What do you do when you're fed up with making yearly skateboard titles that appeal to a hugely broad demographic? Make a brutal shooter set in the Wild West that carries an 18-certificate and has the 'kids can't play this' appeal of the Grand Theft Auto series. This is what famed Tony Hawk developer Neversoft has done, and while it's not really a genre that you could have predicted they would move into, GUN is a solid entry in what will undoubtedly be the first of a new series.
Despite being weighed down by claims from Activision that GUN was going to be the game of the year (this was many months before its release), GUN isn't the travesty that you might have expected - far from it in fact. You play Colton White, a young man with a talent for shooting. One day, after hunting with your 'father' Ned (who's played rather excellently by Kris Kristofferson), you board a steamboat to do some businesses. You gain possession of an important artefact and the boat is attacked, forcing you to jump ship, with Ned accepting his fate on the doomed steamboat.
So, this sets up the game's story, and gives you a reason to ride to Dodge City and start on your journey, with this mysterious artefact holding a secret that Ned wanted you to discover. As you might have assumed from the game's title, there's a lot of shooting in GUN. There are a total of twenty weapons in the game and Colton is pretty nifty with all of them. As well as standard third-person aiming - and a zoom for long range weapons - Colton can use what is called 'Quick-draw'; this is GUN's version of 'bullet time' and it gives you a huge advantage during shootouts. Using the slightly zoomed view you can take out enemies with ease and quickly switch targets with the left analogue stick. You could get by without using it, but it makes the trickier confrontations that little bit easier to handle.
It's worth noting that the console versions have some pretty heavy handed auto-aiming, with the aiming reticle actually moving for you in some instances, tracking the movement of enemies. All versions of the game also have huge hit boxes, meaning you can hit the enemy without actually hitting them. Whether or not this bothers you will be down to personal preference, but even with its rather strong helping hand, combat is still entertaining.
Aside from gunplay, you have a basic melee attack which lets you slash enemies if you get in close, and you use a range of explosives throughout the game. It's particularly satisfying to take a barrel of TNT, throw it into a crowd of enemies, enter 'Quick-draw' and then blast the barrel mid-air, taking out the whole group in a blood soaked explosion - it's been done before, but it's no less enjoyable here. Combat in the game is exceedingly brutal, with decapitations, scalpings and general nastiness. It certainly earns its 18-certificate and isn't for the fainthearted. Some moments even go beyond what you might consider decent taste, but the game's over-the-top take on the Wild West just about makes it bearable.
To get from area to area (the game gives the illusion that it's free-roaming, but is in actual fact pretty linear) you can walk, but it's much easier to mount a horse and gallop off. Now, this is another area where GUN doesn't stick to Wild West tradition. Horses are treated like dirt, allowing you to ride them to death (literally) and their lives are generally meaningless. If yours dies you can find another wandering around and take it. It would have been nice to feel some attachment to your horse, with its death actually meaning something, but you feel as close to them as you do a stolen car in GTA. Riding horses is actually a lot of fun and they are animated quite beautifully. You can even draw your weapon and fire while in the saddle and use the horse itself to trample enemies. All nice unpleasant fun.
The biggest problem with GUN is its length. The game is just too short. If you ignore side missions the story can be played through in less than seven hours, and the only real reason to play through the extra missions is to increase Colton's stats, but this is only really essential if playing the game on its hardest difficulty. It's not that they aren't fun, but they don't offer anything all that different to the main game, making you take out a thug and his henchman time and time again. Animal ranching and poker games mix things up a little, but they're simply not much fun to play, and feel like they've been added to artificially extend the game.
Considering the size of the environment GUN is a nice looking game. Mountains can be seen in the distance and the land stretches for as far as the eye can see, but there are clear signs that current generation consoles simply can't create the world as well as Neversoft had hoped. Textures are rather rough, enemy models could do with a few more polygons and the frame rate bogs down quite regularly. A scene at the beginning of the game shows this perfectly, with the camera panning out to reveal a vast open space and a steamboat on a river. With the music playing and the game's title appearing on the screen, it was obviously intended to be a 'WOW' moment, but it just falls flat due to the lack of detail in the scene. There are moments - such as riding behind a horse as it kicks up dirt into a plume of smoke - where things work very well, but GUN is definitely a game that could look wonderful in future next-gen incarnations.
Audio is exceptional, with superb voice work and a great score. As already mentioned, the game features the voice of Kris Kristofferson, but Thomas Jane (The Punisher), Lance Henriksen (Bishop from Aliens), Ron Perlman (Hellboy), Brad Dourif (Deadwood) and others all put in strong performances. It's just a shame that you never really get to know any of the characters in any detail, with the game moving along at such a breakneck pace that it's all over in a few short play sessions. Things move so fast that the time of day will suddenly change between missions, even though the game makes no attempt to show time has moved on.
There's no denying that GUN is an entertaining game. The controls are tight and the action never lets up, but considering the setting and story, it deserved a game of epic proportions (in length and scope) and it's hard not to feel a little disappointed. The hype surrounding the game and its adult nature should ensure that the series has a bright future, so hopefully Neversoft can build on these simple beginnings and create a game that does proper justice to the Wild West Setting. GUN can't possibly boast to be a game of the year, but it'll entertain anyone who gives it a chance, even if it's only for a few days.