The myth of the Wild West has mutated over the past half-century. Where once we thrilled to the wholesome exploits of the Lone Ranger, now we wallow in the mesmerizing depravity of HBO's Deadwood.
Film geeks can argue about when it started to change, but by 1992's Unforgiven, pop culture was only big enough for one version of the Old West: dark, gritty, and violent. Gone were the gunslingers in white hats, rescuing damsels in distress from mustache-twirling villains; the new Western protagonist drank hard, cavorted with whores, and was only heroic by virtue of the fact that he shot at men more wantonly evil than himself.
All of which makes the neo-western a perfect staging ground for the kind of open-ended, do-anything game play that, in the wake of Grand Theft Auto, has become the gaming industry's one-trick pony. Enter Activision's GUN, a blood-soaked game that mostly gets it right, except for one story element that's so ugly, it almost derails the whole experience.
GUN's story is a fairly straightforward tale of vengeance, with the player taking the role of Colton White (voiced by actor Thomas Jane of The Punisher). All you need to know is that Colton's been wronged -- now it's time to introduce buckshot to a few asses. Sure, it's not Shakespeare, but the clichéd script is entertaining enough and elevated by some excellent voice work from well-known actors like Tom Skerritt, Brad Dourif, and Ron Perlman.
Players spend their time in the game's dusty towns and gorgeous landscapes, engaged in the sort of activities you'd expect to find in the Old West: cardplaying, cattle-herding, prospecting, and of course, lots of gunfighting.
GUN handles all these elements perfectly. The controls are easy to learn, making everything from rounding up stray cows to shooting enemies from horseback seem surprisingly intuitive. And though the game's many diversions will tempt you to stray, it's always easy to get back on track with the main plot.
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Yet even with all the different weapons to fool around with, secrets to discover, and side jobs to take (wanted posters that advertise work for bounty hunters are a nice touch), GUN ends up running a little short on ammo. Playing straight through, a decent player can polish off the game in one long sitting.
But GUN's biggest problem is its murky morality -- in particular, its jarringly distasteful treatment of Native Americans. Early on, you learn that Apaches have been interfering with the repair of a railway that leads through their territory. It's your job to exterminate the braves, so that the Chinamen can get back to work.
Once upon a time, the sequence would have seemed like just another round of cowboys and Indians, but to modern eyes it looks a little too much like genocide. The game fails on its own terms by including it. The notion of Native Americans as savages is a throwback to the old Old West; the post-Unforgiven aesthetic -- which GUN tries to ape -- might value vulgarity, but when it comes to race, it's also far more enlightened.
In the end, though, GUN is certainly the most enjoyable Western-themed game to come out in the past few years. Like a quick-draw contest at high noon, GUN finishes in a hurry and leaves a lasting impression.