Life in the Old West must have been gritty, violent, and short if it was anything like Gun, a new Western-themed action adventure from Tony Hawk series developer Neversoft. Featuring an open-ended environment that you can traverse on foot or on horseback, plenty of gory shoot-outs, numerous optional side missions, and an interesting story, Gun initially seems like a 19th-century Grand Theft Auto. Unfortunately, the experience just doesn't last long enough to be savored. Gun's main story missions are exciting, but the main plot is over so quickly that the whole thing just ends up feeling rushed, and the various side missions aren't compelling enough to hold your interest after the end credits roll. So it turns out that a terse, simple title like "Gun" is really the perfect fit for what could have been a great game, if only it had more meat on its bones.
Gun is the tale of Colton White, a soft-spoken gunslinger raised by a resourceful old hunter named Ned, made instantly likable thanks to an excellent voice performance by Kris Kristofferson. One day Ned and Colton's hunt lands them on a steamboat carrying some sort of important artifact that Ned seems to know about. However, he's not alone in his knowledge, and as the ship is besieged, Colton barely escapes with his life. He makes his way to Dodge City at Ned's request, and from there embarks on a journey that will put him up against a greedy ex-military railroad mogul and his wicked cohorts. There's a strong cast of characters in Gun, and the 3D cinematic cutscenes are impressively motion-captured and choreographed, making each story mission worth looking forward to if only to see how Colton's misadventures will continue to pan out. Colton will find himself on both sides of the law, allying with a diverse array of different comrades in his efforts to find answers and seek vengeance.
Unfortunately, the story hurries along at a breakneck pace. Situations that seem intended to introduce entire chapters of gameplay tend to be resolved almost immediately. For example, at a certain point, Colton is deputized as a peacekeeper in Empire City, the game's largest town. You expect to then undertake a series of sheriff-style missions, but Colton's career path very quickly goes sour as the story jarringly goes in another direction. It blazes on like this until the end credits roll--maybe six hours after you first begin play, depending on how many side missions you opted to take on and depending on how much trouble you had with the final battle, which is one of the only tough fights at the normal difficulty setting. There's just no time to really get to like (or dislike) the main cast.
The mechanics of gameplay certainly are good, and even though there are only a few main story missions, they tend to be diverse and packed with intense action. Gun carefully walks the line between being a run-and-gun shoot-'em-up and more of a realistic, tactical shooter. You get to use all kinds of different authentic weapons, including pistols, rifles, shotguns, sharpshooters, bows, and dynamite in order to take on vastly superior odds, which Colton can overcome because of his excellent marksmanship and his ability to instantly recover all his health by drinking from his flask (what's in that thing?). Controlling Colton primarily from a third-person perspective, you'll also get to take on ferocious Apache warriors, play with barrels of TNT, fire cannons, and more.
Plus, you also get to ride and fight on horseback, making for some high-speed battles. Your horse's hooves are arguably even more dangerous than your firearms, and besides, it can be mightily entertaining to trample your foes, causing their bodies to get flung about like rag dolls. The horse-riding mechanics are fun and well designed, allowing you to shoot rather effectively while mounted. You also get to execute quick sliding turns (an awful lot like handbrake turns in a driving game) while balancing your horse's health with your top speed. You can spur your horse to go faster and faster, but this wears the animal down. Also, with the exception of those times when you run up against a barrier of some sort and just keep running, all the animation on horseback looks very convincing. The only problem is that there's no real sense of horse ownership in the game, as horses are completely disposable. Western heroes like Colton White ought to have their very own trusty steeds, but in Gun, you'll just grab whichever animal is closest to you and won't grow attached to any of them.
If you figured there'd be a lot of shooting in a game called Gun, you figured correctly. Colton will typically be up against large numbers of foes, but there's a very wide auto-aim window on his pistols, which lets you easily blast multiple foes even when they're hiding behind cover. Chances are you'll do most of your damage with your rifles, though, since you can aim down the sights of these in a first-person view, which lets you effectively shoot foes from afar. You also have limited access to a quick-draw ability, which slows everything down for a little while and allows you to quickly line up a bunch of deadly shots against groups of foes. Magically, you don't even have to reload during a quick-draw attack, though Colton's pistol ammo is unlimited anyway, and his other ammo types may be replenished by conveniently strewn power-ups. Colton can even go to town with melee weapons like knives and hatchets, easily slicing up large numbers of foes. So the action isn't exactly realistic, but it still feels that way to a certain extent since your foes tend to weave and dodge effectively, and will shout to press the attack when you're caught reloading. Most importantly, the weapons feel like they pack a real punch, and enemies are fun to fight, especially ones on horseback. It's hard to decide whether it's more satisfying to shoot a rider from his mount or to take the mount out from under him.
The shooting action is great, though it's not for the faint of heart. The makers of this game must be big fans of HBO's Deadwood or something, because the level of violence and general vulgarity in Gun greatly surpasses what you'd probably expect from a typical Western, even if you've seen some of the gorier ones. Gun pays tribute to the classic films in the genre, from the unbelievable rescue from the gallows in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly to the unforgettable last battle (courtesy of a Gatling gun) in The Wild Bunch. However, Gun isn't just bloody; it's downright gnarly at times, like when you blast a big chunk out of an enemy's head with a clean shot from your rifle. Expect graphic violence, racism, and misogyny in heavy doses during the course of the game. Hey, no one said the Old West was pleasant. But for what it's worth, some of this mature-themed content borders on being gratuitous, since Gun clearly isn't aiming for historical authenticity. You'll realize this from the moment you first catch a glimpse of the main villain's private locomotive, emblazoned with a big, fat skull logo. The game is far too over the top to be taken seriously.
