Loading the Gun with Neversoft
19th Jul 2005 | 14:49
The news that developer Neversoft was working on a non-skateboarding game was like hearing that Snoop Doggy Dogg was about to release a country and western album. After all, this is the developer which has turned the Tony Hawk's series into an artform of twitching thumbs and flicking fingers.
But knowing that game developers can be typecast, Neversoft has been secretly beavering away on a new project for the last two years. We knew the name - Gun - but it seemed that Neversoft was waiting until the time was right to reveal its new project. That time wasn't E3. While there was a prominent Gun stand in Activision's booth, the two scarily skintight blondes guarding it gave little away about the content of the game.
So it was in a spit 'n' sawdust saloon bar in the Wild West End of ol' London Town where we first clapped our peepers on Gun. Turns out that the gun in question is of the rootin', tootin', six shootin' variety, and that Gun is Neversoft's action-packed riff on the American frontier. It's set to ride onto PS2, Xbox, GameCube, Xbox 360 and PC late this year.
We know what you're thinking. Rockstar has done the whole Western thing already with Red Dead Revolver. But Yale Miller, the man in black from publisher Activision charged with demoing Gun to us, quickly clears up any association with Rockstar's 2004 title. "They're not at all alike. The tone is different. The gameplay is definitely different. I don't want to say anything bad about anyone else's product, but Red Dead is very arcadey. Gun feels very different."
To sum up Neversoft's well-kept secret in one short paragraph, Gun is a story-driven third-person action shooter with free-roaming elements, set among the sprawling wildernesses and fledging frontier towns of the American West. The action starts in the mountains of Montana, with Miller pledging that players will be able to outride fences all the way to New Mexico.
The first trailer movie we're shown instantly shoves Gun's raw depiction of the Old West into our face. This is Deadwood rather than Bonanza, or, as the trailer proclaims, "The world of the West as it really was." That means violence, lust, vengeance, liquor, gambling - and plenty of gunfighting.
The trailer itself shows some brief snatches of Xbox 360 footage. We see lead character Colton galloping through a ridiculously detailed valley, the harsh sunlight reflecting off every huge rock and tiny stone on the ground, and bathing the screen in a startling High Noon glow. It looks superb. The rest of the presentation, however, is done with the PS2 version.
In Gun, players will take the role of Colton, a peace-loving frontiersman enjoying the easy life with his father in Montana. He's a skilled trappist and huntsman, and the first experience you'll have of Gun is learning the skills of the great outdoors. As it turns out, this cleverly-worked tutorial comes in very handy.
"One day Colton and his father board a steamboat in the upper Mississippi river," explains Miller. "A team of renegade soldiers board the steamboat and massacre everyone in sight, including his father. But just before he dies, he tells Colton two things: that he is not in fact his real father, and that he should track down a whore called Jenny in the Alhambra Saloon in Dodge City. That's where Colton's story begins, and it's a story of vengeance - he must find out why this happened to his father, and that discovery will thrust him violently out of his peaceful existence."
Like any good Western tale, Gun is all about revenge. Colton's quest will take in the length and breadth of the frontier but while Miller is keen to point out that Gun is free-roaming experience, he's equally eager to emphasise the importance of the plot. "In Gun, the story drives everything. There are loads of side missions and it's a free-roaming experience, but the storyline drives all of those side missions too"
So just how free-roaming is it compared to the godfather of the open-world experience, San Andreas? "GTA is all about the free-roaming. This is a story-driven game with free-roaming added. As the game progresses you'll be able to go from town to town freely, or ride off into the wilderness. It's a living environment. As you journey around you'll see animals roaming across the wilderness, ranchers driving cattle, or if you're in a town a gunfight could break out at any time."
As he speaks Miller is walking Colton through a dusty frontier town and, as if on cue, shots ring out from the saloon. A nag tied up outside the bar bucks and whinnies in shock, and the old fellers sitting on the porch scatter back to their shacks. The atmosphere of the classic Western is as tangible as a silver spur to the crotch.
