Review by analog_line
In my experience, there are three basic breeds of story about the American Old West. There's the classic, clean cut Lone Ranger figure in a white hat, trusty companions, always on the side of good and decent folk. There's the stylish, action-filled Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and those influenced by him, chock full of flashy anti-heroes. There are the gritty, psychological westerns exemplified by Eastwood's "Unforgiven" or "Tombstone". There are plenty of stories that don't fit neatly into any of those three categories, but they're useful landmarks for when you're trying to place a new Western story in the landscape.
Neversoft's "Gun" roams around in the plain near "Tombstone". Colton White, Gun's protagonist, is much like Kurt Russell's Wyatt Earp, and the visual style of the game evokes the brand of realism that "Tombstone" was quite successful in projecting. However, it doesn't stay in that dusty town for long. The combat game-play is far more John Woo, with bloody bullet wounds, slow-mo "Quickdraw Mode", two-fisted gunplay, and a running total of Head Shots, Weapon Shots, times you've shot someone off their horse, and times you've shot their horse out from under them, among other GTA-like statistics. The player can even scalp their fallen enemies if you spend reward money on a scalping knife, though this is utterly pointless, since the game doesn't even record how many scalps you've taken, never mind unlocking some hidden thing if you collect enough. It's particularly bloody, and comes complete with the screams of your dying foe begging you to stop. I'm not sure why it's even in the game. The practice was evidently quite common on both sides (white and native) during the period, but in this game it is a pointlessly grisly inclusion. Even in reality, you scalped someone as a badge of personal achievement. A mark that you'd defeated a tough foe (legend has it that it's why Custer wasn't scalped, because he was considered a coward). Scalping just to do it would be the mark of a seriously warped personality, which Colton White isn't presented as.
The story itself is on the whole well done and executed, but not without flaws. The first problem is that it's very short. This doesn't end up being a killer problem, since the kind of story it is would not work well being stretched significantly farther than it was. There's only a certain amount of meat on this particular bone, and kudos to Neversoft for not dumping filler in to pad its length. Everyone in the story refers to Colton as "kid" which is incongruous given his appearance as a leathered middle aged tough-guy. There are also flashbacks to many years in the past, but all the characters are apparently the exact same age, which causes a lot of confusion as to the time frame involved. Creating some younger looking character models of these characters would have gone a long way to making things a lot clearer. Also, there are patches of really horrible dialogue which stand out within the generally good script and voice acting.
The comparison with Grand Theft Auto 3 is inevitable, and is certainly a reasonable one to make. The developers at Neversoft were obviously aping GTA3 in the game's design and interface. As with GTA: San Andreas's take on the state of California, Gun's designers have pretty handily crunched many of the west's most iconic landscapes into something you can ride your horse across in 10 minutes. It can be a bit jarring to ride from Glacier National Park right into Monument Valley around the next bend, but the effort was clearly well intended, and well executed. As an East Coast native, I have some appreciation for why people went and stayed out west when it was such a hazardous, dangerous life. The real thing can only be more impressive.
Also, as in GTA, running around on foot misses half the fun, so most of the time you'll be making your way around the virtual Old West on horseback. I've never ridden a horse, but I've seen my fair share of real live horses in person, and the horses and horse riding, depicted in this game looks as realistic as you're likely to get outside of a horse simulator. I'm sure real horses can't possibly handle as smoothly as the horses you'll ride in "Gun", but they do quite a good job to make them look, walk, and sound as realistic as possible, and that's important with as much time as you spend on horseback. Getting a horse is as easy, if not easier than in GTA. Side missions that require a horse (most of them) provide a horse when the mission starts. There are also horses just standing around in some pretty random places. Next to unoccupied shacks miles from nowhere, or even just at a bend in the road, you'll find unowned horses ready for riding. It's a necessity for how the game is set up, but it breaks the sense of realism painfully when you run across one in an incongruous place.
Where Gun deviates from the GTA formula the most is in its combat system, which is all for the good. GTA's combat has always felt like a kludge to me, and using a Max Payne-alike 3rd-person-FPS style combat control works far better. The inclusion of a "Bullet Time" analog on top of that's pretty much a gimmick, complete with missions solely devoted to using it to justify the feature, but it's a minor crime in the grand scheme of things. The interface is familiar to gamers, so while it commits the crime of being totally derivative, it doesn't commit the crime of requiring a day or more to learn a frustrating new control interface. I'll take the former over the latter any day.
Gun has skills like GTA: San Andreas, but they are raised through doing side missions. Missions for the Federal Marshall in Empire raise certain stats, Pony Express missions raise other stats, "poker missions" raise others, etc. This tends to compensate for the fact that there just isn't as much to do in Gun, whereas in San Andreas, you have plenty of opportunity to raise your gun skills, vehicle skills, and athletic abilities without ever taking a single mission.
Gun is also more linear than GTA. While you can run around and do whatever extras are available at that point between missions, you'll always have a big reminder message flashing at you telling you that you need to go to the location of the next story mission. This can get very annoying, especially when your mini-map is half covered by a large red arrow telling you which direction your mission start location is. Another strike against it is that the side missions are the only side-quests there are at all in the game. If you've not gotten far enough in the story to unlock any more side missions, the only thing you can do is ride around the Walled Garden West, which gets old pretty fast. Occasionally a bandit will attack you, but it's not particularly hard, and it's not like they have anything you can use. It's generally a waste of ammunition to bother with them, since it's quite easy to just ride off and leave them in the dust. This also means that, while you can still ride around Westworld after you've completed the main story, there's little reason to. Even the awful True Crime games had more replay value after the story than Gun does.
All in all, though, if you have any appreciation at all for the Western, Gun is a worthwhile purchase, especially when it can be had for under $10 pre-owned for PS2 and Xbox. Neversoft was obviously aiming for Grand Theft Auto with this game, but fell well short of the mark in almost every respect. That doesn't mean, however, that it's a bad game. Keep your expectations reasonable, and you'll likely be as pleasantly surprised as I was.
Rating: 3.0 - Fair
Product Release: Gun (US, 11/08/05)
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