Reviewed: April 17, 2004
Released: March 2, 2004
Iím a huge fan of FPS games having played every major title (and most of the minor ones) since the original Wolfenstein 3D gave birth to the genre. If you were to ask me to name my top five favorite FPS games of all time you might be surprised to find that LucasArtsí Outlaws is in that list; not necessarily because it is in the top five in quality, but more because I have some of my fondest FPS memories of playing that game both solo and online.
Spaghetti westerns are a part of American culture and it still amazes me that this part of our history has not been more vigorously pursued in gaming. Games like Outlaws, Freddy Pharkus and Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive, have covered the action, adventure, and strategy genres, but other than these few titles there hasnít been a lot of mainstream attention to the old west as it pertains to gaming.
Atari and Human Head are trying to remedy this crisis with Dead Manís Hand, a new Wild West shooter, and while the game does an admirable job of capturing the true spirit of a classic western adventure something went terribly wrong in the execution or at least the core design.
The biggest thing Dead Manís Hand has going for it is presentation, from the classic western style menus, sepia-tone cutscenes, thick Spanish accents, and trademark old-west cultural staples like shooting off an enemyís hat or deflecting an incoming knife with a bullet, to classic action elements like shootouts in the saloon, crazy mine car rides, or cross-country target shoots from horseback.
You are El Tejon, a gunslinger betrayed by your gang and left for dead. After the opening movie and a successful jailbreak in the opening level you are obligated by the code of the west to hunt down your former colleagues and kill them. I smell a hint of Quentin Tarantino here.
The single-player game is spread across multiple missions depicted on a map. As you complete each mission you unlock the next mission and possibly an optional side-quest assignment to earn some extra cash. These missions are designed more like a series of challenges rather than typical levels in an FPS game, and this is where my biggest complaint rears its ugly head.
Each mission is a lengthy sequence lasting anywhere from 15-30 minutes and during that time you are not allowed to save your game or checkpoint your progress. That means if you take an unlucky bullet from a henchman in the final 10 seconds of a level you are replaying the entire thing over again. This is not acceptable by any standards of modern day gaming and Iím deducting two entire points from the gameplay score for such an asinine decision on the part of the designers. If you donít mind replaying levels over and over again then feel free to bump my score a few points.
Each mission can be approached from three skill levels, bronze, silver, and gold, and you are free to go back via the map and replay any previous level to try and better your score. This takes away the linear storyline approach of gameplay and basically creates an arcade experience where you unlock new levels by completing existing ones.
One interesting element is the Frontier Poker game you get to play before each level. This is basically a Five Card Draw variation where you can draw up to three cards (four if one is an Ace) and earn bonus goodies like extra ammo for the upcoming level. You can keep replaying the hand to better your score as long as you have at least a pair, but if you ever end up with a dead hand you lose it all. The poker ďengineĒ seems to be tilted in favor of the gamer and you will often get impossible hands (like drawing into a royal flush). The trick is knowing when to stop.
Once you get into the main game you will find a traditional FPS experience that feels very much like any other FPS game on the Xbox. The controls are overly sensitive making it hard to target moving enemies, a problem that is further magnified when you yourself are on a galloping horse or hurtling mine car. There is no vibration effects, which is admittedly a disappointment considering all the explosions and destructible environments, but in retrospect, itís so hard to aim in this game that any vibration would only complicate matters. Other than the segmented circular hit marker, you have no idea when you are taking damage or from where.
You can run and sidestep with the left stick and look around with the right. You can also crouch to get under obstacles and jump over short gaps but there is no leaning, so engaging in gunfights from a concealed location requires you to step fully out into fire before you can fire yourself. The D-pad is put to good use for individually cycling weapons. With a single tap you can instantly access your pistol, shotgun, or rifle and fire with the right and left triggers.
There are three types of weapons in three categories, short, medium, and long range. Pistols, shotguns, and rifles all have a special fire mode that you can access when the shot meter is full. To fill this meter you need to shoot things, either people or inanimate objects. Whenever something isnít being shot this meter is slowly depleting so you have to shoot a lot of stuff at a regular pace to use this feature. Some weapons also have an alternate fire mode like a scope on the rifle or a multi-shot blast mode on the pistol.
The Lewis Revolving Rifle puts the game way off balance giving you six quick-fire shots before having to reload. Once you get this weapon you may as well have an Uzi. There are also some weapons you can get during the mission like dynamite and Molotov cocktail bombs and you can shoot objects like explosive barrels for area damage, but Iíve shot a TNT barrel that a guy was hiding behind only to have him survive and pump me full of lead when I peeked around the corner after the blast.
Enemy AI on any skill level is brutal. The only thing the skill level changes is the chance of you hitting your target, even if your aim is off. The number and pattern of the enemies is identical. Henchmen will have instant awareness when you enter their engagement area so donít try sneaking through the levels. Your best bet is to keep moving and sneak in a shot when they are reloading.
