic clinking of the stirrups, the thumping of hooves and the authoritative crashing of gunfire, all in Dolby 5.1 ? it just sounds so real and so cool.
The huge map ranges from the pristine northern Rockies to the rolling plains of Kansas to the arid deserts of New Mexico and everything in between. It sounds impressive but in order to keep gameplay manageable, the geography undergoes some serious compression; after all, how else can you travel from Dodge City, Kansas to Empire, New Mexico on horseback in less than 90 seconds? Even so, it is cool to experience 19th century America as you travel from grassy plains to towering mesas and buttes, and from glacial lakes and springs to barren desert. The map streams smoothly in real time like in GTA, with the occasional hiccup as it loads a new section. There is no pop up or draw in and the graphics look great, so when you visit a new area, it opens up to you just like it would in real life.
Unfortunately, the developers took the realism a bit too seriously because the map is quite barren of wildlife. Yes, there are buffalo on the Kansas plains and coyotes milling about here and there, but for the most part you won't see another living thing until you reach one of the two towns. Well, except for the occasional bandits that will jump you but they are about as troublesome as a fly and just as easy to take care of.
The same goes for the towns. The buildings look authentic and it really feels as if you're walking through a movie set; heck, you can even watch random shoot-outs in the street. Sadly, however, the movie set analogy is accurate in more ways than one because the buildings are mere facades. There are very few buildings you can enter and the ones you can are almost completely empty and void of any character or life. The few NPCs you see on the streets do little except walk or stand around, and you can't interact with them (unless you want to put them in a chokehold or shoot them, that is); heck, they don't even talk.
And this is where the game falls flat. Despite the enormous potential to create a thriving, living world set in the old West, you are instead limited to preprogrammed missions with almost no ability to interact with the environment outside of these missions. Yes, there are a decent number of side quests but once they're finished, they're gone. Take the poker tournament, for example; once you complete all of the rounds, you can't play ever again. Why couldn't the developers allow you to play in always available, one-off games rather than just a set tournament? After all, GTA lets you gamble until your heart's content. Why couldn't they enable ongoing random bounty collection quests like the Vigilante missions in GTA? Why can't you enter more buildings and do other stuff? You can also earn way more money than you can spend, so why can't we buy other items like new clothing, buildings, hire the services of a prostitute (not that I would do
that, of course, I'm just, like, you know, saying that it would be cool if, um, I think I'd better shut up now?), new weapons and so on? Speaking of new weapons, you unlock a powerful weapon once you achieve 100% completion but it's kind of silly since you really can't use it on anything since there's nothing left to do.
As a result, the game suffers from poor replayability. As good as the game is, once you're done there is really no reason to play it again. Sure, you can try it on a higher difficulty level, but the game is quite easy as it is so any additional challenge would be moot at best. This is really too bad because the developers had a ton of potential to play with, but in the end it feels like they blew it.
Not only is the game easy, it is also quite short. Including all of the story and side missions, you could easily finish it in about 12 hours. To be fair, they will be a very enjoyable 12 hours but you will be left wanting for more value add for your money.
Other shortfalls include how your horse sometimes disappears after completing a mission, which is really annoying when you're in the middle of nowhere and have to walk back to town. As well, saving your game doesn't necessarily save where you left off; instead, when you reload you may find yourself way on the other side of the map. This is because the game automatically starts you at a location closest to the next story mission but is annoying because it can cause a lot of unnecessary travel if you want to participate in side quests instead. Another minor complaint is that some of the NPC voiceovers are pretty lame, which is in jarring contrast to the top notch voice acting of the main characters.
It would have also been nice to see a multiplayer component; after all, who wouldn't revel at the opportunity to engage in cool Western deathmatches on horseback?