Reviewed: November 23, 2005
Released: November 17, 2005
As you pull back on the reigns, your horse skids to a dusty halt at the top of a cliff overlooking the grassy plains below where buffalo are grazing in random herds. A crystal clear river snakes through the valley, fed by the massive waterfall that spills over the red stone mountains that are silhouetted by the rising sun. A lone wolf howls in the distance, and a tumbleweed rolls across the sandy path behind you, as your horse flicks at a fly with his wispy tail.
Welcome to the Wild Wild West…welcome to the world of GUN...this time on the Xbox 360. If you think that opening paragraph paints a pretty picture just wait until you saddle up for what is going to be the biggest and best action game of the holiday season and most certainly the best western game ever released for the Xbox.
I have to admit, I was skeptical the first time I played this game, even after months of pre-release hype. Despite all the big promises coming out of Neversoft I was expecting nothing more than Grand Theft Auto: Dodge City, and while GUN shares the same violent themes and gameplay as Rockstar’s infamous series, there is no denying the unique style and authentic western flavor packed into this epic adventure. This is my third trip through the game on both the Xbox and now the Xbox 360 and this is by far the best experience so far.
Before we dig into the phenomenal gameplay, I would be remiss if I didn’t touch on the story behind GUN. This isn’t some loosely strung plot to tie together an endless stream of missions. If anything the story might actually exceed the gameplay in scope, or at least in the way it drives the primary missions.
The game opens up with you, Colton White, out on a hunting expedition with your father, Ned, bagging big game for the local steamboat paddling up the river. This serves, both as a tutorial level and as a great introduction to your character and the driving force behind the rest of the game. Anything else I might say would ruin lots of surprises and amazing plot twists that keep you guessing right up until the end of the game.
GUN plays out much like any traditional action game, with third-person combat and movement mixed with first-person gunfights in a reworked “bullet-time” mode called Quickdraw. Controls are totally intuitive for anybody who has ever played an action game. You can run and jump and crouch for a silent sneak mode. Left trigger throws weapons like dynamite and whiskey bombs and the right trigger fires the currently selected weapon.
While you can carry all the weapons available in the game in your saddlebag you can only equip one of each of the four types, so if you want to use that new Calvary sword you’ll have to put away the knife or hatchet. Similarly, if you are hunting game you’ll want the regular bow rather than the one that shoots flaming arrows or arrows with dynamite tips.
There is a fairly elaborate stats system in place that allows Colton to grow in skill the more you play the game. You don’t have any real control over these stat increases; you just get them at the end of the various missions and odd jobs. Stats include Gunhand, Quickdraw, Melee, Horse and Health and bonuses are awarded by what you did in the previous mission. As these stats go up you’ll rise from the rank of Greenhorn to Legend status.
GUN delivers a massive world to explore. At first this world is limited to Dodge City, but once you help get that bridge built the rest of the Wild West is yours to explore including the Badlands, Canyons, Plains, Lakes, Pastures, Mines, Mountains, and Empire City. The world design is quite complex with multiple routes and shortcuts that interconnect many of the main areas. Even after completing the game I am still finding new paths and even getting lost from time to time.
With a big world comes big responsibility and GUN delivers the traditional core missions that further the story, but these are only a fraction of the overall content. There are six Hunting missions that you can only do after you get a bow and find the Indian who assigns you the quests. For those of you who enjoy galloping across the levels, there are ten Pony Express missions that will test your knowledge of the land and your ability to control your horse.
If you are looking to make some spare change there are a dozen Bounty missions you can find scattered about the land as a series of Wanted Posters. Bounties are usually dead or alive with more money being awarded for the tougher “live” captures, but a few bounties require capture, and the later bounties will often include entire gangs and massive battles.
Those eager to wear that tin star can partake in six Deputy missions in Dodge City and seven Federal Marshall missions in Empire City. And if you just want to build your horsemanship and earn an honest dollar there are seven odd jobs you can do for the local Rancher.
