Good, bad, and ugly.
The Western might be dead in Hollywood, but it's just getting started in video games. The built-in drama of the Old West seems tailor-made for game translation, from the hard-as-nails characters to the oft-imitated gunplay. Hey, the samurai gets a game almost every month – why leave his American counterpart, the outlaw cowboy, stranded in the gaming desert?
The answer is simple: most Western games stink. There have been a few bright spots over the years, most notably LucasArts' Outlaws, but by and large Western games wind up just like Rockstar's third-person action romp Red Dead Revolver, a game that relies so heavily on its subject matter than it forgets that people actually have to sit around playing it.
Provided you do try to play it, you'll take on the role of the mysterious loner Red. It seems some ne'er-do-wells killed your pa' right in front of you when you were a kid, an issue that requires a very specific kind of therapy called 'revenge.' So off you trot down the road to salvation by killing scores of bad guys throughout about 25 levels, all in the name of dear old dead dad. It's a lot like Conan, but with less Governors and more sheriffs.
This all takes place in the game's primary Story mode, but while Rockstar's name might be on the package, don't expect Grand Theft Horse or anything. You go from small, linear level to smaller, more linear level essentially shooting any enemies unlucky enough to have been scripted into them. In addition to Red, you'll play as a handful of secondary characters, though they all play much the same way.
Regardless of the character, Red Dead Revolver serves up typical third-person action stuffed into a cowboy costume. It's all kept simple and solid; switching weapons, aiming and firing is handled nicely thanks to responsive control. Evasive maneuvers are here as well in the form of a rolling dive and the ability to duck behind objects. Unfortunately, the mechanics of shooting from behind cover don't work very well and often it's easier to just run around shooting enemies before they shoot you.
To spice things up a little, the game employs two other ways to dispatch bad guys. The more useful of the two is "Dead Eye" mode, or as the rest of the world prefers to call it, "Bullet Time." Yep, at the press of a button you slow down time, score a bunch of target locks and blammo! Send the evildoers six-feet under The Matrix, er, ground. It works fine, but come on, how about a little more creativity?
The other interesting feature is Dueling, which only occurs at scripted moments during Story mode. It attempts to simulate a classic gun duel, making you pull back the analog stick to grab your gun, push it forward to point it at the bad guys, and then giving you a short amount of time to try aiming for the sweet spots before all hell breaks loose. It's a decent idea, but the fact that you can't actually decide when to use it turns it into nothing more than a gimmick.
When you aren't using Dead Eye or engaged in a duel, you just run around aiming and shooting at scores of bad cowboy henchmen, who demonstrate the kind of AI usually reserved for those infrared target rifle shooting ranges found at Disneyland. While they will often duck behind cover, they don't do it for any good reason. You can run right up to guy hiding behind a wall, stand next to him and shoot him in the face as he continues hiding from you. While you stand one foot to his left. Yee-haw!
The bosses aren't any better, with some following easy-to-learn patterns and others demonstrating the same kind of moronic AI found in the grunts. Killing a boss by just shooting him a few times seems sort of anticlimactic.
As is Red Dead Revolver in general. In between the action levels, you can wander around the game's one town, talking to NPCs to gather absolutely useless information or to buy things at one of a handful of shops. But even this is bland, as the only things to buy that impact the gameplay are Dead Eye increases, health bonuses and new guns. While the munitions (rifles, pistols and a few grenade-types) actually seem to carry some sort of statistical differences, they're the only things in the game that do. The game pretends to sell you useful stuff - items such as a whiskey bottle or a kerosene lamp cost in-game money - but all you're doing is unlocking story entries found in the game's Journal or new levels for the game's only other mode, Showdown. It's all the functionality of an RPG without any of the depth. Tastes great, less interesting!
It's a good thing another mode is here, too, because the Story mode only takes about 5 or 6 hours to complete. After you've emptied that clip, you can bounce over to Showdown , essentially Deathmatch against either the CPU or human opponents. A strange playing card power-up feature is thrown in here to presumably add complexity, but it's more confusing and random than anything else. The mode simply doesn't extend the life of Red Dead Revolver significantly.
Though the Xbox version features a smoother framerate and more polish than the PS2 version, both suffer from cheap character models and glitchy animations. Some levels admittedly look cool (such as the train chase sequence near the end), but the bulk of the environments are drab, brown and uninspired. Perhaps the nicest touch is found in the cut-scenes, which are presented in a grainy film reel style that captures the mood well. I'll also give props for the nice heat-warping effect.
Those props extend to the music, which recalls the great Western flicks on which the game is based. Sadly, the terrible voice-acting steals much of the audio thunder with amateurish accents and poorly-written dialogue.
Ultimately, your love for Westerns will dictate how much of Red Dead Revolver's marginal gameplay you'll be willing to sit through, making it at best a weekend rental. Take away the horses, squinty eyes, six-shooters and five o' clock shadows, and this cowpoke goes from deadeye to dead on arrival.