So, there's been this sentiment in the world of film for years now that the Western, one of the few wholly American storytelling genres, is all but dead. Save for occasional flashes of inspiration, like Unforgiven, by and large, it's hard to argue against the fact that the Western seems to be less and less culturally relevant with each passing year. Rockstar's Red Dead Revolver, which takes heaping helpings of inspiration from staple Westerns like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, The Wild Bunch, and even a little Bonanza, stakes its claim against this trend. There's some great atmosphere in this new shooter, and, for fans of the genre, it's great to see a Western game with some care put into it. Unfortunately, much of the game lacks focus, and the experience suffers for it.
At its core, Red Dead Revolver is a simple revenge story. Basically, some bad fellas killed Red's parents when he was a kid, and now that he's all grown up--and works as a bounty hunter--he'd like very much to kill them there bad fellas in return. The beauty of a good revenge story is that you know it's going to snowball into something bigger than a personal grudge, and sure enough, Red Dead Revolver ropes in several bands of outlaws, including a Native American tribe and the Mexican Army, to name a few. It's a fine, fine premise for a Western, and it's integrated into the actual gameplay experience fairly well. The story is sometimes too eager to focus on peripheral characters, leaving you with a protagonist that you don't really know--and, consequently, don't care a whole lot about.
Usually, Red Dead Revolver is a straightforward third-person shooter. In most levels, you'll enter a small-sized stage filled with outlaws, and you'll have to waste the lot of them before it's over. Red starts off with a single six-shooter, but you'll be carrying a small arsenal of revolvers and rifles, along with throwing knives and high explosives, before things are through. The basic shooter controls are responsive enough, though the game seems to lean on the auto-aim mechanic an awful lot. Furthermore, the camera could've used a little automation, because, as it stands, it's completely manual and gives you something to worry about apart from all the guys trying to shoot you.
Aside from filling outlaws with hot lead, you'll also be able to take cover behind various objects, perform a rolling-jump to get out of harm's way quickly, and engage in some basic hand-to-hand fighting. Red also has a Max-Payne-like ability, called deadeye, where time slows to a creep, thus allowing you to target up to six different spots on your enemies before time speeds back up, after which you'll automatically unload your revolver on these targets. There's a dueling mechanic that works similarly, and it's during these duels, which pop up with pretty regular frequency, that provide some of the game's more memorable moments. Red Dead Revolver is actually quite fond of big set pieces, which is both a blessing and a curse. It's great because it realizes a bunch of cool sequences you've seen a dozen times on celluloid, like train hijackings, saloon brawls, ghost-town showdowns, and more. The problem is, however, that the gameplay mechanics for these set-piece sequences never quite have the level of polish they need to have to really work right. There are plenty of great ideas here, but their executions are off just enough to be noticeable.
Red is supposedly the main character in the game, but Red Dead Revolver takes regular sojourns into short side-stories by putting you in control of various supporting characters (not all of whom are on Red's side), including the tough-minded independent farm owner, Annie Stoakes; the English dandy sharpshooter, Jack Swift; the merciless General Diego; and Red's Native American blood brother, Shadow Wolf. These episodes offer a bit of variety, though all the characters play roughly the same as Red. More importantly, the fact that these characters continually take center stage over Red contributes to his weakness as a central character. All of these characters, along with just about any other characters worth mentioning in game, show up in Red Dead Revolver's multiplayer game, though the mode itself, which offers a handful of deathmatch-style games, seems kind of tacked-on. In all honesty, an extra mode where you could engage in a series of duels would've been a far more interesting addition.
The components that make up the visuals in Red Dead Revolver are fairly modest. The environments are generally pretty small; the characters are chunky; and some of the animations are kind of awkward. Though it's not the most visually advanced game we've seen, Red Dead Revolver gets a lot of mileage out of heat-wash blur effects, dusty particle effects, and gritty film-grain filters, giving the game a purposefully worn-in look. The color palette is also very thoughtful, relying heavily on earth tones and deep hues of red and orange, though this doesn't mean that all the environments look identical. This is a case where personality supersedes technical merit, though there are moments where Red Dead Revolver is too absurd and self-indulgent for its own good. The most egregious of these transgressions comes in the form of a pack of midget clowns you square off with early on in the game. These Wild Wild West moments aside, Red Dead Revolver is the best-looking and most authentic Western game we've seen.
Between the Xbox and PlayStation 2 versions of Red Dead Revolver, the Xbox version is far and away more visually appealing. The frame rate is higher and more consistent, textures are cleaner, lines are less jaggy, and the various special effects employed by the game just look better. However, were the frame rate not such a factor, an argument could be made that the dirtier graphics of the PS2 version better complement the subject matter. The quality of the graphics and the speed of the load times are the key differentiations between the two versions of Red Dead Revolver, so if you have the option, go with the Xbox version.
If you've played GTAIII, Vice City, or Manhunt, you already know how much care Rockstar tends to put into sound design, especially when it comes to a soundtrack. Red Dead Revolver features a soundtrack filled with music that would fit snugly in a spaghetti Western. In fact, many of the tunes heard in the game were composed by Ennio Morricone, who provided the scores for all of Sergio Leone's classic Westerns, including the unforgettable theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. There are moments where the game will diverge from this galloping sound for some plinky piano music that would fit nicely in an old-timey saloon. Luckily, this music fits nicely here too. With the soundtrack generally taking care of the game's ambient sound, the in-game effects that really seem to stand out are the gunshot and ricochet sound effects, which don't sound real but do sound movie real. The voice acting is the weakest link in Red Dead Revolver's sound design, simply because the tone of the voice actors is inconsistent. Though it's not particularly terrible, the voice of Red stands out because it just isn't strong enough. He sounds a little too Solid Snake and not enough Man With No Name.
Its heart is in the right place, but Red Dead Revolver tries to go in too many directions at once. There are too many different playable characters and too many unique gameplay elements that just don't gel. And though the story is well told, there's just not enough focus on Red. If you can forgive Red Dead Revolver for its hubris, you'll find a game with some great style and enough fun moments to justify the rough edges. It may not have what it takes to bring about a full-fledged Western revival in the world of video games, but it's an honest try.