And all of that gameplay is not even including the 18 core missions that drive the main plot in GUN and dozens of side missions that are offered to you by the various characters you’ll encounter in the cities and the lands between them. And if you loved those Hidden Packages in GTA you’ll have gold fever trying to find all 44 pockets of gold ore hidden around the world of GUN.
GUN balances the gameplay quite well while giving you the freedom to pick and choose how and when you play these missions. While it would be possible to storm through the story mode you would not only be missing out on a majority of the content, but without those side missions and other diversions, Colton will be statistically ill-equipped to fight in the later battles, especially the boss fights.
My personal adventure through GUN took me just over 10 hours, and that was to complete the game 100%. I took the same approach to GUN as I have with the GTA games and set about collecting all the gold in the land, or at least what was available to me. Some of the pockets are unavailable until certain story elements play out. By finding all the gold first I had a large sum of money to buy weapon and health upgrades, plus I learned the lay of the land very quickly.
The final few hours were spent completing the story and polishing off all of the non-story content including winning the six-round Texas Hold’em Poker Tournament. Yes, GUN even has a poker mini-game built-in, but don’t get excited. The game is quite basic, and unrealistically easy to win. It’s more of a diversion than a poker sim, but I did enjoy the ability to “cheat” during the first three rounds of the tournament by holding back a card from my previous hand. Nothing like an Ace up the sleeve.
Most of the game revolves around Colton riding from point A to B and shooting a lot of bad guys. You might escort a stagecoach or protect some settlers from a pack of hungry wolves or blow up a tunnel to stop a train, but it all plays out the same. If the gameplay weren’t so smooth and fun the game might have gotten repetitive, but there was always enough style to keep it fresh.
The big feature in gunplay is the quickdraw mode that basically works like bullet-time in those other games. You can tap the Y button and time will slow and your six-shooters come into play. You can aim and fire in an ultra-sensitive targeting mode that will impress your friends and enemies alike. Just listen to the yelling going on as you take down six guys with headshots before they even draw their guns.
If I had to pick something to complain about it would have to be the horses. Don’t get me wrong; the horseback riding in this game is second to none. You can use the B button to gallop, and each additional push of the B kicks your horse into a temporary sprint, but if you drive the horse too hard you might be walking away from a dead carcass before the ride is over.
My complaint with the horses is the lack of my “own” horse. Early in the game you win your first horse and it would have been nice to keep that horse and build a relationship with it, perhaps even building up stat points like stamina and speed for your mount. As it is, you can pretty much just hop on any horse in town or wandering around the plains and gallop away. Horse thieving apparently isn’t a crime in GUN, and you can even hop on a wild stallion without a saddle and ride off with no difference in handling from a tamed mount.
This lack of a horse, one that I could perhaps whistle and have it magically appear, becomes painfully obvious in a few of the mid-game missions where you ride to a destination and complete the mission then the world magically resets and your horse is gone. On more than one occasion I had to walk several minutes just to find a wild horse, and once, all the horses in the entire map seemed to vanish and I had to walk nearly 80% of the map to get to Empire City, the only place with a livery and guaranteed to have at least one horse.
If you thought GUN couldn't look any better then you need to see it on the Xbox 360. The only thing that comes close would be the PC version and even that pales in the glory of the HDTV support offered on the new 360 system. With higher polygon counts and crisper graphics at a higher resolution, this is a gorgeous launch title for the 360, but unlike other 360-specific titles the graphics were actually upgrade for the 360 rather than created for the 360 then scaled down for the other lesser systems. Sure, it looks good, better than any other console, but not as good as it should.
The various sections of the map all merge together seamlessly. The draw distance is as far as the eye can see with no pop-up whatsoever, all at blazing framerates. Some areas are obviously sectioned off by train tunnels or twisting mountain passes but you can explore the entire world without a single load time. American Wasteland meet American Westland.
