One of the only ways a developer can cut loose and buy themselves a sliver of creative freedom in these franchise-obsessed times is to make itself so bankable that the billion dollar, risk-averse publisher can't say no. After seven multi-million-selling Tony Hawk games on every platform in existence, you can't say Neversoft hasn't paid its dues to Activision; a pet project like Gun was well overdue. Evidently there are only a finite number of extreme sports titles a developer can stand making before it creatively self-combusts.
The surprising - and refreshing thing is that Activision has the confidence in its sole new IP to release it right in the maelstrom of the so-called Holiday season. Can a sharp-edged GTA-style Wild West shooter really cut it with the big names and become the one new brand to emerge in this increasingly creatively saccharine era? We hoped so, at least.
Set in the harsh, unforgiving, lawless American West in 1890, it's a place where you trust no-one. A place where the preacher's a murderer, the lawmen are more corrupt than the criminals and even the women have the capacity to grow really unnerving facial hair on demand. Against that rather unsavoury backdrop, you play Colton White, on a mission for truth and revenge; that is, the truth of who your 'father' really is, and vengeance for his untimely death.
After the brief and seamless tutorial with Ned, your Pa, where you're taught the control basics, Gun quickly settles into a groove that lasts all the way to the end of this 10-hour gun-slinging adventure, and it's a groove we're all comfortable and familiar with. Following a resolutely linear story arc (but with a plethora of optional side missions), Gun has you hightailing around the desert wilderness on horseback in search of one hirsute bad guy after another, engaging in slo-mo gunplay, dabbling in a bit of stealth-lite and generally capping an extraordinary number of hairy-faced goons along the way to the inevitable boss.
As with just about every shooter these days, bullet-time combat sits at the heart of Gun's incessant encounters. With a limit stock of 'focus' (or whatever they're calling it this week) you get the opportunity to slow down time for a few seconds, at which point the view automatically zooms in. Whether you're on foot on horseback, the principle is identical, and just as easy to pull off. The slowing of time allows you to easily pick off the procession of goons with your pistol in alarmingly straightforward fashion. What makes it especially easy is the automatic target lock, which lets you flick between targets (their relative direction indicated with red arrows on the side of the screen) with the left stick. Regardless of your shooting skills or aiming ability, as soon as you activate bullet time, your enemies really don't stand a chance as you're able to clear an entire screen's worth in a matter of seconds.
And if, for whatever reason, you've failed to wipe them out and have run out of slo-mo juice, using the scattershot approach in their approximate direction normally does the trick. Aiming isn't really something Gun's that fussy about - something that's evident from the first shooting tutorial, when shooting quail out of the sky requires little more than aiming nearby. With this in mind, replenishing your bullet time meter isn't that taxing, either. A few accidental headshots should charge it back up, meaning you'll then have a few more seconds of slo-mo action to wipe out any stragglers. And so on.
The land of plenty ammo
But, given that you're only able to 'focus' with the pistol, that means you must make do with boring old real-time combat when it comes to the rifle, shotgun, melee and projectile weapons. The truth is, though, that ammo is so plentiful that the remainder of your arsenal only comes into play sporadically - like, for example, when you need to snipe a bunch of goons from distance. It's odd that we hardly used the bow weapon in the entire game (except when it specifically recommended we did so), but the fact is you're far more effective in combat using the pistol that anything else.
In tandem with Neversoft's generous approach to the gunplay is its health system, which has you guzzling whiskey to keep those gushing wounds at bay (logical, as ever). A stock of the stuff is almost always available upon your person (and a quick tap of 'up' on the dpad replenishes the health bar), and thoughtful enemies tend to leave it lying around if ever you're in trouble. Again, you’re rarely in danger.
Inevitably, you will cop it from time to time, despite the relative ease of the Wild West mayhem going on all around you. But, incredibly, you're let off the hook there as well, with Neversoft checkpointing level progress to a surprisingly generous extent. So, instead of replaying each mission from the beginning like most games of this ilk, Gun only requires players to backtrack maybe a few seconds - and with full health into the bargain. It certainly keeps the frustration factor down, for sure, but as a result you'll burn through the game faster than you might expect. Within a matter of a few hours you'll have ripped through most of the main story missions, and with it most of the excitement and enjoyment you were hoping for.
It's a fine line that Gun treads: one of trying not to frustrate the gamer; making sure they're not forced to repeatedly jump through the same hoops over and over (read: GTA and its infuriating backtracking hell), and reasoning that if they've proved their worth on one section of a level that they shouldn't have to do so again and again. We admire that principle to an extent; no-one appreciates this emphasis on the fun factor more than we do - it's a hellish experience having to replay the same unreasonably tough level 30 times because you're on deadline and need to see the rest of the game. But having said that, Gun arguably takes it too far in the other direction, making 90 per cent of its missions just way way too easy for their own good; many are over before you've even had a chance to admire what's going on. It burns brightly, but far too briefly.
