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"