Latchkey Games is a new (maybe) weekly article that takes a look at games that perhaps didn’t quite get the amount of love they deserved: whether it was a game that was panned on it’s initial release only to become a cult classic, one that stirred the ire of series fans, or simply a game that fell through the cracks and was forgotten by time or overshadowed by a more popular release. For the inaugural article, I’ll talk about Activision and Neversoft’s simply titled Gun, an open-world Western game that laid the foundation that Red Dead Redemption would later build upon.
Now, chances are you’ve played Red Dead Redemption but you haven’t played Gun, so that previous sentence might be a little confusing for you. After all, isn’t RDR a spiritual sequel to the original PS2/Xbox shooter Red Dead Revolver? Well, yes, technically it is, but as I’m about to explain, the modern Red Dead Redemption owes more to Gun than it does to its “real” prequel.
Gun was originally released for the PS2, Xbox, and Gamecube in November 2005, and a half-assed Xbox 360 port quickly made its way to Microsoft’s then-new console a few weeks later. The game was developed by Neversoft, the team behind the original Tony Hawk games, and proved that those guys were capable of more than just skating games. The game came out a little more than a year after Rockstar’s Red Dead Revolver, but the games were about as different as two Western games could be: Revolver had a bizarre story and cast that involved midgets and clowns, while Gun tends to stick to and revere the traditional Western tropes. To put it in Western movie terms, the story in Gun is akin to Unforgiven or Tombstone, while Revolver’s story is… well, Young Guns 2 mixed with a little bit of Wild Wild West. Obviously, neither game’s portrayal of the West is as realistic or bleak as Red Dead Redemption’s, but Gun’s slightly grittier tale is definitely closer to John Marston’s story than Revolver’s story.
Gun’s narrative still has a number of fantastical elements (the central story line revolves around a lost city of gold,) but overall, the game tries to paint a fairly grim view of life on the Western frontier: a good chunk of Gun’s main characters end up getting killed off in grisly and unceremonious ways, and the game sports more whores and profanity than… well, a real old-West saloon. The writers of the game were obviously inspired by HBO’s gritty (and profanity-laden) Deadwood, and the game’s story is helped immensely by a celebrity cast, including Thomas Jane (The Punisher, The Mist,) Lance Henriksen (Alien, Aliens… and uh, Mass Effect,) and Ron Perlman (Hellboy, the narrator in Fallout). The game does get a little corny at times, but overall it looks and sounds like an authentic Western.
Unlike the more linear Red Dead Revolver, Gun was the first open world Western game. It’s take on the West is actually pretty detailed and pretty by last-gen standards, but unfortunately, this has it’s drawbacks: the open “world” of Gun is pretty small, even when compared to earlier open games. Instead of the vast expanse of RDR, you get a small slice of old West scenery that you can traverse from one end to another in a few minutes. This works both for and against Gun: on the one hand, there’s no tedious trekking back and forth between missions, but on the other hand, it’s hard to get immersed in a world that’s barely a few miles wide.
Thankfully, Gun manages to compensate for its small size with some thoroughly well done action: while a lot of last-gen third person shooters have aged pretty poorly, Gun’s shooting controls and mechanics still feel workable by modern standards. Like in the Red Dead games, Gun features a bullet-time mechanic that lets you slow down time and accurately take out multiple enemies with a single flurry of shots. The enemies are pretty tough and do a decent job of keeping you moving, and the game gives you a decent arsenal of interesting weapons, ranging from six-shooters to dynamite-tipped arrows. Gun also has a pretty interesting take on regenerating health: instead of recovering automatically after a few seconds a-la RDR or Halo, your character’s health only regenerates if you stop and take a swig of whiskey (not the kind of message you want to be sending to kids, but hey, this game is M rated for a reason.) It’s a mechanic that strikes a good balance between old-school permanent damage and modern games’ regenerating shields/health: if you make a mistake you can still recover from it without being penalized too badly, but at the same time, you can’t play recklessly and then expect to be healed back to 100% health within a few seconds.
Gun delivers on giving players some exciting Western-style shoot-outs, but unfortunately, it’s all over too soon. The game’s biggest flaw is its length: at less than 5 hours long, Gun can easily be completed in one sitting. I know more than a few friends who rented the game and beat it before they had to return it to the video store, and a lot of professional reviewers were understandably hard on Gun because of its length: after all, nobody wants to pay $50 for a game they’ll be done with within a weekend or even a day. But that criticism is pretty moot now: used copies of Gun can usually be found for less than 10 dollars, and at that price, Gun’s short (but action packed) trip to the West is definitely worth it.
Of course, you’ll have to temper your expectations first, especially if you’ve already played Red Dead Redemption. See, while Gun was great at the time of its release and remains a good game to this day, everything it does — its gritty story, its polished third-person shooting, the open-world Western setting — was executed magnitudes better in the newer RDR. It’s not really fair to penalize a game for not being better than a newer game that came out years after it, but people used to the modern flash and polish of RDR should keep in mind that Gun is almost 7 years old at this point and isn’t the perfect realization of the old West that Rockstar’s magnum opus is.
But even with its flaws, it still easy to appreciate Gun and see its influence on RDR. Moreso than Red Dead Revolver, Gun established the framework for how to make a proper Western themed video game. I loved Red Dead Redemption and played the hell out of it, but I still get kind of annoyed when people label RDR as “the first good Western game,” when the title should rightfully belong to Neversoft’s oft-forgotten little gem.
The game sold pretty decently upon its initial release, moving over a million units across the 4 consoles it was released for, but keep in mind, it was published by Activision, the creators of Call of Duty and America’s biggest publisher. Because the game didn’t push CoD or Tony Hawk like sales figures, Activision shelved future plans for a Gun sequel. That’s a damn shame too, because the guys at Neversoft clearly understood how to craft a proper Western, and with the proper amount of time and money, they probably could’ve created a serious contender to RDR.