It's a regular source of befuddlement for us that games companies ignore the rich pickings of the Wild West when building first-person shooters. From memory, only LucasArts' flawed gem Outlaws ran with the idea - and that was seven years ago, back when 'LucasArts' still meant something. Since then, we've been bombarded with World War II, Vietnam and of course outer space, but the boundaries aren't much wider than that. So, faced with the prospect of something different, we couldn't resist granting it a stay of execution in the face of an anorexic release schedule. Sure, Dead Man's Hand came out a few months back, but we figured that we'd take the rare opportunity to catch up on some of the titles that slipped past us during the E3 mayhem, at a time when your local stores are doubtlessly offering such titles at knockdown prices to keep their businesses ticking over.
But of course, the problem with focusing on the ones that got away is that they, er, often went ignored for a very good reason. Despite its promising set-up and some good ideas, Human Head's efforts on Dead Man's Hand have been largely wasted - thanks to sloppy execution that stifles much of the game's enjoyment.
Should have left him there
The concept for the single-player portion is that you, El Tejon, have been left for dead by your own gang, The Nine, for reasons not fully explained. Worse still, General Juan Jacito Blanco locks you up to let you rot in his cells. Life evidently sucks. But thanks to an uprising against him by the people of San Coahuila (not pronounced "Koala") you bust out of your cell on the trail of revenge - and so begins your 20-odd-mission streak of death as you pick off each gang member one by one.
The first thing to note is how easy it is to die in Dead Man's Hand. Most enemy shots take off between 10 and 25 per cent of your health off, so a shootout against three men can very quickly end in an unexpected restart - right from the very beginning, complete with 30-second-plus reload. For reasons best known to Human Head, there are no checkpoint saves in the game, and no ability to save your progress mid-level, so you have to be extremely careful as you pick your way through - especially as there are an increasing number of instant death traps, and enemies are gifted with unerringly accurate targeting skills, whatever they're armed with; be it pistol, shotgun, dynamite or whiskey bomb. The developer tries to compensate for this by making most levels quite short and populating them with a ludicrous number of medipacks (even in default Normal mode), but the result is that progress largely depends on how good you are at seeking these out rather than anything else.
As frustrating as restarting from the beginning is in a videogame, it doesn't endear you to the game any more once you take into account its peculiar sense of targeting. Wayward shots can apparently hit enemy hats clean off from a vast distance, yet move closer and a double-barrelled shotgun blast right to the face may fail to cause anything approaching a useful level of damage. It's gross inconsistencies like this that have you cursing almost from the word go, and coupled with some appalling AI behaviour that seems to have two states - charging towards you like lemmings or ducking behind cover - Dead Man's Hand is hard to recommend.
Sea of brown
Even visually the game struggles to rise above the ordinary. In its favour, Human Head has injected some life into the proceedings with some reasonably decent physics - so your fallen foes crumple to their death in convincing fashion - and it also offers up the ability to shoot out unstable structures and cause havoc as a result. But, as pleasant an addition as believable physics are in games these days, aesthetically speaking they can't make up for things like brown levels populated by brown characters, which is very much the style here. For much of the first half of the game, Dead Man's Hand is almost a sea of brown, which is quite appropriate under the circumstances. There is a change of scenery eventually, but it's never anything to remotely stretch the capabilities of the Unreal II tech - a problem other Unreal II-based FPSs seem to have on the Xbox, for some reason.
The character models lack a convincing sense of movement, often falling unharmed thirty feet, and up close they don't look anything more than generic. But, worst of all, actually placing where they are in relation to you is completely foiled by the game's baffling lack of 5.1 support, so every taunt and shout sounds like it's bang in front of you, leaving you to try and locate them via the game's sound reticule, which flashes in their vague direction should they fire a shot at you.
In Dead Man's Hand's defence, it does try and do a few things differently; it's just that none of them really add up to much of substance. For example, before each level you get to play a round of poker, and as long as you get at least a pair you can keep racking up winnings in the form of extra ammo and power with which to tackle the level. Fail, and you lose the lot. It's a nice little diversion with which to kick things off every time.
The other main innovation, if you like, is the game's shot system, which effectively relies on the player building up a Trick Shot bar via headshots, shooting projectiles out of the air, triggering mass destruction by shooting powder kegs and that sort of thing. Should you manage to get the bar all the way to the end, you can then call upon your alternate shot with your left trigger, which unleashes a volley of destruction for a short period. This sounds quite useful in theory, but until you actually possess decent enough weapons with a better rate of fire and destruction you're unlikely to get the chance to use it. The latter part of the game provides more regular opportunities, but by then the game's probably lost its audience anyway. It's a gamble that didn't really pay off, because Dead Man's Hand needs to hook the player in from the off, and it simply does not.
And then there's the issue of some appalling instances of frame loss, and a control system which has to be among the slowest and most sluggish ever devised for an FPS. We realise that most FPSs have you travelling at ludicrous speeds in relation to real life, but this simply feels like you're in walk mode the whole time. Not good.
So what about the multiplayer modes? System Link theoretically presents the possibility of eight player link up (but how likely is that really?), and split-screen is bizarrely entirely absent, so that's not the best start. What about the Xbox Live mode? The best thing you can say about it is that its the only Xbox Live Wild West FPS, and that you don't have to put up with predictable AI spawning and dodgy hit detection. But, as discussed by just about anyone who has played this, it suffers from lag on an alarming number of occasions, so that's hardly a good basis for an entertaining online session.
In terms of modes there's the typical Deathmatch, plus its Team brother, Posse, which is a humans vs. CPU duke out, and Bounty, where everyone has to gang up against one player. With a scarcity of maps to choose from, (and those that are there aren't much to write home about) and few players bothering to join in, it's probably wise to rule out Multiplayer as the game's saving grace. Clan-based activity might help, but it has sold so poorly you'd have a job rounding up enough willing participants.
The fairest thing to say about Dead Man's Hand is that it's not a terrible game; if you can tolerate the predictable levels, bad AI, targeting nonsense and the general sea of mediocrity that persists throughout then you might discover a flicker of entertainment. You can blitz through much of the single-player campaign in a kind of mind-numbing trawl, challenged by unexpected spikes in the difficulty then let off the hook again. Even though the subject matter is relatively refreshing, the gameplay mechanics simply feel old and ill-judged and much of the experience leaves you with that empty feeling of 'seen it all before but better'. In truth, 1997's Outlaws is stillthe better game, if that's any indication of what we're dealing with. By all means rent it if you're still desperate for a Wild West FPS and want to make your own mind up, but otherwise we recommend leaving it for dead.
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