Tony Hawk veterans Neversoft have a new ace up their sleeve, but you won’t find it rolling around in a skatepark. Neversoft’s next move will be less about half-pipes, and more about quarterhorses. I’m talking about Gun.
Gun tells the story of Ned and Colton White. Ned and Colton work together hunting game to sell to the steamboats that travel the Montana rivers of 1880. Life was simple in those days, or at least it appeared to be on the surface. While dropping their latest batch of pelts and meat off on the steamboat Morning Star, Colton’s father Ned runs into a prostitute from his past. While talking in generalities about an item that Ned had stashed away, the steamboat is attacked and destroyed. Before the boilers could explode, Ned hits you with some life-altering knowledge and hands you a token for the Alhambra saloon with some instructions to find a girl named Jenny. He then pushes you over the side to save your life, thereby sacrificing his own. Where will this token lead you? Who is Jenny? What is this item that Ned was hiding, and why did the people that attacked the steamboat want it? The life of Colton White is about to get a whole lot more interesting.
Gun takes place in Montana. Having lived there personally, let me tell you that it is called “Big Sky Country” for a reason – the land seems to stretch on forever as far as the eye can see. To make this world come alive for Gun, Neversoft reached into their Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland bag of tricks and pulled out an almost seamless streaming world. Want to ride from Empire City to Dodge City? Put your butt in the saddle and do it! While you can’t roam forever, you do get some pretty wide open ranges to travel.
The rest of the graphics in the game look great. The characters have a ragdoll physics system, and will fall off of ledges, slide off their horses, or fling about wildly when a powder keg is ignited. In fact, one particular side mission showcases it nicely as you set up an ambush in a street intersection, gibbing riders and horses with barrels of TNT.
The real graphic treat comes in the cut-scenes. Colton, Ned, Mayor Hoodoo, Jenny, and all other primary characters are well rendered. The lines in their face, the beards, the cut of their clothes, and their stovetop hats are spot-on. Since this takes place in the desert, dust, dirt, and tumbleweeds are part of the landscape – they were included without missing a beat. Wooden buildings look rustic and are often adorned with wooden support beams and bottles of whiskey on shelves. The lighting engine handles real time shadows and the glow from the lanterns outside of buildings very well. There is a great attention to detail here, and the environment feels alive as a result.
All of that said, having seen the Xbox 360 version in all of its normal mapped glory, there is just no comparison. The textures in the Xbox version look normal mapped, but in fact they are not. You’ll see this when you catch a glimpse of Jenny’s hair from an angle, or the occasional odd bend in clothing. The 360 version also irons out the rare frame hitch present in the Xbox version.
Top notch quality games can easily be drummed into the ground with bad voice acting. There are too many games to mention that fall into this category – Gun is not one of them. First up is the focus of the story, Colton White. Neversoft recruited Thomas Jane for this role. Your father, Ned White, is played by Kris Kristofferson. The two primary villains, Magruder and Reed, are played by Lance Henriksen and Brad Dourif. The voice acting is superb, propelling the already well-constructed storyline into overdrive. Everyone outside of these primary characters gives a stellar performance as well. Simply put, the voice acting in Gun is perfect.
The sounds in Gun are as detailed as the graphics. You’ll get a ricochet sound when you manage to shoot a weapon out of somebody’s hand. The horse’s hooves make a rhythmic triple-hit like you’d expect. Walking over wood will cause your cowboy boots to resonate through the material, and the sound of spurs is always present. The guns in Gun, as you might imagine, have a real impact to them and sound reasonably close to their real counterparts. I did run into an occasional glitch where I was walking on gravel, but still getting the sound for wood flooring, but overall it matched the setting very well. The other area that really sounded ‘off’, but could be completely accurate, was the sound of the Indians. They issue their war cry when they attack, but when there are 20 or 30 of them in a row giving the same war cry it starts to make you wonder. Granted, they do give voiceovers in their native tongue other than the war cry, but the shrill sound tends to drown out everything else.
The soundtrack of the game provides great atmosphere. The music swells during your ‘discovery’ moments, and is similarly dark when things don’t quite go as planned. Overall, it doesn’t overwhelm and remains where it should be – in the background.
Gun has a very simple control scheme. The left analog controls your movement, and the right analog controls the camera. The D-Pad allows you to take a drink to restore health, as well as the option to lean around corners. The left trigger tosses a thrown weapon like dynamite, and the right button pulls your weapon and fires it. The Y button initiates a slow-motion quickdraw mode. This comes in most handy when the enemy has taken hostages and you have to carefully shoot them in the head or hand to facilitate their release. The black button and white button allow you to switch weapons or perform an action, respectively. A is jump, and B is crouch, with X rounding things out with a melee attack.
The controls are similar on the horse, but the B button handles the spurs. There are more advanced moves such as subduing a suspect, a quick roll, or scalping a fallen enemy as well.
When you grow tired of doing side missions, or you just want to save and quit, Neversoft has you covered. Unlike some games, you can save at almost any point. You can also select the map and click on a story icon to warp to wherever the story takes you next. Half the fun is riding around in the desert, but you can certainly skip it if you aren’t inclined to take the horse out for a spin.