Thatís not to say there isnít a certain level of strategy to Dead Manís Hand. Aside from memorizing the levels, the scripted spawn points for enemies and the paths they take when they appear, you often have multiple ways of dispatching your enemy. You can shoot them, obviously, but you can also look for more creative ways like shooting a beam and collapsing a roof on their head, blasting a TNT keg and taking them out with a fiery explosion, or creating a rockslide with a well-placed shot.
Most of the levels take place in traditional old west locales like towns, villages, ruins, canyons, or an old mining camp, and there are even a few levels on horseback. These are basically a rail shooter where the horse runs on a predetermined path and you simply shoot the bad guys as they appear in their scripted locations.
There are some serious collision-detection issues, mainly with bullets making reliable contact with their target. When I can fire a pump-action shotgun four times at pointblank range and not kill a man, but casually fire my rifle toward the horizon and knock a guy off his horse, something is wrong.
Dead Manís Hand has a substantial online component and logic would dictate that the problems of the single-player game would not apply to matches against real players. This is true, but online gaming comes with a whole batch of new problems, most of which are just as crippling to the enjoyment of this title.
You have your standard selection of game modes including death match, team death match, Bounty, and Posse modes. Bounty is a sort of king of the hill mode where one player goes up against all the rest while Posse puts all the humans against AI bots. The only thing the game doesnít offer is a cooperative mode for the solo game.
Unfortunately, there are some serious gameplay issues that will keep most gamers from playing this game after the first few attempts. Most of these issues revolve around the simple fact that online opponents have no way to know if they are hitting anyone or being hit. There is no vibration and no visual depiction of damage, so unless you see your health meter ticking down you wonít know you are taking damage and youíll never know you are hitting the enemy until they drop.
Just because the game takes place in the old west doesnít mean the game has to look this dull. Textures are low res and start to pixilate up close. Many of the interior levels like the saloon and whorehouse are lacking details like furniture, paintings, etc. and feel more like set pieces rather than real environments. An entire building might only have one or two rooms, a table, and maybe a chair.
Character design isnít an issue since you will often being killing men who are only being represented with a few pixels of data. Most of the time you will get the hat-shot animation and fire once more to kill the unseen enemy. When you do get close enough to see your foe they look pretty good, in a stereotypical Wild West design like the Mexican bandito with belts of ammo crisscrossed over his chest.
I really did enjoy the overall presentation that starts with the authentic black and white and sepia-tone movies and creative interface that makes use of playing cards as your health meter. There are also fun icons that pop-up during gameplay to indicate when you have performed a special action.
Kudos to the musicians for creating some excellent western themes for this game, both for the movies and the gameplay. It really helps give this game some authentic western flavor.
Speech is pretty much restricted to the movies with the exception of random insults and taunts thrown out during combat. These are often more humorous than offensive and the exaggerated Spanish and southern accents are really good. Death cries are way over the top and totally out of character.
All the required sound effects are here like the galloping horse, various sounds of gunfire from the varied weapons, and thunderous explosions. Speaking of explosions, a word of warning to those with sub-woofers. Dead Manís Hand does not support Dolby Digital but it has the most unbalanced sound presentation (leaning toward the low end) of any Xbox game Iíve ever played. I ultimately had to turn off my sub-woofer to make the game playable without giving me a migraine. Simple gunfire was shaking the walls and a TNT keg explosion threatened to shatter the windows, and all of this at volumes where you could barely hear the dialogue or music.
Most likely Dead Manís Hand is an 8Ė10 hour game, but by design you will be forced to play and replay many of the levels until you have systematically memorized the location of every enemy and health power-up, and figured out the best path through each level. Unless you are truly gifted, expect about 15-20 hours to finish the game, only about half of that will be original material.
Also extending the life of the game are the horrible load times. I was expecting a tumbleweed to blow across the room as I waited for the load bar to creep across the screen. Even if you are simply restarting a failed attempt at a level youíll have to wait just as long as the initial load.
While online modes would normally add significantly to the life of a title such as this, the multiplayer game design is so flawed that only the most desperate of gamers will subject themselves to the sloppy interface.
I so wanted to love this game. When I first saw Dead Manís Hand at E3 last year it instantly became one of my most anticipated titles of 2004, which no doubt had some influence on my level of disappointment when I played the final product.
There are a lot of great ideas buried under a few significant flaws. Many of these problems could easily be fixed in a future patch, but out of the box Dead Manís Hand is a huge disappointment and a classic example of a great idea marred by poor or just sloppy game design. Wild West lovers will want to give this a rental but diehard action fans craving a taste of the West will want to skip this and check out Red Dead Revolver releasing later this month.