The American Old West hasn’t exactly been kind to the world of videogames as a setting or a gameplay experience. Since the PC game Outlaws, a decade-old first-person shooter, no Western-themed game has come close to being fun, with some of them even being downright horrible. No matter the hype or potential, it seems the Old West was destined to deliver a stinker.
Still, I’m an Old West junkie, so in spite of the genre’s dubious history, I was intrigued when Neversoft announced it was working on Gun, an Old West game in the Grand Theft Auto vein. The developer is the house that Tony Hawk built, so the company could obviously deliver a seamless world. But would the studio break from its history of so-so graphics? Could it create a compelling story? And most important, could it create a gameplay experience that was not only deeper than ollies and 720s, but fun from start to finish?
Having completed Gun and all of its side missions, I can say without a doubt that yes, the studio can do all three. Granted, the graphics take a hit because of the need to stream large environments. True, the story is arguably brief. And yes, the gameplay can be imbalanced and inconsistent. But is it fun from start to finish? You’d better believe it. In fact, the biggest complaint I have about Gun is that there’s just not enough of it to satisfy my Old West craving, nor to justify paying full price for it.
The gameplay in Gun is identical to nearly every free-roaming, single-world game you’ve played, be it Grand Theft Auto or True Crime. Rather than battle with gang members, you throw down with bandits. Rather than jacking cars, you jack horses (or shoot them out from beneath your foe). Rather than using Uzis and grenades to take out a swath of enemies, you throw dynamite or burning whiskey bottles. Gun even features a slow-motion focus mode, called Quickdraw, that slowly regenerates as you rack up head shots, explosive kills, combinations, or as you shoot weapons from enemies’ hands. In other words, Gun plays like every other successful third-person shooter, and it does so with great effect.
So what differentiates Gun from the rest of the pack? Its Old West flair. For starters, the setting lends itself to some creative side missions, be it helping a rancher herd cattle, riding with the Pony Express, taking out criminals with the marshal and sheriff, or slaying large animals with a bow and arrow. The Old West setting also enabled Neversoft create some diverse environments, with the seamless world incorporating the Midwest, Southwest, Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest. Although the transitions between some of these sections can be abrupt, the sections themselves are a nice break from the now-tiresome urban settings of so many free-roaming games.
The story is also affected by the Old West setting, with the main character, Colton White, looking for revenge for the death of his father. Only his father isn’t his father, you see, and Colton himself has not only a penchant for communicating with the Native Americans, but a history of living with them (a classic, if clichéd, Western tale). And the men whom Colton’s out to kill are greedy Civil War veterans-turned railroad barons looking for gold. Colton meets every type of stereotypical Western character in his pursuit of revenge, from a friendly prostitute to a safe-cracking wimp to a wise-beyond-his-years Chief. In essence, Gun is the quintessential Old West movie, but fully playable.
The team at Neversoft only really faltered in three aspects, but those three aspects do a disappointingly good job at hampering the overall game. The first is the sheer interruption that side missions have in the rest of the game. On one hand, the gold and experience you earn for completing side missions are essential to upgrading your character, his weapons and his abilities as the game goes on. On the other hand, simply taking part in those side missions makes for an abrupt, stilted experience. Each mission, some of which are timed, involves achieving a certain objective. In many timed missions, players will complete the objective with multiple enemies in hot pursuit, yet once the objective is completed, everything goes back to the way it was, with the enemies mysteriously disappearing and all the player’s ammunition magically refilling. For a seamless game that takes place in a supposedly living environment, this jarring end to the mission yanks gamers out of the world Neversoft has tried so hard to create.
The second area in which Neversoft faltered is the imbalance of some bosses, particularly the last one in the game. Most enemies, as you’d expect, die immediately when you shoot them in the head, or after just three or four shots to the body. Bosses, however, can be shot 10 to 12 times in the head before dying, and in some cases, even that number of shots won’t kill them. What’s more, throwing dynamite at them or sticking them with a dynamite-infused arrow does only marginal damage. I understand the need to make bosses more difficult than normal enemies, but even boss encounters have to have some semblance of realism.
Yet even in spite of the tedious bosses and jarring side missions, Gun is still so enjoyable that it’s actually the final area in which Neversoft faltered that’s most disappointing: there’s just not enough Old West to go around. Neversoft included a good variety of side missions, but there simply aren’t enough of them. Likewise, if you’ve completed all the side missions before you go into the last level, there’s nothing left to do once the last boss is dead other than ride around waiting for the infrequent (and easily beatable) bandit attacks. As a result, after the 12 hours or so of gameplay (including side missions), there’s virtually no replayability. They’re 12 fun hours, to be sure, but they’ll leave you wanting more.
It’s easy to see that Neversoft wanted to include more content in Gun, be it environments, side missions or non-playable characters (the towns are downright empty), but deadlines have a tendency to get in the way. The graphics, too, seem like they could’ve been improved with more time, particularly when you notice the difference between the great horse animations and the so-so characters. But time is often not on developers’ side. Fortunately, gamers do have time on their side, and we can hold out hope that the sequel, presuming there is one, will improve on the shortcomings of this outing. The Gun series, like a barrel of whiskey (and the Tony Hawk franchise) is bound to improve, but even this first batch is worth your attention. Just not for full price.
- Gameplay: 8
- Traditional fare with an Old West flair, but the side missions end abruptly.
- Graphics: 7.6
- The diverse environments suffer from a surprising amount of popup, and the characters are a mixed bag. Great horse animations, though.
- Sound: 9
- This soundtrack is incredible, and the sound effects are largely incredible, too.
- Replay: 7
- The side missions are great, but if you beat them before the last boss, there’s no reason to play the game any more.
- Overall: 8
- A pleasant surprise and incredibly fun, but far too brief and in need of some more polish. Count me first in line for the sequel.
— Jonas Allen