There should be more games set in the old west, and that ladies and gentlemen is a fact. Think about it, it's a perfect setting for a game, mysterious lone strangers with an eye for adventure are practically a required ingredient for all good western stories and the historical setting itself almost drops mission ideas into the laps of developers with the advance of the railroads, Indian attacks, gold rush fever, vigilante rule and the good old dawn shootout to name just a few. However, for some reason, no doubt to do with what games publishers perceive as marketable, 'Gun' was pretty much the first game to make a decent stab at the whole idea when it was released on PS2 and Xbox late last year.
Now, a year later and in what amounts to a 'Director's Cut' version of the original game, 'Gun' re-appears on the PSP as 'Gun Showdown'. The main game survives the transition largely untouched with the addition of five new missions; the main change to the game's story mode. None of them make much of a difference to the plot but they do serve to lengthen the game somewhat and as the brevity of the original was one of its flaws this can only be a good thing. On top of the new missions little tweaks like the early introduction of a horse that is yours to ride for the whole game rather than only appearing for particular missions feel so natural you wonder why they failed to appear in the original version. Its small touches like this that make you feel developers Rebellion really have taken on board some of the issues raised in the original versions and tried to fix them as best they can for this PSP version.
The story is classic (cliched would have described it just as well but I'm being nice) western stuff and sees you taking on the role of Colton White as he embarks on a journey to discover who his 'father' really was and avenge his death. What this means in reality is an almost Grand Theft Auto style (I really didn't want to make that analogy but it does get the point over even if it feels a little unfair to compare the two) experience with story and side missions playing out in the order you decide, if you want to just plough through the story and ignore the rest of the game then you can, or you can take a break from the main story when you fancy it and work through the numerous side missions that become unlocked as you go. Although, as I mentioned, the side missions aren't requirements to complete the main part of the game they do have a large impact on the ease with which you can do so. Complete side missions and you will be rewarded with increased abilities such as quicker reloading or improved accuracy as well as money which can be spent on weapon upgrades and whiskey (which, bizarrely, is Gun's idea of a health pack) among other things.
The transfer to the PSP has seen Rebellion struggle with the perennial problem of how to replicate the duel analogue control system onto the limited PSP control layout. How successful they have been is a matter of opinion but they have made as good a stab at it as I've seen so far which has to be applauded. While the PSP's analogue nub moves Colton around the triangle, circle, X and square buttons move the camera and with it Colton's aim when in combat situations. While not perfect, these buttons will never be as intuitive or fast as a true analogue control, they work well enough and Gun's fairly liberal approach to aiming accuracy helps to minimise any frustration. The game itself has lost a little of its graphical lustre in its move to the handheld but still more than manages to impress with the natural emptiness of the wild west environment playing into the engine's hands to a degree. Impressive cut scenes play out the story and for once the Hollywood cast that includes people like Thomas Jane, Kris Kristofferson, Tom Skerrit and Brad Dourif actually live up to their billing, their presence adding a sense of gravitas to Gun's story that more than makes up for its lack of originality.
A great setting, impressive graphics and great vocal talents wouldn't mean much if the game itself let the whole package down and for the most part Gun's gameplay more than keeps up. Once you've got used to the controls you'll be galloping through vast canyons picking off those pesky red Indians with your rifle or picking off bandits in shootouts on the main street as if you were born with your spurs on. One feature which seems, at first glance, a little out of place in a Western style game is the 'Quick-draw' mode which can be activated during combat. This slows the action down to a crawl and allows you to switch automatically between enemies with the flick of the analogue nub shooting them as you go. If this sounds just like a rip off of The Matrix's 'bullet-time' as seen in games like Max Payne then you'd be right on the money and despite it seeming a little out of place to begin with it soon starts to feel natural and means that the odds never feel overwhelming when you're being attacked by seven or eight bad guys at once. The missions themselves are structured well for handheld gaming with most of them fitting perfectly into the short sharp gaming bursts that portable systems tend to be used for. The frequent checkpoints mid mission also mean that you're never kept repeating the same bit over and over again too which means you always feel like you're making progress. The down side to that however is that dying can be used almost tactically, if you're low on health or ammo and have just passed a checkpoint allowing yourself to be killed, meaning you restart close by with full health and more ammo, is tempting and can make the game feel a little easy. A novel addition to the game is the inclusion of what appears to be Gun's equivalent of the 'Quick Race' option you tend to see in racing games. There are six 'Quick Play' missions outside of the main game allowing you to dip into the Gun world without having to worry about the story. These range from the standard combat style missions to animal hunting and even a game of poker.
New to the PSP version are Gun's multiplayer features which, as seems to depressingly be the norm on the PSP, are all Ad Hoc with no support for online gaming via infrastructure mode which is a shame. You and your friends can battle it out in standard deathmatch and capture the cross modes. There is also the ability to play multiplayer poker as well which is nice enough but a little pointless as it would surely be simpler and probably more fun to get out a real deck of cards and play as you're all going to be sat close by.
So, is Gun Showdown worth your money? Well, while not perfect by any means, the enemy AI won't win any awards, controlling your horse never feels as natural as it should, despite the new missions it's still not exactly the longest game in the world and for all its open ended free form ambitions there isn't that big a world to explore... such gripes seem a little unfair to complain about too harshly when you're having this much fun. And that's really what it comes down to, Gun is simply fun, allowing you to live out all your cowboy fantasies (no, not those ones) and feel like you really are an old west gunslinger. One day someone will create the perfect Western themed game but until then Gun Showdown is the closest there is and for that alone it deserves a look.