The title of Neversoft's latest game emphasizes the law of the West. That is, to say, that life revolves entirely around the will of the gun and the man who wields it. The clever ad campaign has hyped GUN up to be an epic tale of revenge and subterfuge with a spittoon-load of gunfire and explosions. How well does the final product hold up to this image? In some ways it's good, really good, and nearly reaches the heights to which it has aspired, but ultimately it lies just short of its goal.
Let's start off with the good, though. The main story is actually pretty interesting and slightly different from your average Wild West tale. GUN opens up with your character (Colton White) being hastily awoken by a grizzled old man, and Colton's father, Ned White. After going through a tutorial based around hunting wild animals, you and Ned bring the meat from your game to a steamboat that's just docked. Apparently this is how the old leather-hide makes his living. As the ship rumbles down the river, Colton catches a glimpse of Ned talking with a prostitute behind closed doors, hovering over an iron-clad safe. It doesn't take long to figure out that whatever is in there is extremely precious and the guerrillas that have just decided to attack your steamboat are after it. A mysterious man named Reed, dressed like a man of the cloth, appears and demands that the item be surrendered or they'll sink the steamboat and take everyone else down with it.
By the time the whole ordeal is over, everyone else is dead, including Ned and the prostitute and Colton finds himself lying on the riverbank, unsure of the events that just passed. All he knows is that nobody, especially Ned White, seems to be who they claimed and that a mysterious object of great importance was a factor in precipitating his death. His journey takes him to the Alhambra bar in nearby Dodge City. Most of the remainder of GUN takes place here, in Empire, New Mexico, and the expanse in-between the two cities.
The world of GUN is a microcosm on the Old West, with an emphasis on the "micro." There are representations of the open plains of Texas, the lakes and passes of the Midwest, and even the Rocky Mountains. However, a quick look at the map tells you that Dodge City, Kansas shouldn't be that close to Empire, New Mexico. For a game aspiring to be an epic, the setting is surprisingly minuscule. Not to mention that since we're dealing with a lot of open area here, there really isn't that much to look at when galloping on horseback between cities. Despite the lack of structures or concrete locales, the natural beauty of the West shows through. The delicate mix of pale greens, browns, and reds come together beautifully and from the perspective of art direction, Neversoft has done a pretty good job of recreating the look and feel of the area. Buildings, barrels, supply crates, etc. all look appropriately rustic, as well. GUN supports wide-screen functionality and progressive scan. With both features turned on, the West seems to come alive. It's very sharp, runs at a smooth frame-rate, and quite colorful when it needs to be.
Likewise, character animations, especially in cutscenes, are handled very nicely. Friends and villains alike are brought to life by some great character actors. Colton White is played by Thomas Jane (most recently known for his role as Frank Castle in The Punisher), Brad Dourif (Greema Wormtongue in Lord of the Rings) is cast as the mad Reverend Reed, the great Ron Perlman (Hellboy) wrings the bittersweet charm out of shifty Mayor Hoodoo Brown, and Lance Henriksen (Bishop from Aliens) lends his powerful voice to main villain Thomas McGruder. As the experienced actors they are, they lend a lot of credibility to the legitimacy of GUN's narrative. A suitable, twangy soundtrack (mostly ambient, but sometimes reaching a satisfying crescendo at important moments) and convincing gunshots round out the favorable aspects of the game.
Now for the Bad. Keep in mind here that going by the scale we're using, the Bad isn't necessarily horrible, but instead encompasses the areas of the game that could use a little sprucing up. As mentioned before, the map is disappointingly small. As "open" as the West is supposed to be, it comes off feeling a little claustrophobic. It doesn't help that Neversoft is trying to cram a space spanning several states into what amounts to roughly 2-3 miles. On horseback, you can run from one end of the map to the other in about a minute. When you suddenly find yourself without a horse (supposing it was killed or magically disappears after completing a mission), the distance instead becomes excruciating. If you're near a town, it's not that much of a problem, but if you're out in the wilderness, you'll have to pray you come across one, as there isn't much to do/see out there in the meantime.
Most of this open area serves as a staging ground for side missions which give Colton money and stat points. The money (which can be also be gained from mining gold scattered around the map, provided you've purchase a pickaxe) can be used to buy upgrades for weapons or Colton's abilities. The stat points go into several categories, such as Gunhand or Horse Riding, which obviously improve your performance in those areas. What gets upgraded usually depends on what task you're asked to do, of which there are several: Texas Hold'Em Poker (some fun, but the AI is a little too easy to beat), Lawman missions (which have you helping the town's sheriff take out criminals), Pony Express (timed objectives which ask you to deliver goods), Cattle Herding (help the Rancher get his stock back into their pens), Wanted Posters (independent bounties depending on whether they are brought in dead or alive), and Hunting (hunt and kill specific wildlife).
Some of these missions are more fun than others, but their main focus seems to be to pad out the game, as the story missions in and of themselves don't take very long to blow through. The story, while generally good, suffers from a pacing problem and this is the chief element which keeps it from being the epic that it could. Things often move too quickly and there isn't any time for the characters to contemplate the situation. It's almost all "go-go-go" and the missions can be blown through in a few hours. Granted, the side missions do help you upgrade your stats, which comes in handy later on in the game, but at the same time, they seem to distract from and overtake the main story.
These side missions often do provide the opportunity to practices your gun skills, though, and all missions can be retried. Checkpoints seem to be plentiful so that if you die, you never end up being set too far back. This is a good thing, because the combat/control system allows for a few cheap deaths. On the whole, the combat is serviceable. There are several different weapon types such as Melee, Rifle, Pistol, Shotgun, Bow, and Explosive, each with a few different arms which you find throughout the game. Generally, new weapons in each category are just more powerful versions of the earlier ones. As guns are the titular weapon, you'd expect the gunplay to be significant and fresh, but it more ends up being your standard 3rd-person action gameplay. A lock-on system would be nice, though there is a QuickDraw mode which allows you to slow down the action for a limited amount of time and pump as many bullets out of your six-shooter as you possibly can (ammo is unlimited for QuickDraw's duration). You also have the option to flick the analog stick left or right providing a rough lock-in to the next enemy in this mode, but some kind of targeting system would be nice for the times when you don't have the luxury of QuickDraw and there are about a dozen enemies bearing down on you. These intense shoot-outs can be a lot of fun, but occasionally frustrating due to the above reasons. Horse control is good, but after Shadow of the Colossus, it feels more like driving a motorized vehicle gliding around the countryside than holding the reigns of a living creature. It's functional here, as the emphasis is placed on quickly getting around the map, but the physics aren't entirely realistic.
So what's the Ugly? Honestly not much. A few missions are somewhat tedious, but there are few major complaints for GUN. Things could be brushed up a little here or there, and a bigger world would be nice, but some of the details are perfect. The story is good, the casting is great, and though the actual combat could be a bit more unique, the details show through (such as the ability to grab and kill townspeople, eventually upsetting their attitude towards you, or the random bandits that assail you as you roam the countryside). With so surprisingly few Wild West games out there, most of them being sub-standard, GUN is worthy of a spot in the top tier. Though the experience may not be long, nor is it as epic as it's made out to be, what's there is genuinely entertaining most of the time and faithfully captures the rough-and-tough atmosphere of the frontier.
12/1/2005 Cavin Smith