Apart from the brevity of the storyline, other aspects of Gun feel rather half-baked. For instance, you can purchase a scalping knife, which you can use to finish off dying enemies rather gruesomely. Although, apart from whatever sadistic thrill you might get from this, there doesn't seem to be any point to it at all, since mortally wounded foes are effectively out of the fight, and all the scalps you're ostensibly collecting aren't even quantified as a line item on the statistics screen (which, for reference, records things like number of headshots you've scored). Furthermore, the free-roaming format of Gun means that you can trot into town and start trouble if you so choose, such as by wantonly killing random townspeople. This causes a "town patience" meter to dwindle, and if you empty it, a "showdown" scenario begins as a posse rolls in to get rid of you. Only, this posse tends to be laughably weak, and should you defeat all its members, the town just goes back to normal, as if you never even hurt a fly. Alternatively, if you get killed, you automatically restart without penalty--same difference. The world of the game definitely looks pretty, and it's nice to see townspeople milling about, as well as the occasional shoot-out between uppity citizens. But Gun really doesn't reward exploration or experimentation as free-roaming action adventure games ought to do. The more you explore, the less you'll find.
Gun's assorted side quests can be fun for a while, and they offer a decent amount of variety, since they range from hunting down wanted felons to cattle ranching to competing in poker tournaments. Most every side quest is unique in some way, with its own voice-over narration and basic twist, but these tend to be only a few minutes long, fairly easy, and rather repetitive in spite of everything. For instance, almost every bounty hunter mission simply tasks you with galloping some brief distance before taking on a hoodlum and his thugs. Often you can earn more money by bringing your victim in alive, but all this comes down to is rushing up close and "subduing" your target instead of killing him. The missions end abruptly in this fashion, at which point you can go find another or proceed with the main story missions if you have any left. An onscreen radar display conveniently points out both enemies and destinations of importance, so for better or worse it's very simple to figure out where to go next. At any rate, the side quests in Gun certainly are nice to have, but they're not so fleshed out or enjoyable as to make them anywhere near as good as the story missions.
One of the main reasons you might not be compelled to take on side quests is that the rewards for successfully accomplishing them aren't all that necessary. You'll improve Colton's stats for things like gun handling, melee weapons, and quick draw with each side quest you complete, but the effects of these boosts tend to be so subtle as to be barely noticeable. Besides, you can also purchase weapon and health power-ups, and you can find better weapons at the end of almost every mission. In practice, you'll probably be drawn to some of the side quests and be compelled to earn money with which to buy new items and power-ups. However, the game is easy enough on normal difficulty to where you really don't need to worry much about building up Colton's strength. On hard and "insane" difficulty, the challenge is substantially greater, since your foes will deal a lot more damage with every hit. You might want to play on hard mode if normal difficulty seems too easy, but it would have been better if the normal difficulty simply were more challenging overall. The action is that much simpler because story missions tend to have multiple checkpoints, so even if you fail, you'll restart from just a few minutes or seconds before with full health. At least the game isn't frustrating (not for the most part, anyway).
Gun shipped simultaneously for the PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube, and PC, and an Xbox 360 version isn't far behind. The available versions are identical in terms of content and very similar in overall quality, exhibiting only the sorts of differences that tend to be intrinsic to multiplatform games such as this. The console versions all support surround-sound systems and progressive-scan displays for improved presentation quality, though the Xbox version looks marginally sharper and cleaner. Meanwhile, the PC version offers all sorts of graphical adjustments, allowing you to take advantage of the latest graphics cards if you happen to have one. All versions of the game have somewhat of an uneven frame rate, but they still offer solid controls. The PS2's stock gamepad is best suited to the control scheme, but it's just about as simple to get used to playing on the other platforms. The PC's default mouse-and-keyboard controls work well, but you may also hook up a gamepad if you like. All versions also let you save your progress at any time.
Regardless of which version you play, you'll find that Gun is an attractive-looking game, especially during its noninteractive cutscenes, which display some impressively stylized, nicely animated characters. The rest of the game mostly looks great, too, and it features a good use of realistic physics in addition to plenty of lifelike animations. The sorts of explosions that become more and more prevalent later on in the story are particularly flashy, causing nearby characters (possibly Colton himself) to get flung fast and hard away from the blast, and oftentimes getting flattened against nearby walls. Some noticeable repetition of character models and occasionally sudden frame rate drops do undermine the graphics to a certain extent, though. Other than that, the game's rendition of the Old West is pretty much spot-on, and since it's one continuous stretch of land, you really get the feel for the place. Various lighting effects signifying day and night, wild animals, tumbleweeds (of course), and other little visual flourishes help make the world of Gun stand out. The game's audio is quite good, thanks especially to the excellent voice acting heard throughout the story. Thomas Jane (Deep Blue Sea) is great as the quiet, confident Colton White, and the main villains played by Lance Henriksen (Aliens) and Brad Dourif (Deadwood) sound at least as wicked and nasty as they look. The music shies away from Spaghetti Western twanging, instead going for an epic feel that the gameplay doesn't really live up to. Apart from that, effects for gunfire, galloping hooves, and the other sounds of the Wild West are pretty much accurate, though they aren't as noteworthy as the voice work.
Despite a great presentation that'll likely give a very positive first impression, Gun ultimately offers too little content for it to be a truly satisfying game. Most all of the right ingredients are here in some quantity. But the hastily delivered storyline (which, fittingly, concludes with an incredibly abrupt ending) and the lack of any real depth to the gameworld make Gun much better suited for some quick, fleeting thrills instead of for the long haul.