When you think about it, the Wild West and videogaming really couldn't be more suitable bedfellows. Tense gunplay, bounty-hunting, hugely atmospheric settings, characters of dubious morality, hosses, stage coaches, wild animals, swinging saloon doors, out of tune pianos. What more could any game developer need to be able to concoct an exciting game? [Right now? Brothels. Oh, the West's got those too. - Ed]
And yet all anyone has been able to come up with in three decades of gaming is a handful of fairly ordinary shooters. Most recently we've had the underwhelming first-person shooter Dead Man's Hand, and the promising but ultimately disappointingly basic third-person effort Red Dead Revolver. LucasArts' Outlaws toyed with our affections back in 1996, but we're really scraping the barrel if we have to resort to mentioning games like Desperados. Bizarrely, the only game that has come close to capturing the spirit of the Wild West is Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath; a game featuring stressed out chickens and cute furry critters that you fired from a crossbow. Oh, and no-one had the decency to buy it.
Get on your hoss and drink your milk
But one game that's confidently saddling up to the challenge of being both a commercially viable and critically acclaimed take on the Wild West is Neversoft's pet project, Gun. Its shady appearance on the gaming scene has been cloaked in a certain amount of slightly puzzling secrecy (particularly directed towards the European online press, for reasons we don't fully understand), but this week Activision took the wraps off what is shaping up to being its most exciting new title in years.
Following the late 19th century adventures of Wildman hunter Colton White, the game starts off with you meeting up with the protagonist's father Ned (voiced by the suitably grizzly Kris Kristofferson). Acting as a subtle tutorial, you get to learn the combat and riding basics while hunting down wild animals such as deer, wolves, quail and so on. Armed with two handguns and a rifle, this opening section shows off the shooting mechanics in a somewhat less dangerous context that nevertheless marks it out as a game that instantly gets the basics right.
Playable from the usual third-person perspective for the most part, the viewpoint switches to a first-person Quick Draw mode when the business of rootin' tootin' shootin' comes into play. As you might expect these days, Neversoft understands that all this crazy action looks so much better in slo-mo, but to keep your Quickdraw meter from running down it's important to rack up combos. To do that, though, it's a matter of capping your enemy right between the eyes and being as accurate and skilful as you can.
During the demonstration, it's immediately apparent that Neversoft has truly pushed the boat out in technical terms, with stunningly expansive and hugely detailed environments all running in progressive scan (even on the PAL version of the PS2, no less). The texturing was of the highest quality throughout what we were shown, from the detailed forest we flanked throughout the opening exchanges, to the mountainous vistas stretching off into the distance.
To complement the richly detailed environments, Gun's art quality elsewhere is equally masterful. Take the character models, for example; not only are all the game's characters beautifully animated, but they benefit from a massive attention to detail, showing off the weather-beaten expressions wonderfully, not to mention individual strands of hair and even their battered old clothes. The physics implementation is incredibly special too; it's hard to appreciate just how difficult it must be to animate a horse authentically, for example, but whatever it is Neversoft has done, it has worked. It's one of the most solid-looking games we've seen in this generation, and it's great to see their obvious talents being applied to something other than skateboarding.
Beyond the basics, the game moves on in an initially linear fashion where the pair find themselves fending off the attentions of a giant bear, and then well and truly under attack when they board a steamboat later on. From here, it's abundantly clear that fighting for your life is something you'll have to get used to in Gun, but it looks like a lot of fun. Whereas Red Dead Revolver pulled off a lot of the same bullet-time tricks and skills shots, the effect in Gun is much more convincing, and the fact that Gun does so with a far more coherent narrative in a living breathing world makes the prospect that much more exciting.
Without wishing to laden this preview with spoiler-ridden story facts (unlike some of the other previews doing the rounds), there's a fairly big twist quite early on, and from then on Colton is on a mission to find out the truth behind a rather large mystery. At this point, it's evident that combat on horseback is just as important as your on-foot antics. Looking slick and easy to control, you're able to mount and dismount from your trusty steed in just the same way as if you were getting in and out of a vehicle in GTA. Crucially, you're also able to control your movement and view independently of one another, giving you the chance to look around you and switch between enemies with precision.
Slowing down your horse enables you to target individual body parts, while slamming the horse itself at high speed into enemies proves just as effective. Using your spurs gives your steed a little speed burst, although it's advisable not to go too mad, lest you actually want to kill your ride and be forced to trudge vast distances on your lonesome.
Taking some of its overall design principles from Rockstar North's classic GTA series, the game moves in an overall linear story progression, but gives players the chance to engage in side missions that go towards building up their stats in numerous areas, including gun handling, quickdraw, health, horse as well as melee skills.
Bovine people and Native American sub continent folks
These non-essential sub-quests sound pretty varied and interesting too, which makes a change compared to some of the fodder other games pad out their play length with. One minute you might be defending a stagecoach against Native Americans (clearly it's too un-politically correct to call them 'Injuns' anymore, eh?), or on another occasion you might switch alliances completely and help them out.
Elsewhere Gun tasks you with panhandling for gold, raiding opium dens, hunting bears, defend horses from rustlers, play Texas Hold 'em for cash, or just go about your business collecting scalps. Ew.
Although Activision is still only able to show off the PS2 version, the Xbox 360 version looks certain to be the best of the bunch, featuring normal mapping throughout and a smoother frame rate. However, it says a lot for the skill of the Neversoft crowd to note that most of us would be more than happy with what the PS2 version has to offer. Although we're still a month away from being able to provide a hands-on report with Gun, it's safe to say we're exceptionally excited at the prospect. Check back in late September when we're set to get the first playable code of this enticing-looking Wild West adventure.
Gun is scheduled for a late November release on PC, PS2, Xbox, GameCube, PSP and Xbox 360.