Eventually - as we did - you'll reach a bit of a brick wall. Having breezed through unchallenged, you'll suddenly meet one particular nemesis that's impossible to beat - no matter how many head shots you can deliver in slo-mo. And you know what the solution is? Play the side missions and increase your stats 'dramatically', just as the game keeps pleading you to do.
A bit like True Crime's approach to these matters, you find yourself charging off on Whinny (our name, not theirs) to the nearest Wanted poster, or maybe engaging in a few Lawman, Pony Express or Rescue missions. They're all much of a muchness; like mini versions of the story missions, only even less challenging. Most take little more than a couple of minutes to solve - in some cases seconds - and leave you with a slightly befuddled expression. For example, some literally involve riding to a point on a map in a time limit, or shooting or subduing one guy.
Even the more challenging side missions involve small encounters that you'll blitz on your first go. In an hour you could easily romp through ten or more of them, increasing your Gun, Health, Horse and other stats in the process - stats which eventually make the difference between success and failure when you're up against the game's über-bosses. You'll also be able to earn money, too, allowing you to buy all manner of weapon, ammo and health upgrades that, again, make the combat that much easier.
After a few hours of side-mission boredom, the realisation sets in that not only are they really quite pointless, but that the supposedly vast open world is much smaller than you thought it was initially. At the start, the sprawling rocky vistas give the impression of a truly wild west, where exploration will gain you insight and hidden encounters. But, in truth, apart from being able to mine some gold, do a spot of herding, play a few gambling mini-games or some stealth-lite hunting, there's not much to be gained from poking around. There are only two small towns to explore (and when we say small, we mean small), and a few encampments here and there, but that's it.
And while the horse riding is vastly more controllable (though much less realistic) than the sludgy Shadow of the Colossus, there's simply not the same sense of stunned awe and wonder as you're galloping through the desert plains. It's probably a strange thing to say, but it almost feels too real, too familiar; you won't lose yourself in immersion just exploring it. It's a fine representation of the Wild West, though; technically it's superb. The deserted wasteland grandeur is spot-on, the ramshackle towns just as seedy and soiled as they should be, and the characters looks as hard-bitten and mean-spirited as you could hope for. Artistically it's not far off being brilliant; Neversoft deserves credit for what it's achieved, but it doesn't quite transcend out of being merely a Wild West sandbox. It does have its moments, though - for example delightful visual touches abound; the dust kicked up the galloping horses, and the overall standard of the animation is worthy of acclaim - particularly the horses.
The good, the bad and the ugly
It's not consistently brilliant, though, and needs some extra polish here and there. The character design is a little samey and generic, though, and overall the attention to detail isn't quite up there with the very best. Elsewhere, the cut-scene animation is quite superb, with excellent gesturing and lip synching, but as soon as you dip into the numerous side missions the engine descends into a world of inappropriate arm waving that make them all feel like the bolted on filler that they are. Much of Gun feels like unfulfilled potential, which is a shame as we had very high hopes.
The main storyline's well worth seeing through, which might have something to do with the efforts of "Hollywood screenwriter" Randall Jahnson, not to mention some reasonable performances from the C-list voice cast (Thomas Jane, Kris Kristofferson, Tom Skerritt, Brad Dourif et al). Okay, so it's not exactly breaking the boundaries of unexpected narrative twists (and there's a BIG one near the end), but it spins a perpetually uncomfortable (and relentlessly gory and uncompromisingly violent) yarn that pulls some of your earlier antics into sharp focus at a time when you're questioning your motives. Suffice to say, everyone's a bit of a backstabbing panto villain at some time or other, and thus it becomes quite satisfying to be able to shoot them repeatedly in the face in slow motion when they double-cross you.
It's just a bit of a shame that working through the story seems like such a perfunctory exercise for the most part. With the notable exception of the last few bosses, Gun seems more than happy to let players off the hook. Such a lack of challenge might go down well with the masses looking for a game that makes them feel like a Wild West hero, but for those of us schooled in games that make us sweat a little for our fun, Gun can feel embarrassingly straightforward for the most part. The strange part about all of this is that Neversoft is hardly renowned for making easy games - just ask any Tony Hawk fan how 'easy' those games are, and then reflect on the contradictory approach that Gun offers. We can't work that out at all.
More a fistful of change, then
Given its relatively slim lifespan, Gun fits snugly into that 'must rent' category. Having completed it, finished nearly all of the sub missions and unlocked all the numerous weapons and upgrades in two concerted sessions, you'll certainly feel entertained, but there's precious little incentive to go back and replay. It's one of those games where you've pretty much seen most of what it has to offer within the first couple of hours. You'll enjoy the gunplay, you'll probably be numbed by the slo-mo gunplay repetition, and then see it through anyway because it's all quite undemanding fun with a decent story. On horseback. Just don't expect Gun to change the world. It really is just True Crime in the Wild West...