Gunman Chronicles is a unique game in that it wasn't designed by a traditional development team, but by a group of individuals working out of their homes in North America and Europe. Most of the team members have used commonplace tools such as chat programs and FTP software to coordinate the production of this first-person shooter - interestingly enough, most of them have never met each other in person. Gunman Chronicles was originally slated to be a straightforward single-player-focused user-created mod for Quake II, but it gradually evolved into a total conversion of Valve's popular Half-Life. Partway through its development cycle, Gunman Chronicles caught the eye of Sierra, which decided to publish the game through traditional retail channels. Gunman Chronicles isn't the first stand-alone Half-Life mod to be formally released by Sierra - Counter-Strike, an extremely popular multiplayer mod, was also published as part of the company's recent trend of cultivating independent talent into success stories at the retail store. Unfortunately, Gunman Chronicles lacks the polish and the lasting value of Counter-Strike, not to mention many other recent first-person shooters.
In Gunman Chronicles, you play the role of Major Archer, an interplanetary soldier whose squad of gunmen battle deadly creatures called Xenomes. One time, the gunmen were forced to retreat in the face of the creatures' overwhelming strength. Archer escaped with his life, but others on his team, including the general (his superior), weren't as lucky. Xenome activity has since been rampant, and Archer has been sent off to investigate a mysterious distress call from a remote planet thought to be under attack by these ravenous creatures. Upon landing on this planet, it becomes clear that the distress call was nothing more than a ruse to lure Archer and the gunmen into an ambush. But Archer survives again and learns that this elaborate setup was orchestrated by none other than the general himself, who mysteriously survived the encounter with the Xenomes five years earlier and felt betrayed by Archer and the gunmen's retreat. The general has since been researching the Xenomes' power and has been using them to instigate these unprovoked infestations of planets inhabited by humans. Archer is tasked with the duty of stopping the general's scheme and, of course, escaping with his own life.
The similarities between Half-Life and Gunman Chronicles don't stop with the premise of an alien infestation. In fact, the game's similarity to Half-Life is almost blatant from the beginning. You're taken through a tram ride of a military complex built around a massive asteroid as soon as you start the game - an obvious testament to Valve's classic shooter. Later on in the game, you'll even be forced to shoot down a helicopter with a rocket launcher of sorts. Gunman Chronicles does attempt to distance itself from Half-Life by offering certain gameplay conventions that weren't available in Valve's game, including customizable weapons and controllable vehicles. In addition, the game's futuristic Wild West setting and Civil War-type character models give it a rather unique look and style. Regardless, people who have played Half-Life, or any recent first-person shooter for that matter, will be able to instantly acclimate themselves to the gameplay in Gunman Chronicles. You progress through a wide number of levels scattered across four distinct worlds. As in Half-Life, you can travel back and forth between the levels, and you will sometimes have to backtrack to earlier areas. The squad tactics of the enemy characters is another aspect borrowed from Half-Life, although Gunman Chronicle's enemies aren't nearly as clever as the deadly marines from the original game. When engaged in a firefight, most of the time the enemies will simply stand still until they are killed. Occasionally, they'll run back and forth between two points in some form of attempt to either get cover or a clearer shot at you. Nonhuman enemies are even worse - they will often simply charge you.
In spite of its similarities to Half-Life, the game is by no means a clone, nor does it attempt to be so. Unfortunately for Gunman Chronicles, the elements that are supposed to separate it from other shooters are poorly executed. The game gives you the ability to customize the use of all of its eight weapons. For example, the multiple unit launch engine - or M.U.L.E., the game's rocket launcher - has 11 different characteristics that can be fiddled with a number of ways. You can adjust the type of payload, time of detonation, flight path, and method of targeting.
Tweaking the weapon modes seems like a novelty at first, but it quickly becomes a nuisance. You'll realize that you're spending way too much time toggling back and forth between settings in order to find the best combination for dispatching an enemy. Eventually, you'll ignore this feature altogether and just stick to each weapon's default setting. It would have made much more sense to simply offer a standard and alternate mode of fire for each weapon. Even if these wild choices were reduced by half, the arsenal would still remain quite manageable. But as it stands, the weapons system in Gunman Chronicles is just frustrating.
The other main feature of the game, the ability to drive vehicles, doesn't get exploited to its full potential. As it is, you'll get to drive just one vehicle throughout Gunman Chronicles: an invincible tank with a powerful gun. Unfortunately, you're rarely given the opportunity to use this machine's massive firepower, as the only enemies you face during the tank sequence are standard foot soldiers, which can quickly be dispatched with the vehicle's machine gun. Also, these tank missions are set up in a manner that forces you to constantly leave the tank so that you can solve a series of puzzles necessary to clear impassable debris from its path. These puzzles are easy to solve, and they involve fighting your way to a switch or lever. In fact, save for the last handful of levels, the entire game is relatively easy, and it'll take you no longer than 15 hours or so to go through it from start to finish.
Gunman Chronicles' multiplayer option doesn't do much to compensate for the lack of a significant single-player campaign. While finding a server using the game's integrated matchmaking utility is a breeze, the only multiplayer game modes available are deathmatch and team deathmatch, which isn't much when you consider the huge variety of free multiplayer mods available for Half-Life, such as Counter-Strike and Firearms.
The graphics in Gunman Chronicles use the aging Half-Life engine, which is now more than two years old. Some of the enemy models, especially larger ones such as the alpha species and the brontosaurus, are quite impressive, and they boast not only a relatively high number of polygons, but also some of the cleanest textures you'll find in any Half-Life mod. The level design varies significantly across the four distinct areas in Gunman Chronicles, which makes it believable that you're actually moving from planet to planet. Unfortunately, most of the levels are lit with a garish amount of red, green, and blue lighting, which ruins what's an otherwise aesthetically pleasing game. Also, in the outdoor levels, the textures used for the sky are of very low quality and resolution - they aren't convincing at all.
The game's sound effects are as mediocre as the rest of Gunman Chronicles. Most of the shrieks and yells of the aliens sound believable enough, as do a few of the game's weapons. However, there's little variety in the different sound effects, and, as a result, they tend to get repetitive relatively quickly. Additionally, a lot of the ambient sound effects in Gunman Chronicles sound just like those in Half-Life, and the game's voice acting seems a bit timid and muffled compared with the rest of the game's audio. Gunman Chronicles lacks any music, save for a techno number that plays while the end credits roll.
While Gunman Chronicles introduces some new gameplay conventions - such as the customizable weapons and controllable vehicle - that weren't attempted by the original Half-Life, it's nothing that prior user-created mods like Chemical Existence haven't done before. And even though it's worth considering that this game was essentially developed by a group of amateur designers, it still sells for the same money that you'd pay for anything else, and there are many first-person shooters available that are much more worthwhile. In fact, there are user-created mods like Neil Manke's They Hunger series, which are just as good as, if not better than, Gunman Chronicles - and they can be downloaded entirely for free. Gunman Chronicles is certainly a solid effort by its developers, and large publishers should continue to encourage this grassroots movement among upstart development teams so that they can create similar near-professional quality games - but this one should have been kept as a free download.