The first mission Miller shows us is equally drenched in the whiskey-flavoured tones of the West. Like the Man with No Name, Colton rides into the Alhambra Saloon and asks for Jenny. She's being propositioned for a 'poke' by two bandits who are lacking in the Good, but have plenty of the Bad and Ugly. Needless to say, things turn nasty, pistols are drawn, and the bar floor is soaked with more than moonshine.
As the gunfight begins Miller gets the chance to show off Gun's combat system, which brings together aspects of third-person action games and first-person shooters. The right analogue stick moves Colton and the left aims his weapon, with swift flicks of the right stick snapping automatically between targets.
"It has the detail and feel of a first-person shooter," explains Miller. "It's that kind of gameplay rather than a dumb action game with auto-targeting. You can strafe through areas, take cover and target whoever and wherever you want. But we've also got a big, strong storyline and that real action game excitement."
Enemies react believably to gunshots because of Gun's bodypart-specific collision system. Or for that true gunslinger touch you can even blast the iron out of someone's hand and perform Tony Hawk-esque tricks with your bullets. "Our system lets us build in a real learning curve. It's easy to just shoot an enemy, but if you want to show off you can shoot out dynamite crates to send bad guys flying, then juggle them up in the air with your bullets. You can even juggle an enemy's firearm if you're a sharp enough shot."
You can even grab an enemy to use as a human shield before brutally executing them, or there's always the no-nonsense approach: "We have dismemberment, so you can take somebody's arm off if you want."
But surely the coolest thing about Western gunfights is the old quick draw, where triggers - and last breaths - are pulled in the blink of an eye? "We did a lot of research with professional gunfighters who do competitions and exhibitions," says Miller. "These guys are so fast they can get off six shots but you only hear two, and with their help we developed a time-limited slo-mo mechanic that you can only use with your six shooters."
Referencing Bullet Time, Gun's slo-mo feature lets you aim and fire several shots before your enemy's even got a bead on you. It's a cool way to capture the speed of a true gunfighter, and Neversoft is keen to reward players who capitalize on it: "As you gain more experience your meter gets longer and you'll be able to get off three or four shots before it runs out. Eventually you'll even be able to dual-wield your six guns in slo mo."
If sharpshooting's not your thing then there are plenty of other options. Every classic Western firearm you can think of is included in Gun, like shotguns, rifles with scopes, Gatling guns, and even dynamite and Molotov cocktails you can shoot out of the air, raining fire on cowering enemies. "All our weapons are authentic to the time period and they all have different ratings for things like power and reload speed," says Miller. "That adds a lot of strategy to the action - if you're pinned down in a tight area you don't want to spend a lot of time reloading your weapon."
Even Colton's method of regaining health is as Western as John Wayne eating baked beans from a spittoon: he quaffs whiskey from a flask.
GET OFF YOUR HORSE...
Just like shooters (and whiskey), horses were another essential part of Western life. "Horses are extremely important to the gameplay in Gun, because without them how do you get to the next town?" asks Miller. "So we took a whole lot of time getting the physics of the horse to look right, the way it canters along and breaks into a trot, and we've even worked hard to make sure the horse pivots as it would in real life."
Right enough, the horses in Gun look impressively lifelike. Their movement is fluid and realistic, ensuring that riding horseback offers the same advantages - and disadvantages - as it did to those who pioneered the West. "You can use your horse as an effective weapon. If someone's on foot and you're on horseback you have a huge advantage, firstly because you're faster and harder to hit, and second because getting run over by a horse hurts a lot. Our horses can stomp, or if your enemy tries to sidestep you can pull a skid and whip into him."
It doesn't stop there. Neversoft has worked in a 360-degree shooting mechanic that lets you ride in any direction and fire in any other. We witnessed one intense battle where Colton raced into a valley teeming with horse-riding mercenaries, and watched him twist and turn in the saddle as he took out enemies.
