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. Yet in spite of a few noteworthy twists, the game's execution (especially its multiplayer component) leaves a lot to be desired. Still, Dead Man's Hand isn't a bad use of your $20, and for what it's worth, this PC version of the game is substantially better than the previously released Xbox version.
Dead Man's Hand is a conventional first-person shooter, so if you've played one of the countless number of 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 an online multiplayer mode for up to eight players. 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), though what's more problematic is the overall feel of the action. There's little discernible feedback for when you're taking damage, and hit detection is generally flaky, making the core multiplayer gameplay rather unsatisfying. One way of squeezing a little value out of the game's multiplayer features is to start a "posse" session all by yourself, if you just want to shoot at some targets. That may be your best bet, as after several days' worth of attempts, we encountered only a handful of players running about in Dead Man's Hand's multiplayer offering.
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 somewhat flaky hit detection, you just won't be able to hit (though, for what it's worth, this problem isn't nearly as severe as in the Xbox version). 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 little 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. The scenarios themselves aren't that long, though, so this isn't necessarily as frustrating as it may seem. Some missions lay the bad guys on pretty thick, 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 an average 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.
Despite the occasionally cool-looking use of physics, Dead Man's Hand really doesn't look all that great, though it does look fairly good. The characters you'll run across predominantly look like the ill-tempered gunslingers you'd expect, and being able to shoot their hats off their heads is certainly a plus. 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 runs nice and smooth even on relatively old systems.
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, 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. The game's nicely done instruction manual, which is designed in the fashion of 19th-century postings and advertisements, is perhaps the most authentic aspect of Dead Man's Hand.
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 multiplayer component is weak, and the single-player action isn't going to blow you away, though it has its moments. Fans of Westerns would get a kick out of the game and should consider it, given the budget price. However, they'll just have to keep holding out hope that a truly great Western-themed game is somewhere on the horizon