Reviewed: June 2, 2004
Released: May 3, 2004
It’s been a heck of a long time since being a cowboy was considered cool - I’d say at least twenty years. Surely there are readers who will reckon to argue, citing country music’s recent surge in mainstream popularity – which thanks to the likes of Garth Brooks has somehow justified cowboy attire as formal wear (egad!) – but just because an idiot throws on a ten gallon hat and boots, he ain’t no cowboy…he’s probably just balding.
Now, it has been about twenty years – back in the days when shows like Gunsmoke and Bonanza were mainstays on American televisions, when cigarettes and candy bars were hocked by grizzled and dusty ranch hands, when the rodeo was the biggest spectacle in town, and when kids could safely walk the streets holstering two six-shooter cap guns without attracting police intervention. I was one of those kids, and I was definitely one cool cowboy.
But trends come and go, and when disco turned into breakdancing, the cowpokes exchanged their boots for penny loafers, donned sweater vests and started voting Republican.
Fast forward to twenty years later, and trends have come full circle – a few times over. We’ve lived through new wave, punk, boy band, grunge, hippie, ghetto, boy band revisited, country pop, punk revisited, boy band revisited-revisited, girl band, diva, hippie revisited, new wave revisited, and metro-sexual. But we still haven’t seen real-deal cowboy come back around yet. Then again, if the recent trend in gaming is any indication, it just might be time to brush off those dusters because it appears that the cowboy just might be riding back into town.
In the last few months, we’ve seen two cowboy themed games released to stores (with a third on the way). The first to hit the shelves was a mediocre first-person shooter titled Dead Man’s Hand, the second, Rockstar’s newest multi-platform release and the subject of this review, Red Dead Revolver. Yes, that’s right, after a convoluted path of cancellation and revivification leading from Capcom to Rockstar – Red Dead Revolver has finally been resurrected. Was it worth the wait? Read on…
Dang, this could be a really quick review if all I had to say was “Max Payne Goes West”. Sadly though, that’s not the quite the case. While Red Dead Revolver definitely borrows heavily from the Payne series, it doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head as solidly as the noir classic. Still, there is something fresh about Red Dead Revolver’s western theme, and the developers deserve a pat on the back for exploring new territory.
Red Dead Revolver starts with you as a teenaged Red, the result of a mixed union between a white prospector and a Native-American woman. Red’s father returns home after a successful panning trip, flashing a custom-made six-shooter purchased with his treasure. He presents Red with his old revolver, and sends him to the riverbank to practice his shooting skills.
Red is at the riverbank taking target practice (which serves as your training mission) on discarded bottles and kitchenware when he hears a scream – banditos! He runs back to the house, where he sees his father fending off half a dozen attackers. Red draws his revolver and quickly jumps into the heat of the action. Naturally, for the story’s sake, Red’s father and mother take one too many bullets, leaving a lone Red face-to-face with the bandito boss. When all is said and done, Red is left an orphan – and while he may not have killed the ringleader, he will never forget the face of the One-Armed Man who killed his parents.
Cut to four years later – Red, now an adult, sets out to find the One-Armed Man. He happens across a traveling salesman, who somehow gets Red involved in a shootout. After dispatching the attackers, the thankful salesman is so impressed with Red’s work, he suggests that Red go into the business of bounty hunting and get paid for his art. Red agrees and the stage is set.
If anything, Red Dead Revolver gets a solid check in the action department, because what follows is a virtual onslaught of ghost town shootouts, train robberies, bar fights, boss battles, and more – with respite coming only from the mandatory (and quite useless) street walking scenes between “jobs”. And if that weren’t enough, you soon find that Red isn’t the only character you’ll be controlling; Some scenes have you filling the shoes of a handful of playable characters who cross paths with Red – the Englishman, the Annie Oakley-type, the border Militant, and more – each with their own action sequences and boss battles.
Considering that, it’s really too bad that the gameplay begins to fall apart after a few hours when you finally realize that you are doing the same things over, and over, and over, and over… Basically, most of the game abides by the same formula; you are given two slots in which to hold two single-shot weapons, one slot for melee (knife, TNT, etc.), with which you go up against waves of oncoming villains. Your job is to lay waste with the initial, and progressively more difficult, henchmen as you travel along a set path leading to a level boss. Generally body shots serve only to slow and/or stun an enemy – it takes two or three shots to the face really drop him. Thankfully, the aiming tends to lean in your favor, making head shots a breeze.
Since you are regulated to using single-shot weapons for the most part, you will be pressing R1 (the “fire” button) for each bullet fired. However, since the characters also have some limited hand-to-hand combat and melee abilities, you need to tell the character when to draw his/her weapon by holding your L1 button at all times. As you can guess, all this button work can lead to some seriously stiff fingers by day’s end. For those of us used to the automatic weaponry of the 20th and 21st centuries, this can be a real deterrent. Still the Payne-esque dual analog control is quite fluid and shows definite polish, and the kill.switch hiding mechanic is definitely cool.
Still, it isn’t long before it hits you that there is an overlying rhythm to the game – bang-bang-bang, turn…bang-bang-bang, click-reload…bang-bang-bang, turn…bang-bang-bang, click-reload. Much like the Medal of Honor titles, once you realize that a rhythm exists – you begin to see the flaws. You begin to notice the each character type has his or her own unique number of shots to bring it down – little midget clowns take two shots, big bearded fellows take three, etc. You also begin to notice AI glitches – approaching enemies that suddenly stop (literally within reaching distance) and remain perfectly still, as if they forgot what they were originally doing (trying to kill you) and instead decided to extend the invitation for you to plug them with several unanswered bullets to the face, until they finally shout “see you in Hell!” as they drop.
