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.
Moreover, there's a "shot chain" system, which encourages you to shoot multiple targets in a row--not just bad guys, but also things like glass bottles, tombstones, and other breakable objects--as though you were at a shooting gallery at a county carnival. The more stuff you shoot, the more you fill your power meter, which allows you to use each of your weapons' alternate firing modes, most of which simply allow you to shoot faster or do more damage than you would regularly. What's more, prior to each mission, you get to play a hand of poker. Draw a winning hand, and you'll earn bonuses to your ammunition and your power meter. You can keep pressing your luck, but if you come up without so much as a two-pair, you'll lose all the bonuses you've racked up.
It's nice that Dead Man's Hand features these twists in what's an otherwise standard first-person shooter. In practice, though, these extra features aren't well implemented. It becomes obvious, for instance, that El Tejón's luck at the game of poker is unreal. You'll regularly draw incredibly good winning hands, but who cares? In most missions, you don't benefit from having extra ammo anyway. And the game's point system isn't very interesting, either, since it's in the context of a subpar first-person shooter. You probably won't want to revisit these levels to earn high scores, for the same reasons mentioned above--the core action and the enemy artificial intelligence just aren't particularly good.
What's perhaps strangest of all is that El Tejón's accuracy is much greater at long range than at short range. The onscreen aiming reticle is by no means an accurate depiction of the actual "auto-aim" window of your shots, which turns out to be quite a bit wider. So, as long as an enemy is anywhere near the center of the screen, you'll always hit him, no matter how far away he is--unless he's standing near some obstacle, such as behind a crate, in which case the game's flaky hit detection often won't let you hit him even if you've perfectly lined up your shot. The whole practice of aiming and shooting ends up feeling superficial and disappointing in Dead Man's Hand, and as you can imagine, a first-person shooter suffers greatly from something like this.
Despite the occasionally cool-looking use of physics, Dead Man's Hand really doesn't look like much. You hardly ever get a close-up view of any of the game's characters, and even when you do, they aren't very impressive to look at. The game's environments look fair; the settings are predictable for a Western-themed game, and perhaps the drab textures are to be expected given the dusty, run-down environs of the game. The weapons, which mostly include a few different pistols, rifles, and shotguns, also look decent. The game's frame rate is never particularly smooth, but it's mostly stable, except for unsightly cases in which it momentarily shudders to a halt, such as when you equip a weapon for the first time in a level or when you die.
As for the audio, Dead Man's Hand notably features a nicely done soundtrack, reminiscent of classic spaghetti Westerns. And the weapon effects are fine. But there are some problems with the sound, otherwise. The voice work in the game's faux-early-20th-century-movie-style cutscenes sounds like it's all being delivered by just a few guys trying to make their voices sound as gravelly as possible, but it's not bad. What's more unfortunate is that the in-mission audio mostly sounds like it's all happening right next to you. In other first-person action games, you'll use your sense of hearing to discern where enemies are coming from, but in Dead Man's Hand, every time you hear a bad guy announce himself with a one-liner of some sort, you'll wonder where he is. Fortunately, onscreen threat indicators, showing the direction from which you're being shot at, make it easy to find the culprit (and shoot him, only to hear the same lame death scream you'll hear time after time), but at that point, you're just watching for a yellow or red onscreen icon rather than getting immersed into the experience of a first-person-perspective game. Along these lines, while the game's manual (which, for what it's worth, is actually laid out quite nicely, in the fashion of 19th-century postings and advertisements) claims that there's an option to toggle the controller's vibration feature, there seems to be no support for the Xbox controller's force feedback in the game.
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. The game generally feels rough and rarely yields satisfying moments, though it has a few. The multiplayer component is weak, and the single-player action isn't going to blow you away, though fans of Westerns might get a kick out of the game for a while, and should consider giving it a rental. However, they'll just have to keep holding out hope that a truly great Western-themed game is somewhere on the horizon.