Gunman Chronicles

Preview - a hands-on look at the sci-fi first person shooter from Rewolf

Gunman has been a long time coming. Originally intended to be a freebie Quake add-on, it later switched to the Half-Life engine and caught the attention of developers Valve. Eventually publisher Sierra became interested in the former "total conversion", and agreed to release Gunman as a full stand-alone game.

And yet, during this entire convoluted process, most of the Gunman team have never even met each other, working over the internet in their spare time from around the world. It just goes to show, you don't need millions of dollars of funding and a penthouse office in downtown Dallas to make a game...

Following The Script

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Your home base, as seen in the intro sequence

When Gunman Chronicles was unveiled to the public for the first time at the ECTS computer games trade show in London a couple of months ago, the reaction was incredible. And it's easy to see why.

Like Half-Life, Gunman features a strong single player campaign which keeps you on the edge of your seat with pre-scripted events. In Half-Life you might walk past an office to see one of your colleagues being dragged screming into a ventilation shaft by an alien, and this added greatly to the atmosphere of the game, making you feel like you were in a living, breathing and very hostile world.

In Gunman the developers have taken this idea even further, adding scripted encounters with console-style boss monsters, and massive events which can transform entire levels. One level is in deep freeze when you arrive, but by destroying the coolant system you can cause it to thaw out, monsters emerging from the ice and melt water trickling from the ceilings. In another map you enter a temple as an earthquake strikes, the floor collapsing to reveal pools of lava and the walls crumbling around you.

Monster encounters can be equally spectacular, and the sight of a dinosaur's head descending on you from the sky on the end of a long leathery neck is almost guaranteed to make you jump. Another boss encounter features a giant alien creature which pulls smaller monsters out of pipes on either side of her and then throws them at you. Damage it enough and it will clamber up the side of a nearby cliff and scamper away.

The Things

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Dinosaur!

The sheer range of monsters for you to blast is impressive, and although the dinosaurs are perhaps a little clichéd, most of the creatures you will face are highly imaginative.

There are six-legged monsters which look like a cross between a scorpion and something from "John Carpenter's The Thing". There are headless men, sentry robots, heavy weapons grunts, and high tech cowboy-like gunslingers. There are bipedal creatures with circular bodies ringed by what could be mouths, and monsters which look like they have escaped from an HR Giger painting, or simply from your own worst nightmare.

The entire cast of the game seems to have escaped from the fossils of the Burgess shales, bizarre creatures from some distant prehistoric world. The variety of opponents on offer is certainly a welcome change from the rather stingy selection in many recent games, and means that you are never short of strange new lifeforms to reduce to their constituent parts. And the models, textures and animations which bring these creatures to life are a match for anything in Half-Life, nicely detailed and utterly alien.

Gunman

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The weapons on offer in Gunman

Meanwhile putting the "gun" into Gunman are a wide range of high tech sci-fi weapons, ranging from your basic blaster and rocket launcher to pulse rifles, lightning guns, and something which looks suspiciously like the goop gun (sorry, bio rifle) from Unreal. There is even a driveable tank.

These weapons don't just have one or even two firing modes either, they are mostly fully customisable, with a whole range of different options on offer. You can adjust the spread and the number of shells fired at a time from your shotgun, which also increases the kick from the gun to the point where firing it can knock you back a couple of meters. You can use the rifle in rapid fire and sniping modes, change the chemical make-up of the sludge fired by the goop gun, set grenades to explode on impact or using a timer, choose whether you want to be able to guide your rockets after they are fired...

And as you make all of these adjustments you can see your character's hands fiddling with the switches and buttons on the gun - it's the little things in life, y'know? The range of choices is almost endless, and gives you plenty of chance to fine tune your weaponry before you wade on in.

The World

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A gravity defying moment on board your base station, looking like something from an MC Escher painting

The worlds which you are exploring are equally impressive most of the time, and although the elderly Half-Life is no match for the likes of the Quake 3 and Unreal engines, the developers have pushed it about as far as it can go.

The architecture is surprisingly curvaceous, with a deficit of sharp edges and right angles giving the game an almost organic feel in places. Textures are colourful and intricately detailed, but at times it can all get a little overwhelming. Some areas look like a mish mash of ideas which somehow didn't quite gel, and the lighting can be rather gaudy or overbright at times, with garish greens, oranges and reds a little too common for my taste. Other parts of the game are downright claustrophobic or simply cluttered, but overall the level design is mostly very good.

One of the real highpoints is the introduction to the game, set on board a gunman outpost built around an asteroid. On your way to the firing range for some weapons training you see a soldier peering out through a window, talking about a damaged ship coming in to land. The ship goes out of control, whisks past your window, and promptly smashes head-on into another part of the space station. As air starts to leak out through a crack in the window, the soldier guides you to safety past a series of obstacles, acting both as a fun little cinematic moment and a neat tutorial to introduce you to the game's controls. Nice...

Conclusion

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Your tank

Gunman is certainly looking promising, despite the fact that the beta version we were sent by Sierra was far from finished. The game is expected to go gold soon though, and the last we heard it was due to arrive on shelves in the UK on Friday 8th December, so hopefully we should have more complete code before long.

Although it's unlikely to repeat the million selling success of Half-Life, Gunman should certainly prove to be one of the most novel and imaginative first person shooters of the year, and well worth a look for fans of the genre.

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