Just make sure you protect your steed. "They're living things, and will die if they get injured too badly. If someone is on horseback it's easier to take out the horse than the man." Still, yet another brilliant Western cliché could come to the rescue: "If your horse is losing energy you can shoot an enemy off his mount and jump onto it."
COWBOYS AND INDIANS
As for the other realities of frontier life, Miller is quick to reject the suggestion that Gun's numerous whorehouses and tarts with hearts mean there'll be explicit content. "There's no sex. There might be innuendos, but it's not like God of War where you're doing your analogue stick motions to pleasure the ladies."
No south of the border action on the bedsheets, then, but there is one aspect of Gun that might offend the moral majority. "Later on in the storyline you'll make an alliance with the Black Feet Indians."
Surely that's 'Native Americans', as one blushing audience member points out?
For Neversoft, raw accuracy is paramount: "In Gun they're called Indians. That's what they were called then, and that's what they're called in Gun. Sure, that's not exactly politically correct, but it wasn't a very politically correct time. We've done our homework and everything that in the game was a real aspect of the American West."
Indian or Native American, Colton's alliance with the Black Feet will put a totally different spin on the gameplay. How? Colton will change his appearance to look a little more like an Indian and he'll gain different weapons like a bow that can fire regular, dynamite or fire arrows, and a scalp-happy tomahawk.
The bow in particular seems like fun. It aims like a regular weapon, but tapping the trigger will only dribble a weak arrow-shot into the dirt a few feet from you. You'll have to charge up your shot by holding the button to really slam an arrowhead home, or use the arc of the arrow's flight to fire over obstacles. Plus, as Miller states, the bow is cool "because arrows stick in your enemies." Yee-haw!
Miller then demos a mission that shows Colton - in full Black Feet garb - raiding a military fort alongside several members of the tribe. He punctures several guards with arrows as he floats along a stream in a kayak, before hopping onto the banks and scalping a few more with his tomahawk. Then, abandoning the honourable rules of the tribe, he breaks out the six shooters and starts popping caps. Does the job, even if it the Chief won't be inviting you into his wigwam any time soon.
Other missions will involve herding cattle, protecting frontier farms from attack, racing horses, infiltrating opium dens, robbing banks, de-railing trains... "Anything you'd expect to be able to do in a Western game," proclaims Miller, "we have a mission or side mission that lets you do it." The idea is that these missions will lead seamlessly from one to the next, always pushing the storyline but never fencing you in with linearity. "There's no big stops between missions. The storyline keeps on driving you forward, but the free-roaming style means you can progress at your own pace."
INTO THE SUNSET
So now that we've waited so long to find out what Neversoft had planned with Gun, what's our initial reactions? Well, the atmosphere is certainly there, and the clever merging of third- and first-person shooting conventions should mean the gunplay has a little more depth than most action games. If the free-roaming Wild West world lives up to its billing, Gun could well establish itself as the king of the wild frontier.
Publisher Activision certainly seems to be aiming high with the game and plans to invest in some impressive Hollywood support. "Activision has the money to put behind the product and believes in the product, so you can expect big name voice talent and big name soundtrack talent that fits in with the theme of Gun."
That's great, but why should we trust a company that's really only known for a skateboarding game to deliver a Western shooter good enough to pull on your chaps for? "Gun has a great learning curve that means you'll be able to keep doing fresh and cool stuff. Just like how in Tony Hawk you can take one rail and keep skating it and doing new things that you've never seen before, Gun will make you want to replay again and again until you clear that mission without drinking any whiskey, or shooting the gun out of every enemy's hand, or getting a headshot on everyone."
And should we look out for Colton as a secret character in the next Tony Hawk's game? "Yeah, I wouldn't be surprised," sighs Miller. "But can you kickflip the horse? No way!"
With that, our first full look at Gun rode into the sunset.
Gun is due this Christmas on PS2, Xbox, GameCube, Xbox 360 and PC.