Inexplicably delayed by several months on these shores, this Friday finally sees the PAL release of Rockstar San Diego's Western-tinged shooter Red Dead Revolver - but was it worth the wait? After the extended hiatus between its appearance in fully playable form on the Capcom stand at E3 2002 and its Take-Two rebirth, we're simultaneously glad to see it finally make it onto the shelves, but also slightly underwhelemed by what amounts to a bite-sized, repetitive Max Payne-inspired gaming experience that quick-off-the-draw types will finish in about six hours.
In keeping with the ostensibly simple gameplay, the storyline's not especially complex, either. Red Harlow, the game's central figure, is gunning for revenge having seen his ma and pa brutally killed at their remote country shack. Ten years on and all grown up, Red heads for the town of Brimstone looking for answers, and quickly makes a name for himself with firearm talent that enables him to bag a series of 'most wanted' felons. A side benefit of this Bounty Hunting eventually brings the perpetrators to justice, but 28 chapters later you're left wondering whether you'd want to pay full price for a game that only occasionally hits the heights that you'd expect from Rockstar.
The Matrix has a lot to answer for
Being a third-person shooter, the game sports the same well-worn dual stick control system standard that most action adventures use, and for the most part works quite well. The turning rate is a little sluggish, and aiming isn't always as quick as it could be, while the camera - so glitchy two years ago - still has a fit every time you end up near some scenery, but it's never show stoppingly bad. Still, there's major room for improvement even this far down the line, so it's not the best thing to report after so long in development - but then given Rockstar's patchy track record with third-person controls (the GTA titles especially), we shouldn't be that surprised.
Given Rockstar's purchase of Angel Studios (renamed Rockstar San Diego), we also shouldn't be surprised to see RDR now in possession of its own take on Bullet Time. Conveniently termed 'Dead Eye', it works in a subtly different way - yes, the screen goes monochrome and yes, time slows down for a limited period, and yes, it gives you a massive advantage against multiple foes, but hovering the targeting reticule over your victims enables you to 'lock-on' to specific areas, up to the number of bullets in your gun (usually six). In hectic situations it's a godsend, but initially you only get three opportunities to pull off this trick off (although this rises to six as you progress).
No Wild West shooter would be complete without its own tribute to the Duels seen in every Spaghetti Western ever made - and RDR doesn't disappoint in this respect. When you meet the arch criminals in the game, the camera zooms into your twitching right hand, and you have a short space of time to second guess your opponent(s) and pop a few caps right between their eyes before they do. It's pure heart-in-the-mouth gameplay, with exquisite layers of timing necessary in order to grab your gun, lock on your target's head (preferably) then fire in slow motion before they hit the deck with claret spurting out of their cranium.
The relentless charge
But like much of the first two thirds of RDR, any sense of achievement is lost thanks to a stupendously easy difficulty setting that simply lets you breeze through levels unchallenged in literally a matter of a few minutes. Most of the time you'll blitz them on your very first go, using none of the suggested stealthy use of cover, and more or less just wading in Rambo-style, screaming for bloodthirsty revenge. Enemy AI hardly raises its game much beyond some cursory ducking behind objects, and the amount of health and ammo spewed out of their corpses makes your task a formality.
For a hefty chunk of the game, most levels are no more than simple (and small) arenas, and only towards the end of the game are you faced with anything approaching a serious challenge. To find yourself over halfway through the game in a couple of hours is an insult, frankly, and Rockstar should know better than most that you've got to give the consumer a lot more bang for their buck.
Rockstar has, at least, tried to vary the gameplay in number of ways, with - in no particular order - train-based levels, horse riding, buffalo riding, six different playable characters (one of whom is a villain), on-rails shooting, a bar room brawl complete with fisticuffs and full-on glassing action, and a whole array of unique baddies to snare - each with their own specific attack patterns - some of which are an absolute git to cope with. Fortunately, most of the time Rockstar understands that gamers don't want to repeat entire levels just to get to the end boss, and sensibly checkpoints most of the game, with a few notable exceptions where you'll be forced to hear the same cut-scene intro dozens of times, if our experiences are anything to go by.
It also tries to keep things interesting in terms of the weaponry too, with a reasonable array of pistols, shotguns and projectiles to cycle between whenever you fancy. Most missions give you the choice of one of each, and so it's up to you to size up whether a rapid reload is better than more damage. Occasionally the odd gun emplacement gives you the chance to dish out serious amounts of damage, but for the vast majority of the time it's a toss-up between the rapid fire of the pistol and the range of the rifle. On the rare occasions you're not playing as Red, you get character-specific weapons such as the native Indian's bow and arrow, or General Diego's flare gun, for example.
Is that an Oasis? No, just a Blur
One thing very much in RDR's favour is the presentation, both in terms of the unique visual style, the consistently excellent twangy Wild West soundtrack complete with ludicrous sound effects (in true 5.1 surround) and the deliberately hammed up voiceovers. In liege with Rockstar's trademark cut-scene excellence, we even see plenty of nods to GTA's cinematic style, and as a polished product you can't fault it. Although there's rather too much use of blur and anti-aliasing for our liking, the degree of variety in the locations is surprisingly rich, the detail is subtle and interesting, while the overall design - in terms of the characters and the set - is in itself is alluring and enough of a reason to draw you into the game. The frame rate is also consistent, with only very rare pop up marring an otherwise flawless audio-visual experience.
Even the front end and menus are exceptionally well done, giving you a feel good factor about the game right from the word go, and it only improves as things progress. Rockstar San Diego clearly knows a thing or two about unlockables, with an almost overwhelming amount to buy in the various shops you encounter between levels, not to mention the performance-related bonuses offered, should you happen to match the 'good' or 'excellent' ratings - doled out based on your accuracy, time, and health ratings.
As well as the usual health and weapon upgrades, the game offers up a host of locations and a massive cast of characters who you can then play as in the largely uninspired trio of multiplayer modes. For up to four players, you can try your hand at Bounty Hunter, which is just straight deathmatch with the winner being the first to collect the 'bounty', Sundown is similar, but with the winner being the player with the most money when the time runs out, while High Noon is probably the best of the bunch, being a multiplayer version of the excellently tense Duels. Two card games also muddy the deathmatch waters, with Stud and Texas Hold 'Em giving a smidgen of variety, but in truth collecting cards while you're shooting doesn't really hide the fact that it's a bolted on extra that there's little incentive to go back to.
Be quick or be Red
Completing the single-player campaign - as with the Max Payne titles - opens up Hard mode, and another Bounty Hunter mode. The former, in truth, should have just been made available from the start, while the latter gives you the opportunity to play through whichever chapter you fancy, with a few extra objectives tacked on - such as against the clock, headshots-only and so on. But much like Rockstar's other non-GTA titles, the unlockables don't really offer much you're not already sated with. By the end of the game we were pleased with the all-action approach towards its conclusion, but had tired a little of the incessant repetition and just wanted something a little more involving. It wasn't the linearity that was the issue, nor the overall polish; more that the game ultimately lacks ambition and creativity in the gameplay department - until the last eight or nine levels there's little on show that hasn't been done better before.
If all you want is an untaxing Wild West shooter that you can blitz through in (less than) a weekend, then step right up. But be warned: at full price you'll have a hard time getting your money's worth, but for a few quid's rental it's well worth it for a few hours of rootin' tootin' fun.