It is a relief then, when you realize that these underlings merely serve as cannon fodder for the concluding boss battles, which in themselves are quite brilliant. A creepy host of characters – the targets of your bounty hunting – round out each level, from blubbery pig-men to bony undertakers, these characters are sure to send a chill up your spine at least once or twice. And even though the boss battle schemes may not deviate from the industry norm – run, stun and gun, repeat – they are still quite exciting and enjoyable.
And as I mentioned earlier – there are the street scenes. Initially, you may be stoked to see a wide-open town full of buildings and townsfolk to investigate, thinking that maybe a Max Payne-meets-GTA open-endedness is in store. Well, that’s definitely not the case with Red Dead Revolver, as I soon found that while you are free to roam – there isn’t a whole lot to do. The townsfolk really have nothing of importance to say, most of the buildings are boarded up, and the stores and saloons that are accessible have little to offer. Heck, you can’t even draw your gun on the streets – what kind of Rockstar game doesn’t let you shoot innocent bystanders?
Seriously though, the town serves almost no purpose and could have easily been replaced with cutscenes. I don’t know how much time I spent wandering the streets bumping into the same four or five characters hoping that somebody, anybody, would say something new - or walking up to buildings only to find them “Closed by the order of…”. It was a nasty tease on the developer’s part, and I would have rather not had a city at all than to have a dead one like this.
Red Dead Revolver falls somewhere in the middle of the road in terms of graphical quality. A victim of the PS2 syndrome, Red Dead Revolver is in line with a number of other recent multi-platform releases which get a knock in the graphics score for their PS2 versions simply because the other versions are so much better looking. A friend picked up the Xbox version of Red Dead Revolver the day I received my PS2 review copy and in a side-by-side comparison, the Xbox version was the clear winner. The PS2 version looked sluggish, washed out, and textureless – the Xbox version was much clearer, more colorful, and the framerate seldom faltered from 60fps.
Still, I can’t blame the developer for underpowered hardware, and it isn’t like they didn’t try to squeeze every last drop of memory out of the aged PS2 – this time by applying an increasingly common method of graphical tweaking that I like the call “fuzzing”, which we recently saw in the PS2 releases of Codemaster’s Pro Race Driver and Atari’s Transformers.
Basically, what you get is a discrete radius of hi-res clarity (focus, if you will) centered around your character, with a low-res (out of focus) filter applied to most or all objects falling outside that radius. As the character moves about the world, approaching objects suddenly pop into clarity as the radial threshold is crossed, while objects falling outside the radius suddenly blur. Needless to say, it’s a bit shocking at first, but compared to the alternatives (framerate hits and/or the outright invisibility of out-of-radius objects as seen in Midway’s Dr. Muto), it is the lesser evil.
And although the characters may be a bit blocky and repetitive, you can’t beat the creepy inbred-hillbilly clown vibe the characters represent. If any of those characters walked into the room with me, uh, well, I’d leave…quickly.
There are plenty of neat little touches here-and-there that make up for the plodding frames – most notably the camera angles and lighting effects which, combined with the desert environments, was enough to make me start rubbing my eyes and begging for water.
Red Dead Revolver has the hands-down best darn music soundtrack of any western movie or game ever. Well, maybe that’s taking it a bit too far, but not by much. Before I ever fancied myself a game snob, I was one hell of a music snob, and I think I can safely say that the music in Red Dead Revolver is really, really amazing. Seriously. Any fan of the old sixties and seventies westerns will definitely feel at home with the brooding baritone guitar riffs and moving crescendos.
In contrast, the in-game sound quality is not as solid. The key issue is with consistency – from the voice acting to the sound effects, it’s almost amazing how the sound quality loses its uniformity even within a single scene, and what initially seems cool soon becomes quite annoying and/or overplayed. This is especially surprising in the case of Red Dead Revolver, since Rockstar has achieved near-legend status with respect to the usual quality of their sound choice.
Where Max Payne and Grand Theft Auto have genre-authentic and well-scripted voice acting, Red Dead Revolver has only a few genuine sounding voices scattered about a handful of phonies, all constantly repeating the same few script lines over and over. Taking that into account, and adding in the repetitive shooting samples, and you have a very average aural experience. Thankfully, the music makes up for any letdowns.
Red Dead Revolver may not be the most compelling overall experience, but I must give Rockstar credit for including a bevy of additions to enhance the lasting value of the game, including unlockable missions and surprisingly fun multiplayer splitscreen modes (including a couple of poker-style card games) you don’t normally find with third person action titles.
Still, credit given for the extras, it would have been nicer to had they included a more engaging storyline, as Red Dead Revolver doesn’t do much to help me connect with Red or care in the least about his quest. Nor did I bond with any of the other bit-parts. And as a result of this disconnect – when all was said and done, finishing Red Dead Revolver was not nearly as satisfying as finishing Max Payne 2.
Red Dead Revolver is not a bad title by any means - it’s actually quite fun in doses. Still, after the recent glut of A-1 quality releases, it’s hard to see Red Dead Revolver as a full-price competitor to Ninja Gaiden, Onimusha 3 or Pandora Tomorrow. Red Dead Revolver has a lot of good going for it, it just lacks the staying power of the aforementioned titles, and may leave some gamers feeling empty in the end.
I do wholeheartedly recommend Red Dead Revolver as a rental - but as a purchase, it falls a bit short of its $50 price tag.