When I picked up the special edition DVD of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly the other day, I noticed a blurb on the back from Quentin Tarantino. Apparently, the walking film encyclopedia had proclaimed my favorite Western as “the best directed movie of all time.” While I would argue Raiders of the Lost Ark holds that title, I still felt Tarantino was not too far from the truth. Sergio Leone’s masterpiece is frame-for-frame one of the true wonders of cinematic history. It is also, more than anything else, a passionate love letter from the bottom of Leone’s heart to a time and a place that exists now only in history books.
I was thinking about this when I fired up Red Dead Revolver and found a completely bland and nonsensical Western that bore little resemblance to such a terrific film. As with some of the best Westerns, the story of Red Dead Revolver is one of revenge. Little Red watches his parents gunned down, and grows up into a bounty hunter seeking the heads of those who done him wrong. As far as clichés go, that one’s right up near the top, but what floored me as I played was how Rockstar just never did anything with it. There are shining moments to be sure, but in between them are really long stretches of short, bland levels, and twisted killer clown freaks that are better suited to sci-fi than to a Western.
Yet on I played, until I came to the very end after close to 10 hours of gaming. I then reflected on the past few days, and felt that while some parts stood out, Red Dead Revolver ultimately failed as a quality piece of entertainment. I also realized I’d be doing it a huge disservice were I to compare it to the legendary LucasArts game Outlaws, if only because that game is so much greater than Red Dead Revolver could ever hope to be, it would be like comparing my singing voice to Elvis’. At the end of the day, the King will walk away into the sunset and leave the pretender in the dust.
Red Dead Revolver has some really gritty graphics, which work as a whole to enhance the feeling of the Old West. It’s not a good sign, however, when you actually manage to lose count of all the clipping issues. I’ve seen Prince of Persia so I know the PS2 can render far better than this, but at times it seemed like Rockstar wasn’t even trying. For example, the game doesn’t really get going until a little ways in when you reach the town of Brimstone. Once you do, you notice the collection of NPCs milling about, walking into and through one another, and just how choppy things get when Red Dead Revolver goes into an in-game cutscene. The view cuts to a first-person perspective with Red talking to someone, and other characters from just outside the frame will walk up to Red, stand still for a second or two, then spin around and step out of the frame, then turn back and repeat the sequence. Characters you shoot and kill frequently fall through walls, or get stuck on them as they drop. The draw distance sometimes even seems to change depending on the level you’re playing. On one level, you may be able to see things on the horizon, but on another level things won’t pop up until you’re practically on top of them.
Westerns also tend to have only so many variations on the colors of brown and browner, but Red Dead Revolver does manage to liven things up here and there. When you get to play as a woman protecting her farm, the sky is a brilliant blue, the grass is green, and the whole scenario is as scenic as it gets. There’s also a relatively early level where you play as a dandy gunslinger who takes on a freakish carnival at night. Everything is lit by torches, and the shadows that reflect across the twisted enemies and the town are well done. It’s a level that feels woefully out of place with the rest of the game, but it’s still about as entertaining as this game gets.
Gunshots ring out like canons, the clack of a train rolling over its tracks sounds authentic, and the vocal work isn’t bad at all. So what impressed me the most in the sound effects department? Maniacal midget clowns are freakish enough, but when they sound like some of the grunts from Halo it’s positively disconcerting. That blasted killer clown town just weirded me out something fierce, and not just because it comes from left field. The main villain of the town appeared to be a shaman who could vanish and reappear all across the town as he pleased. Naturally, he’d take a shot at me whenever he appeared, and naturally I was busy fighting off those maniacal midget clowns in the meantime. What I liked most about this part was how well I could judge where he stood whenever he appeared. That allowed me to sort of get his timing down, because considering the poorly lit arena of combat sound was the only friend I had.
I also liked the way the voices brought a sense of authenticity to the game world. When you consider just how limited each stage actually is (and frequently I’d be stunned I actually beat a mission because I’d only just started it), the vocal work really manages to sell the Old West feel.
