As an entry in one of the most competitive and most popular genres of gaming, Dead Man's Hand does not truly succeed on any level, despite a few nice touches.
Much in the way the real-life frontier lands of 19th-century America were untapped territory for land developers, the Wild West remains largely untapped territory for game developers. Sure, there have been a few notable Western-themed action games over the years, from old ones like Capcom's 1985 arcade shoot-'em-up, Gun Smoke, to later ones like LucasArts' stylish 1997 first-person shooter, Outlaws. Be that as it may, gamers simply haven't had many chances to play as gunslinging cowboys over the years. Nevertheless, the Wild West is great material for a game, judging by the sorts of action and dramatic tension on display in some of the best movie Westerns--but a game needs more than just a good premise to succeed. Take Dead Man's Hand, a new first-person shooter from Atari and developer Human Head Studios: It's got a surly cast of characters, a selection of old firearms, and a good musical score, each befitting a Western. Unfortunately, though, and in spite of a few noteworthy twists and the ability to play online, the game's execution leaves a lot to be desired.
Dead Man's Hand is a conventional first-person shooter, so if you've played one of the many similar such games in the past few years, you'll have no trouble picking it right up. The game features a fairly brief single-player campaign, playable on three different difficulty levels, and online multiplayer support via Xbox Live. There's also a system link option, theoretically allowing you to daisy-chain up to eight Xboxes and copies of the game together, but a more-practical split-screen multiplayer option is not available. Online play includes your standard deathmatch and team deathmatch modes, as well as a mode called bounty, in which one particular player becomes the target of everyone else, and another mode called posse, in which players join forces to hold their position against waves of computer-controlled bad guys.
There aren't many multiplayer maps to choose from (especially for posse mode), and some players are complaining about serious issues with lag on the Xbox Live menu screens, but the biggest problem with the multiplayer relates to the overall feel of the action. Simply put, it's flat, slow, and unresponsive. There's little discernible feedback for when you're taking damage, and hit detection is generally flaky, making the core multiplayer action wholly unsatisfying. Lengthy loading times all but ensure that the entire process isn't worth the effort. One way of squeezing a little value out of the game's multiplayer features is to start a system link "posse" session all by yourself, if you just want to shoot at some targets.
The single-player portion of Dead Man's Hand casts you as El Tejón, a Mexican outlaw who's been double-crossed by his gang. You'll guide El Tejón through a linear series of missions (there are some optional bonus missions along the way) in which he'll track down and take revenge on his former allies one by one. For the most part, these are straightforward, by-the-numbers first-person shooter levels. They're all relatively short and noticeably scripted, meaning you can expect your enemies to pop out from exactly the same spots each time you play each mission. And, at least at the default difficulty, you'll often need to retry missions a few times, because it's quite possible to instantly get killed in many situations, such as by standing in the vicinity of a powder keg when it goes off. You'll also sometimes lose a great deal of health trying to shoot foes that, due to the game's inconsistent hit detection, you just won't be able to hit. Your occasional showdowns with boss opponents will yield mixed results, too. Some of them are tough, while others are total wimps just waiting to get shot full of lead.
Enemies demonstrate nothing in the way of convincing behavior, unless you count ducking behind some boxes as convincing. You'll sometimes see your foes do downright absurd things like go running right past you. This is not to say your foes are complete pushovers, since when it comes to shooting, their aim is just fine. There's no ability to save in the middle of a mission, so each time you die, you'll have to start from the beginning of that scenario (after sitting through at least 30 seconds of loading time). Some missions lay the bad guys on pretty thick; this would get pretty frustrating after a while, but Dead Man's Hand tempts you by allowing you to choose your difficulty setting on a per-mission basis. The easy mode, which really is easy, is always available if you just want to press on through.
Dead Man's Hand does have some cool features. Most of all, it boasts a physics model, which is becoming more and more common in today's games and has been seen previously in games like Max Payne 2 and Deus Ex: Invisible War. During the course of the action, you'll see crates and chairs get knocked over by explosions or double-barreled shotgun blasts, you'll see enemies get knocked backward or sent flying head over heels, and so on. Some of these effects can be pretty impressive, and they add a bit of variety and visual flair to the action. Dead Man's Hand also features a trick shot system, which rewards you with bonus points for doing such things as shooting the hats off of enemy cowboys' heads or shooting thrown weapons out of the air.