The controls on foot are rock solid, other than the odd animation of ‘sliding’ to your target when you use the melee attack. The horseback controls on the other hand often feel slightly loose. I often found myself strafing on the horse far more than was probably necessary. Once I put my boots on soil again, I immediately felt like I was back in control. It is, by far, the best attempt at horse-based combat to date, but it just never came completely together.
The gameplay in Gun focuses, as you might expect, on gunplay. Since that’d make this unfortunately short game even shorter, Neversoft has thrown in quite a few side missions and an upgrade system into the mix. You start off with some basic six-shooters and a rifle, but as you take out the ‘bosses’ of the game, you often acquire their weapons as well. Most of them are replacements for the pistol or the rifle, but you can also get a bow for silent kills, and a range rifle for the noisy method. You can also buy upgrades to your weapons such as a boring kit that increases weapon damage by 33% on the first purchase. You can also purchase shoes for your horses to make them run faster, and a scalping knife. Throughout my play of the game, I never did find a point to the scalping knife. Nobody in the game buys scalps, and nobody seems any more or less outraged by the behavior. It looks like the scalping knife was a good idea that never got connected to the storyline at large. You can also get a pickaxe to mine for gold. The gold piles would net you a quarter-million dollars by today’s standard relative to size, but Colton is not a shrewd negotiator – you often get roughly $10.00 for your efforts.
The story plays out over 20 primary missions, and an innumerable amount of side missions. The side missions are typical delivery missions, hunting, ranch hand, restore law and order, kill the badguy missions, or escort missions. Nothing overly exciting, but it does net you money and skill. The skill upgrades increase your speed, fortitude, horse handling, and more. Ultimately, these don’t feel tangible until you compare how your skills work at the endgame to a fresh new one. On the normal difficulty level (there are four) the skill levels don’t have a great deal of effect other than how long you can hold the quickdraw and such. On the higher difficulties the skills play more of a role, but the game could never be considered difficult, regardless of the difficulty setting.
Your health in this game is a small red bar that runs vertical next to your ammo and a small brown flask. Refilling your health isn’t accomplished by a trip to the doctor, or a floating and spinning health crate. Instead, you take a belt off the old whiskey flask and you’ll be right as rain. While you consider that liver-melting though, you can look to the right of the health bar. Your currently equipped weapon and the status of your ammunition stores are displayed here. Under that you’ll see your currently selected throwing weapon. You can get Molotov cocktails or dynamite to help maximize the fun. To the far right of that is the compass/map system. You can see where enemies are, the outlines of buildings, and where objectives can be. The game is fairly straightforward, negating the need for the compass.
In the first town, you are given the option of riding for the Pony Express, handling some deputy work, chasing down wanted posters, or moving the story forward. You are free to choose or skip any of these missions, save the storyline progressing ones. As you move through the town you’ll see people milling about. If you rough those people up or use them as human shields, the patience of the town begins to reduce. If it goes low enough, the townsfolk will send a lynch mob after Colton. The mob is no more difficult than any other group you’ve taken on, so there really is no fear from the mob this time around. You can also drop into the local watering hole and play a game of Texas Hold’em. You buy your way in with $10 bucks and play for chips, so don’t think that you’ll be striking it rich at the table.
When you step outside, there is often a horse nearby. Despite the fact that people normally hung horse thieves from the neck until dead, you can hop on any horse you see without consequence and ride them about. When you get on a horse, another lifebar superimposes itself over your own. This represents the horse’s health, as well as their stamina. Your horse can slide attack and rear up on its hind legs to stomp enemies. The animation is really odd for the rearing attack, but it is effective. You can spur the horse to get it to run faster, but if you ride it too hard, or it takes too much damage, the horse will die. Since you don’t have to buy the horse, riding them into the ground doesn’t have the same impact as it should. Trigger can end up dog-chow a million times and there will always be another one just around the bend.
Now that all of that is out of the way, let me tell you that Gun has a fantastic targeting system. For any real shootout to occur, you need to be able to quickly fire on the guy in the street, quickly flick over to the guy on the roof behind the barrel, and then take out the guy on the horse. By hitting the Y button, if you have enough quickdraw energy, you can slow things down and aim for that perfect shot. Through the whole experience, this never got old. Gunplay at its finest.
Gun is not for kids. If the M on the cover didn’t tell you that, the first couple of minutes of gameplay will. You will be killing a lot of people, and not in the nicest of fashions. Shooting someone in the head often pops their skull like a melon. If you take the tomahawk or knife into melee range, the blood will jet from every wound. In addition to the violent nature of the game, there is also a great deal of swearing. Neither the violence nor the language feels too over the top, but you should be aware of it before you play it around little Billy.It is in this section that Gun throws a horseshoe. The main storyline of Gun is only 20 missions. This rounds out to be a 7 to 10 hour game if you don’t do any side missions. Since the difficulty is relatively low unless you play the game on Insane, the side missions and their resultant stat boosts are not a compelling reason to complete them. I personally played through quite a few of them, just because it added to the overall ‘experience’ of the game. I also purchased all of the upgrades and did plenty of mining. Ultimately, the ride is over fairly quickly. While you can continue to ride and play the side missions after you complete the story arc, you’ll have very little compulsion to do so. What saves the game is that the main storyline, regardless of the length, is fantastic. The storyline is compelling enough to draw you into the world and force you to complete it. The story makes me want a sequel, and I can’t say many game stories do that for me.