With sweeping, barren landscapes, the absence of law, and the struggles of powerful personalities, Westerns offer unique opportunities for storytelling, boiling down to essentials of right and wrong and self-determination in a void of civilization. They also serve as handy metaphors for the story of America – how a frontier of gun nuts with an inflated sense of self-entitlement became a nation of gun-nuts with an inflated sense of self-entitlement, but also with Big Gulps and Twitter.
(Just kidding, America. Happy 223rd!)
And so our anti-heroes, the brothers McCall push westward on a tide of blood in quest for gold and glory and sex with a spicy mamacita. After deserting from the Confederate army during Sherman’s infamous march across Georgia, Thomas and Ray flee into the west, becoming outlaws and hired guns to earn a living. They fall in with the bandit Juarez, the villain from the first game, and clash with Apache, Comanche, banditos, sheriffs, and a Confederate officer who refuses to believe the war is over, all while searching for the titular Aztec treasure.
The brothers have different skills, creating slightly different gameplay experiences depending on whom you choose. Ray, whom you may recognize as the Scripture-slinging badass from the first game, can wield two pistols, throw dynamite, and kick doors open; Thomas employs on a rifle, a lasso, throwing knives, and a bow. You spend almost all of the game fighting alongside your brother, and the game actually does a pretty good job of establishing the bond between them. Their banter is sometimes entertaining, though hokey, and occasionally – well, my thesaurus doesn’t list the antonym of “nuanced”, but here’s an example.
Ray: “You’re learnin’!”
Thomas: “What I have learned is that you are one irritatin’ asshole!”
I don’t have a brother, so I wouldn’t know if real brothers talk like this or not. But I am skeptical. The plot and script follow the same exaggerated-but-effective tone. Many of the characters are stereotypes, but they’re used well; the plot is broadly but vividly drawn. The voice actors seem to be in on this, too, and they fling movie matinee accents around; I burst out laughing the first time I heard a Confederate officer draw “DEEE-nied!” to sesquipedalian lengths. Sometimes the accents work. Ray McCall’s voice acting is spot-on, and the owner of the gun store greeted me with a “Howdy – you want some guns?” so authentic that it made me miss Texas.
The gameplay is FPS Standard, with a damage system borrowed from Call of Duty and a cover system taken third hand from Gears of War. When you press against a wall, you’ll automatically peak around the corner – sometimes. When you crouch behind a crate, you may poke your gun above it. Actually getting the game to register you as “covered” is haphazard, it screws up aiming, and it doesn’t always protect you. One wonders why they couldn’t have just included lean buttons.
Minor complaints include a sticky auto-aim that you can’t turn off if you’re using a keyboard and mouse, and “starred” mission objectives; a floating star indicates where you should be going next, a floating hat shows the whereabouts of your brother, and two floating pistols guide you to weapons stores. You never have to think too hard.
The duels of the first game have returned and been polished a bit, though they’re still rather tricky. Sometimes a special enemy, like a sheriff or the head bandito of whatever gang you’re slaughtering, will call you out in classic Wild West style, and then you have to have a shootout. The camera repositions just behind and to the right of your character’s firm thigh, and you use the mouse to move his seemingly disembodied hand as close to his gun as possible; when a bell rings, you draw with the mouse and plug your opponent before he plugs you. (In the West, we say “plug” for shoot”. We say “jump the broom” for “get married” and “French pox” for “syphilis”.) These shootouts look great the first time; the soundtrack intensifies the moment; your opponent circles warily and you think there might be some purpose for you circling in kind; then the bell, and you watch as Thomas or Ray crumples slowly to the ground. Yes, you had an opportunity to shoot; you must have blinked, because you missed it.
Repeat. Frustration mounts. Eventually you get lucky.
Fortunately, these duels aren’t too common, and you can get through them – after a number of agonizing, slow-motion deaths.
The game shines in its variety of missions and number of great moments. A large number of missions begin with the brothers starting a fight, then having to kill everyone in town to escape, but you’ll also escort a wagon loaded with black market rifles through Comanche territory; you gun down pursuers from a stagecoach while rattling through the Ozarks; you blast Yankee boats apart with a cannon and, in one sequence reminiscent of an old light-gun game, you blow up barrels of dynamite before they can hit your rickety elevator while descending a sheer cliff. There are also two open world segments where you can select from a few missions: protect the railroad from Injuns, kill a gang, rescue some cattle. These are pleasant diversions and give you a little scratch with which to buy better guns, as well as an opportunity to explore some of the world. I’d like to see this developed further in the next game.
Multiplayer extends the game’s lifespan beyond the fifteen missions on the disk; the Wild West mode is particularly awesome. You play on the “Lawmen” or “Bandits” team through classic Western shootouts, robbing or defending a bank, or even battling at the OK Corral. Curious, though, is the omission of co-op; since you play through almost the entire game with your brother on hand, it would make sense to let another player step into his shoes. There are secrets (concept art) to search for, and you can always replay the game as the other brother.
The environments are lush and lively; I’ll never forget leaning against a tree and being startled by a tarantula crawling across the bark an inch away, or the time I had my rifle poked over a boulder in a tense standoff, and a butterfly landed right in front of my face, only to fly away when my opponent shot at me. Hawks and vultures hover properly over desert landscapes, and the vegetation completes the immersive quality of the world. The cities are well designed, and the rural shacks and barns look appropriately run-down. Character faces range from quite detailed to inexplicably mannequin-esque; our heroes look weathered and wrinkled, but the main villain and the heroine have simplistic features and textures. Facial animations are horrendous; no one is capable of expressing any emotion, and conversations play out with the verisimilitude of an animatronic Chuck E. Cheese show.
The soundtrack adroitly combines modern notes with the signature sounds of Old West soundtracks; Morricone flutes and trumpets loft above chugging electric guitars, and you think, “Certainly the barrenness of the Western landscape is a fitting metaphor of the human condition.” Then you kill an entire town, and it feels great.