A Blast from the Past review

FBT saddles up and other clichés as he rides out to tame the wild west.

The Past

When it comes to free-roam, the wild west is perfect for making your own trails; if the buffalos roam why not gamers? But if you say 'Western free-roam' aloud, tumbleweeds pass by. Westerns had always been an underdog in gaming, mashed into other genres while pure Westerns usually fall into caricature-driven silliness. Red Dead Redemption was perfect yet still failed to spur a serious resurgence in the genre. Western games just never got over Custer’s Revenge. And then there was Gun.

Released dead-centre of the free-roam explosion of the mid-00’s, Gun was set in the vile west of revisionist western cinema; its brutality earned Gun a BBFC 18 and it exemplified Leone’s description of a western; "where life has no value". It was a proper wild west experience, William Munny not Roy Rogers and I loved it. I think. I can’t remember much about it other than the violence and a lot of riding but I’d swear Gun was the real west while still hitting all the western beats. Time to yeehaw through the wild west again.

Still a Blast?

Gun’s menu is so western I expect ‘Technicolor’ and ‘Panavision’ to appear while someone yells ‘Rawhide!’ Sweeping plains, buffalos roaming, a stirring score; open and vast, it immediately looks epic. So does the voice cast. Any star who can pull off a moustache is in this - Ron Perlman, Lance Henriksen, Kris Kristofferson, Tom Skerritt, Brad Dourif; all of them at their Marlboro Man best (No Sam Elliott? How’d they miss him?!), while our hero is earthily voiced by Thomas Jane. I’m excited to be a cowboy! Rollin’ rollin’ rollin’.

We are tracker Cole, who, along with his grizzled Pa, boards a Steamboat to collect payment for the animals we shot during a tutorial mission. Once aboard, a prostitute pal of Pa’s gets an axe in the head and the boat is overrun. With the men closing in, Pa tells Cole he’s not his Pa after all and then ignores a chance to escape in favour of making Cole promise to reach Dodge City and visit a prostitute. Pa had his priorities right to the end.

After saving Pa’s back-up prostitute from some impatient types in a gunfight, Cole honours Pa’s memory and sleeps with her. In return, she tells us to reach Empire City, but first we have to defend bowing, rice-hat wearing Chinese workers from howling pissed-off in’juns while they finish a bridge connecting Dodge to Empire. This being a free-roamer, I ignore their plight in favour of getting to know Dodge.

​​Well that didn’t take long. There’s not much to know really, a saloon where you can get battered at poker (you can cheat, but it doesn’t help this greenhorn) and side-distractions like Wanted posters; capturing the renegades Alive nets more gold than Dead but it’s not easy and they often have cohorts making it hard to not kill them during the fight. Elsewhere there’s the Pony Express where you deliver goods within a set time, but those I quickly give up on thanks to my untrusty steed. Horses in Gun are quite hardy and fast in a straight-line, but they turn like a cruise ship and can get disorientating when you’re swivelling Cole one way and the horse turns another. You can also work with the Marshall to take care of various trouble-makers in town. All those give you gold and add to your reputation, making Cole better at riding, quick-draw etc., so they’re worth doing. Except the Pony Express.

Having exhausted all to do in Dodge I go help secure the bridge. As I fight off waves of American Indians I use quick-draw to shoot dynamite out of the air, stop them tomahawking the workers, generally live out my cowboys vs Indians childhood fantasy, if I’d been born in a time when cultural sensitives weren’t a thing. The game did generate a fair bit of controversy around its depiction of American Indians and Activision’s (Not An) Apology was insulting; “we apologize to any who might have been offended by the game's depiction of historical events which have been conveyed not only through video games but through films, television programming, books and other media”. To deflect it as nothing we’ve not seen before is the EXACT problem; you’re perpetuating an outdated view from a simplistic and one-sided viewpoint – even in 2005 we knew that image was grossly inaccurate and offensive, and it’s inexcusable because a character comments they’re attacking because the bridge is in their territory; so … they’re right to defend themselves then? The bridge stays with me for the rest of the game, hoping it’ll be justified later but it isn’t, and when you consider the clichéd appearance of the Chinese railway workers, Gun takes on an unpleasant, outdated tone.

