At E3 2002, Red Dead Revolver was one of the most promising titles on the Capcom stand. With superbly atmospheric Wild West visuals and gun slinging action it marked a welcome change of direction for the Japanese publisher. It all looked set to be a big hit for them, and then, just a couple of months later it all went a bit pear-shaped for the Angel Studios-coded project.
With Angel in the process of being acquired by Take-Two (and set to trade under the Rockstar San Diego moniker) the studio found itself in a conflict of interest scenario with a game being developed for a rival. With production grinding to a halt on Red Dead, a compromise was finally reached when T2 also snapped up the game.
Back from the (red) dead
Rockstar knew full well it had an immensely promising title on its hands, so it was never likely to be canned, but with control, camera and playability issues evident at E3, it decided to reshape the game into a more accessible title with the emphasis firmly on action.
"It looked beautiful - the technology was already in place to make a great western game. We really wanted to make a simple arcade style shooter," admits Rockstar PR manager Hamish Brown, and so its newly renamed San Diego studio finally dusted the game down and decided to shape the game as an all-action 'arcade' style third-person blast that's a classic tale of sweet revenge.
"We knew what we wanted to do with it," said Rockstar's Hamish Brown. "The fact that [a western game] hadn't been done before leant itself so well to the console. We wanted to take out Capcom's personality and put ours in. Put the Rockstar style in, put humour in, the production values and give it a breathtakingly realistic backdrop but still keep its arcade roots. We're really excited by it."
Feeling lucky punk?
And so they should be. The game sports undoubtedly one of the finest visual engines yet seen on the PS2, perfectly capturing the cinematic essence of dusty spaghetti westerns in some style, complete with an all-original soundtrack that's every bit as dramatic as any movie, and some dryly over the top cut-scenes that stitch the action elements together impressively.
Asked if Rockstar considered taking a leaf out of GTA's book and using named actors and a licensed soundtrack, Brown was quick to point out that "there was no point running before we could walk" saying that "this is the first title in the series" but adding "who knows where the franchise will go?" and in the process confirming that the publisher already has plans up its sleeve to develop further titles in this promising series.
Divided into 21 chapters, the game plays out as a series of distinct and varied action set-pieces that centre around the premise that the lead character Red Harlow is literally gunning for revenge after seeing his family brutally murdered in front of him as a kid. Now grown up, you follow the bloody trail to the killers and the game plays out from six different perspectives as you work towards finding out who is responsible and gain ultimate revenge.
Street fighting man
We got to grips with three levels; kicking off at Ugly Street Fight (Chapter 3), you control Red around a relatively enclosed arena with the basic intention of shooting everyone in sight and not getting killed in the process. The controls are slick and straightforward, taking a standard form with left stick to guide your man around, right to control camera duties, and a simple crosshair in the centre of the screen denoting the route to vengeance.
Tapping L1 draws your weapon, R1 fires, while R2 puts your man in a sepia-tinged Bullet Time mode, called 'Dead Eye' mode for the purposes of the game. But, in a novel twist to this now ubiquitous slow-mo mechanic, your purpose in this situation is to hover your reticule over the enemy and effectively 'lock on' several body parts at once in order to not only cause maximum damage, but to rack up progressively higher combo scores in the process. You can't - of course - use this mode indefinitely, but getting your hands dirty with some revenge killing soon tops up your meter again.
All the while, your foes are busy shooting seven shades out of you from various balconies, windows and vantage points, so it's up to you to use caution where required, utilising your strafe maneouvre and finding cover wherever possible. Unusually, strafing becomes automatic as soon as you draw your weapon, while finding cover gives you the ability to fire round corners and adds an element of stealth not necessarily apparent at this rather easy-going stage of the game.
Wild West Max Payne?
Red Dead Revolver also sports a melee attack, which gives your man the ability to kick and punch when in close quarters, as well as - for example - bayoneting your foe to an early death. Over 30 weapons are promised in total, including a six shooter, shotgun, dynamite and Molotov cocktails - all of which feel satisfyingly destructive thanks to responsive and assured controls that make targeting easy to pull off. The game rewards you for being a good shot, giving you cash for shooting several people in a row, and in many respects the game feels like a logical, more focused progression from the Max Payne school of balls out shooters.
Dipping into The Traitor level (Chapter 13), it's apparent that the game's narrative dives into the past on occasion to perhaps give a flavour of why the baddies killed your folks in the first place. In this case, you get to play as General Javier Diego on a mission to cross a river guarded by determined Yankies, who are busy firing cannons in your direction. In this hectic battlefield scenario you're tasked with firing flares in the direction of the cannons in order that your men can blow up a bridge. In scenes reminiscent of the Omaha Beach landing level in Medal Of Honour: Allied Assault/Frontline, the cinematics are truly excellent, with massive cannon balls whistling past your head, or often crashing spectacularly in front of you. Although the scene is extremely hectic and atmospheric, the emphasis is firmly on fun, and at no stage is it actually overwhelming. How this translates in the finished article remains to be seen, but at this stage it's an immensely promising title at the very least.
On the End Of The Line level (Chapter 21), the game shows some of its more diverse spaghetti western elements, tasking the player with stopping a train from reaching its destination. The game switches between a classic horseback chase sequence, and allows you to jump to and from the runaway train, detach each carriage in turn and eventually pick off a stream of baddies as they emerge. In true improbable style, you can also mount a Gatling gun placed on a platform running conveniently on a parallel track. Only in videogames...
The rest of the game promises dueling in the streets, saloon fights, as well as typically western locations including ranches, creeks, and dusty one-horse towns. Also thrown into the mix is a multiplayer mode supporting up to four-player split-screen action that unlocks as you progress through the single-player campaign.
As well as a straightforward deathmatch mode, there's the immensely promising Dueling mode that gives players the chance to prove who's quickest off the draw. Another 'secret' mode is promised, which may relate to how well you 'perform' throughout each chapter - lending the game great potential in terms of its replayability.
Red Dead Revolver emerges blinking into the daylight on April 30th on PS2 and Xbox, and we'll bring you our full in-depth review on Rockstar's hotly anticipated gun slinging opus as soon as we humanly can.