Video games are in a rut. Sure, graphics, sound, game play and story are getting better, but how about some diversity when it comes to subject matter? On computers and consoles there are thousands of games to choose from, but the fact remains; if you’re not interested in war, sports, science fiction or fantasy, your choices are greatly reduced. Red Dead Revolver seeks to end the current geek-oriented glut of swords, jockstraps and ray guns with action set in the American West.
Red Dead Revolver is a stylish third-person shooter that simulates western cinema, right down to the scratchy film stock and the spaghetti-centric soundtrack. The game’s protagonist is Red, a grim gunman out for bloody revenge against the desperados who offed his parents. The road to vengeance takes players through a wide array of classic oater settings. Diverse game play styles, such as the ability to play on horseback or gun opponents down in unique showdown sequences, keep the proceedings fresh.
If there’s one thing the games developer Rockstar seems to understand best, it’s the importance of polish and Red Dead Revolver oozes with style. The familiar ring of ricocheting bullets punctuates the game’s menus. Loading screens are presented with stark backgrounds reminiscent of the animated credit sequences that were popular 40 years ago, except here they have a contemporary twist – a setting sun tracks the progress of the load. The most noticeable and effective bit of flash is the game’s outstanding licensed soundtrack. All the music is culled from obscure spaghetti westerns of the 60s, including a track by Ennio Morricone.
Many levels recreate scenes from classic (and not-so-classic) Westerns. One puts Red in an arena that pays homage to Sergio Leone’s legendary The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Red is stuck in the middle of two warring armies – both vying for a bridge. He must wade through a river, avoid cannon fire, gun down soldiers and plant explosives, eventually blasting the godforsaken bridge to kingdom come. Another sequence, with a Gatlin gun strategically placed atop the battlements of a Spanish fort, is a nod to the bloody finale of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. For the old-school impaired, Rockstar even tossed in a gunslinging Leonardo DiCaprio look-alike to reach the young ‘uns whose only cinematic Western knowledge begins and ends at Sam Raimi’s underrated The Quick and the Dead.
With all these musical and thematic cinematic beats covered the game is hard to resist. But, where Red Dead Revolver’s flourishes soar, it tends to lack in game play. There’s nothing terribly wrong with how Red and his six guns handle, it’s just that sometimes the controls are, for lack of a better word, pesky. Much of Red’s survival depends on his taking cover behind rocks, corners, barrels and the like. A simple button press when near a flat surface backs Red against a wall. Now entrenched, he’s able to pop his head out and take aim at will. Problems arise when Red, now “stuck” to a wall, starts taking fire from another direction. Getting unstuck and re-acclimating to where all the enemies are and what direction Red is now facing can get hairy, especially when taking lead.
Another design nitpick comes from the game’s sometimes imprecise instructions. The aforementioned bridge level instructs the players to take out cannons with a specific weapon, but none of the weapons at Red’s disposal share that name. An ill-conceived barroom brawl, that eschews gunplay for Red’s clumsy melee combat, is a real showstopper as well. To be fair, Red Dead Revolver can count a unique showdown mode, a satisfying wrinkle on Max Payne’s bullet time, and a bevy of playable characters to its arsenal of gaming successes. And that’s nothing to sneeze at.
Thematically, Red Dead Revolver makes several missteps that undermine what it has going for it. Firstly, the story is nowhere near as engrossing, thrilling or as the films it pays homage to. And the dialogue doesn’t come close to living up to the precedent set by Leone’s flawless spaghetti westerns. No character in Red Dead Revolver has a single line that comes close to the unforgettable and hilarious bastard noise of Eli Wallach as Tuco Ramirez. The best that the game’s writers could manage was an already trite movie quote. General Diego, when firing on Red during one of the game’s better “boss” battles quips, “Say hello to my little friend.” Scarface quotes are as played out as Pong. A company with game based on a movie as cool as The Warriors in development can do better.
The last of Red Dead Revolver’s admittedly few shortcomings lies in its willingness to resort to video game clichés that undermine the old-school Western tone of the game. Many of the boss battles star over-the-top villains of the kind rarely found in Westerns, old or new. One, a man who thinks he’s a bear, leaps with superhuman agility between several perches as Red tries to gun him down. Another drinks magical potions and teleports from rooftop to rooftop. Several more, while in possession of no superpowers, are still a tad outrageous for the game’s otherwise earthbound themes. Better care in the story department could have delivered a video game with the impact and power of Western greats. As it is, Red Dead Revolver doesn’t quite live up to its influences.
Had the developers of Red Dead Revolver paid as much attention to mining classic video game control as they did to beloved movie scenes, they might have had a perfect game on their hands. As it is, Red Dead Revolver is a damn fine game, proving that Rockstar really is on to something with its penchant for creating edgy, knowing games that gleefully mine pop-culture. When it comes style, Red Dead Revolver raises the bar. Now if they could have rustled up a tad more substance.