Equally unpleasant and outdated is the portrayal of women. There’s only one which has a more than incidental appearance, a prostitute who’s gratuitously murdered. Elsewhere there’s Pa’s prostitute with the axe in her head, a prostitute on wanted posters (who will be ‘castrated’ on capture) and most female NCPs are prostitutes, pacing around in their underwear. We do meet two home-maker wifey types - both of whom get shot - and interact with a couple of nagging Southern-Belle types. That’s it. The male characters though are richly characterised and most were based on real-world cowboys (in name only, their real-life exploits were far more entertaining than Gun’s interpretation) - there have been a few notable women in the old west, just ask Doris Day. There’s no reason they couldn’t have found a place for an equal-footed female, yet not one plot-related woman survives.

The game itself has aged about as well as its treatment of women. The world just isn’t as vast as I recalled - there’s convenient cliffs and less convenient invisible borders stopping you roaming the bare and basic environment and there’s no real exploration; only two or three routes between the two cities which feel like a TV backlot rather than the old west, and there’s nothing in-between them. You can work as a ranch-hand for a local farmer, corralling cattle and the like – it’s a nice little side-mission and a great example of RPG that Gun could have done with more of. It’s just a whole lot of nothing. The game also constantly reminds you to go finish the main mission, like you were otherwise distracted. There’s also an American Indian who asks us to kill local wildlife pestering his tribe, but about the only other thing to do is annoy the locals; running over townsfolk with your horse or shooting/stabbing them causes the town to lose patience (Literally, you get a patience meter) and assemble a posse to go after you; for which there’s quick-draw, an old-west bullet-time. Gunfights are fairly straightforward but a macabre element is Cole can also scalp wounded enemies. Originally, he’d sell scalps to the Apaches, but it was removed pre-release (wouldn’t want to appear insensitive). So it just remains a compulsion of Cole’s. Who has other problems.

The biggest problem with Gun is Cole himself. He’s not for or against the American Indians, he’s indifferent towards them. They’re just between him and his revenge so it’s okay? Later Cole is excused for the bridge scene after saving some American Indians from slavery – which he did utterly by accident. Besides that, he’s boring to play; he never instigates or drives anything, just reacts. He’s not the man with no name, he’s the man with no idea. Less Shane, more lame. Not Josey Wales, it’s Josey fails. He’s not even Woody. When we first meet Cole, he’s napping; our hero, ladies and gentlemen.

Anyway, turns out a railroad boss is searching for a lost city of gold. Pa had a clue to the city hence his murder, so it’s off to avenge Pa, find the gold and help the Apaches regain their land. Well, that bit just happens by accident again. Along the way Cole finds out he has a little Indian in him - bet you feel bad about the bridge now, dontcha. No? No reaction; it’s frustrating that mid-way through Cole goes Dances With Wolves for the wrong reasons; he ends up working with the Indians by accident, not because of his heritage, or any deeper understanding of their plight but because they are looking to bring down the Rail Baron too (and need a white saviour to do it). All that to explore and we’re concerned with a city of gold? We’re playing the plot to Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold (1958) and it has the same dated red-in’jun killin’ and misogyny.

It’s hard to render an incredibly contentious period in America’s history comfortably, but because cowboys vs Indians has been normalised and the image trivialised, it somehow still seems okay; you’d not get a game where a Slave owner puts down thirty slaves for revolting and I’m sure in years to come, more than a few games and a lot of movies featuring 'the middle east' as an enemy will start to feel a little uncomfortable on retro-revisits; yet I bet we’re still shootin’ in’juns. I’m beginning to see why most westerns are something else-terns; sci-fi westerns, cyber-punk westerns, horror-westerns; no one gets offended by the misrepresentation of a zombie.

I hadn’t realised how small Gun really is; small in scale and small-minded. It’s not the game I recall on any level; I think my memory of disappearing into a western is because there wasn’t anything else like this then. To be fair, almost all the missions - as far as a game experience goes, are fun – the Bridge battle included; shooting dynamite out of the air, charging a fort, doing train robberies, quickdraws, defending stagecoaches is going to awaken the little cowboy in anyone. As to its tone - the voice cast, the violence, set-pieces and plotting, it’s clear Gun intended to be a mature, serious game and those were the politics and realities of the time – that a tracker from the mountains isn’t going to view the American Indians as anything but a threat and women were second class citizens. The characters can have those opinions, but the game can’t, not when we’re the hero; playing it is a lot different to excusing some old western as ‘of its time’. Gun’s heart might be in the right place but its head was scalped.

2005 | Developer Neversoft | Publisher Activision

platforms; Win | PS2 | X360