The controls for Red Dead Revolver were about as mixed a bag of nuts as I’ve ever seen. On the one hand, it’s really easy to get the hang running around and shooting at pretty much anything that moves. On the other hand, controlling a camera with a mind of its own while running and shooting everything that moves proved to be really tough to do, especially while riding on the back of a steer. At certain points in the game, you have a very limited amount of space to work in. For example, there’s a fight in the back room of a bar complete with poker tables and a stage. Above you is a balcony that wraps around the room, and bad guys line it and shoot at you. There’s also the boss who will pick up large barrels and throw them at you. Anyone sensing a Donkey Kong rip-off wouldn’t be far from the mark. Anyway, when a barrel hits you it sends you flying uncontrollably. If you’re unlucky enough to be anywhere remotely close to a wall at the time, the camera will spin around and get at the absolute worst possible angle it could be at, and stay there until you move. The real trouble, though, is that by the time you get back up, another barrel could be coming your way and you wouldn’t have any clue where it was until it landed on you.
When you’re riding animals you’ll find the controls to be equally awkward. You can push forward on the left thumbstick to move the animal faster or just let that go and the animal will run on its own. This is all well and good, but when you try and aim for a headshot while the animal is bucking up and down under you, it proves to be somewhat difficult. This is a case where realism does not equal quality gameplay.
I did, however, really enjoy the notion of the quick draw. Periodically, you will encounter villains that trigger a quick draw contest. When the cinematic for these stops, you have to pull back then push forward on the right thumbstick as fast as you can. Once you push forward, the targeting arrows come up. You move the arrows towards your target and they will tell you whether your hit will be very effective or not. Once the arrows are where you want to shoot, you press the R1 button to “lock in” your shot. You can lock in as many shots as you have bullets loaded in your gun. This is usually done in the span of about three seconds, but fortunately Red Dead Revolver has several tutorials that pop up the first time you encounter this feature or any new element of the game.
Everything else is pretty standard. You press the L1 button to pull out your gun, then hold L1 and press R1 to fire. Press the triangle to reload, and steer with the left thumbstick and work the camera angle with the right thumbstick. You can press L1 then press R2 to go into an Old West version of “bullet time,” which is something that should not be overlooked. There were many times when I got swarmed by enemies, and the “bullet time” really helped out.
I have to ask the designers just how the bloody heck am I supposed to make a headshot while on the back of a bucking steer? This comes up because I noticed very quickly that only headshots seem to really kill people in Red Dead Revolver. There were times I’d unload on a villain with a shotgun while standing barely a foot away, then watch him calmly get back up. I’d restart then do the same thing again only this time I’d fire at his head. Ahhhh, he went down and stayed down that time I see. So what happens when there’s not a crowd pleaser at your disposal? Hope for a nearby Gatling Gun, because short of that it takes a lot of bullets to put down these villains.
The action and story itself of Red Dead Revolver gets to be extremely repetitive after about the first 15 minutes, which is when you realize the “levels” look like a beginner’s project in Game Design 101. I’d start a level, blast through it in five minutes or less and whoops! Level completed, and I was seeing my score. I wondered about my score, as I’d just started the level not five minutes ago. Huh?!? The box trumpets getting involved with stagecoaches in the game. I ran into exactly one towards the end, and blew it up after a couple of shots with my shotgun, which is when I found out that it apparently works better against armor than against thugs on foot. Go figure.
Yet on I played, and I couldn’t figure out why. I didn’t care about the main character, nor did I care about the random secondary characters who rarely ever factor into the game. I think I just enjoyed the atmosphere the most, and the fact that one mission recreates the famous Civil War bridge sequence from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. That is actually a mission that’s worth playing towards, but afterwards it just gets soft. There is literally nothing here that you haven’t seen done better elsewhere, so if you have a Western fetish then rent it some weekend.If you’re an absolute completionist who really gets their kicks by collecting things, then Red Dead Revolver is for you. I can’t say I’d play through the game again, but there are so many things to collect and so many different multiplayer characters and maps to unlock, its unreal. Red Dead Revolver gave me the impression of being designed by SquareSoft at times because you can buy so many little things that will flesh out the journal Red carries. The journal contains all sorts of well-done information on the time period, and on the characters and the storyline. Overall, I wouldn’t recommend Red Dead Revolver as anything more than a rental as there’s nothing really to sink your teeth in to. The game is way too much of a tease, all promise and no fulfillment.