The textures used to create the world are highly detailed and border on photo-realistic. You’ll be splashing through a river then galloping along a lakeshore before heading up a mountain pass weaving through bubbling tar pits. Everything looks very hot and dusty with clouds of dust kicking up behind all the horses and even the occasional tumbleweed that bounces across the terrain.
There are only two cities, one very small and the other slightly larger and more complex with multiple buildings you can enter and even an elaborate underground tunnel system that connects a few of the key buildings. The cities make sense and feature all the shops, saloons, and other establishments made famous in pop-western culture.
The character models are more artistic than realistic. Despite some fantastic textures and subtle costume details, now using Normal Mapping, the facial expressions just seem a bit artificial and pasted on. There is also an annoying tendency for the characters to wave their arms around wildly during conversations in short spurts that aren’t synched with the voice.
The in-game animations and movement for the characters is outstanding and you’ll have plenty of time to appreciate it during those long quickdraw sequences while you’re lining up that headshot. The horse animation is by far the best I’ve seen in any game with a horse in it. The horses lean into turns and skid to stops or rear back and make daring leaps from ledges and across gaps. You’ll want to spin the camera and watch this lifelike animation in profile.
Other than the CG opening movie the rest of the cutscenes are all rendered with the game engine so there is a seamless blending of storytelling and gameplay. The only glitch in the system is when parts of the level are populated with people and objects for a specific mission and when that mission is over everything mysteriously vanishes.
GUN plays out much like your favorite western and Neversoft must have realized they were making an interactive film when they hired an all-star Hollywood cast to voice the main characters. Legendary actors including Thomas Jane as vengeful gunslinger Colton White; Kris Kristofferson as Colton’s mountain man father, Ned; Tom Skerritt as Resistance Fighter Clay Allison; Brad Dourif as evil preacher Josiah Reed; Ron Perlman as Mayor Hoodoo Brown of Empire, New Mexico; and Lance Henriksen as the obsessive tyrant Thomas MacGruder all turn in some of the best voice performances in gaming history. Frankly, I can’t think of a game with better voice acting ever. Some of the performances had me on the edge of my seat.
Sound effects are outstanding and feature all of the subtle environmental sounds of crickets, wolves, wind, water, and of course, a hailstorm of gunfire, explosions, and the endless drumming of hooves beating their path across the land. There was never a moment where I wasn’t totally convinced I was in the old west.
To match the epic story and cast, videogame soundtrack veteran Christopher Lennertz produced and composed the score for GUN. The music was performed by the Northwest Sinfonia using an 80-piece orchestra, and I’d stack this soundtrack up against anything you’ll hear in the theater for a similar genre film.
GUN is relatively short for an action game, even with the additional padding of side missions and mining for hidden gold. Neversoft isn’t trying to steal you life with GUN, just your imagination, and this is the ride of a lifetime no matter how long it lasts. If you find yourself blazing through this game too fast for your liking you might want to try the Hard or Insane difficulty setting.
Even the most multi-tasking of gamers probably won’t finish all the side-quests and bonus objectives before the story is over. Once the closing credits are over you will have a few bonus weapons and a bonus horse to reward your achievements and then you can go back and finish off those other items in the stats checklist.
New for the Xbox 360 are Achievements and GUN offers Gamer Score points for all sorts of milestone objectives including finishing the various parts of the game, collecting all the weapons and upgrades, and mining all 44 pockets of gold. On other systems this was more of a personal accomplishment, but now your gamer score hangs in the balance, and if you're like me you'll want to max out your scores for all the achievements.
The western genre is still relatively unexplored in video games. There have been a few titles, some good, some bad, but GUN rises above them all to merge an epic, and oft-times emotional story with challenging gameplay and realistic horseback riding and mounted combat.
If you love a good western then GUN has all those clichéd moments with Indians, stagecoaches, trains, gunfights, jailbreaks, and everything else that has become a staple in western lore. And when you wrap up all those elements with a film-worthy cast of actors and soundtrack, you easily have one of the best genre titles of the holiday season and a must-own game for action and western lovers alike.