Review: Dead Man’s Hand (XB)

Dead Man’s Hand (Xbox)
Teaser: Did you know in North Dakota it’s still legal to shoot Native Americans if you do so from within the confines of a Stagecoach?

Dead Man’s Hand
Developer: Human Head Studios
Publisher: Atari
Release Date: 03/02/04
Genre: FPS

You know, it’s funny. I generally have disdain for First Person Shooters. Give me Ikaruga over Halo any day. R-Type Final over Unreal Tournament. Radiant Silvergun over Perfect Dark. Gradius over whatever new crappy James Bond game is out. And Westerns? Never been one that I would actually own. Either they were B movies without the amusement value, or just dark. Besides the Adventures of Brisco County JR., Westerns were a genre of entertainment that just left me cold.

So what made me choose to review Dead Man’s Hand, a type of game I loathe, in a setting I just don’t care for?

Well, there’re a couple of reasons. First, it’s been a long time since a good Old West Game came out. I mean we had the Stagecoach game for the 2600, Mad Dog McCree on the Sega CD, Outlaws on the PC, Sunset Riders in the arcade and well…what else? Yes, I know there are others out there, but one would think a Western game would right itself. Especially in the Arcades. Light guns rule! But there is a distinct lack of Western gun games. Most games in this genre consist of WWII scenarios, spy games, or Futuristic blow ’em ups. But games where you shoot Native Americans in their piehole because they didn’t take you smallpox infected blankets? Rarer than a person who does find the old 1985 movie Clue funny.

So when I saw Atari releasing this game, and noticed it was a combination of the more modern FPS games, but also went back and took details from the old light gun arcade games and rail shooters, well…I just HAD to give it a try. At worst, I would be able to completely and totally trash a game to the point where someone would write me a horrible letter filled with grammatical errors and would either be in all caps, or without punctuation. At best, I’d be pleasantly surprised by a game I’d have passed up normally in favor or some game that involves a guy throwing fireballs at another guy or something with elves and wizards and the like. Plus it does me good to get outside my preferred genres on occasions. It’s how I found Haunted Mansion after all. But also why I was forced to sit through that horrible Beyond Good and Evil game. So yeah, I was taking a risk with Dead Man’s Hand. But that’s why you love me.

Let’s Review

1. Story

You are El Tejon, a young man who was quick with a gun, but not with his wits. Seduced by the glitz, glamour, and gold from being in the dirtiest gang in all the Old West, the Notorious Nine, you joined and let loose havoc upon the countryside. But where the rest of the gang were sadistic killers and cutthroats, you were only in the gang because of the impetuousness of youth. You had neither the stomach or the nerve to slaughter innocent women and children. And by the time you realized you were walking down the wrong path, it was too late. When you tried to leave the gang, the sinister leader, Tennessee Vic shot you in cold blood and left you for dead. Yet like shone upon you as you awaken in a prison in the midst of revolution. Helped by the bandito freedom fighters, you escape and set out on a quest based solely on revenge. You caused many an innocent person to lose their lives. Now you must make up for your past deeds by slaying those that helped you commit them. One by one.

And that’s the story of Dead Man’s Hand. A great little Western tale if ever there was one. You have an excellent protagonist in the anti-hero El Tejon who has gone from naive youth to total womanizing badass.

I really got into the cut scenes of this game. With them, the game shifts from full colour to black and white footage as if you are watching an olden tyme movie, back when you could see news, cartoons, a serial, and a feature for a nickel and still have enough left for a giant Zagnut by cracky!

As well, each section of the game has a plot. Yes, an honest to god plot! Of course, the plot basically revolves around El Tejon tracking and killing a member of the Nine and taking out their own personal gangs one by one. But it’s well done.

And I hope this is intentional, but the game feels like such a spaghetti Western. With characters bearing names like Dirty Sanchez, Father Zeke, and “Big Guns” Grissom, you have to believe that the Developers at Human Head were trying to balance both the cheese inherent in most films and books of the old west, with serious gameplay and even some inside jokes. I mean, come on! DIRTY SANCHEZ???

I can’t believe I found the story of a Western AND a FPS entertaining. But it is in fact so. A good simple tale of betrayal, revenge, and a man’s struggle to battle his innermost demons. Sometimes simple is best people.

Story Rating: 7/10

2. Graphics

For what it is worth, Dead Man’s Hand is a good game to look at. It’s not the most beautiful game ever. But then, it’s not supposed to be. The game looks and feels like a Western should. It’s in beiges, tans, and maroons. This is not supposed to be a bright and vibrant game. It’s dusty and aside from the occasional hooker in a corset, there’s not much colour. It looks and feels like a Western should. And I like that.

The characters look real enough. The problem is, aside from the bosses, or supporting characters that appear in cut scenes, every character looks the same. All the fat Mexican sombrero wearing gunslingers look just like the other fat Mexican sombrero wearing gunslingers. The cowpokes all look like the other cowpokes. It’s as if each member of the Nine has their own personal cloning device.

The backgrounds and worlds in DMH are diverse and each one is fantastic in their own right. When you escape from a Mexican prison, it really does look like a dingy old jail. When you scour the New Mexican bluffs for Flat Iron, you can see layers of sediment and distinct variations in height and thickness of the canyon walls. It’s very well done, even if the human characters aren’t.

The game’s graphics capture the feel of the Old West pretty well. And Dead Man’s Hand may not be able to go toe to toe with a lot of other games in sheer mind boggling beauty/ But like the time period this game was set it, it’s meant to be a little uglier and grittier than its brothers and sisters. And again, sometimes that is a good thing.

Graphics Rating: 7/10

3. Sound

I love the music for Dead Man’s Hand. It’s not a soundtrack I would ever buy, as it’s not my type of music. But it fits the game so perfectly. The main theme just conjures pictures in your mind of Desperados, a time when the law was decided by who had the quickest draw, and when being good meant being just a shade nicer than the bad guys. But not TOO nice. They’ve really captured the essence of the genre in the music.

The voice acting is top notch as well. IF you remember the game is basically a spaghetti western. There’s a lot of cheesy play here with Sanchez screaming about his tequila or Flat Iron talking slow and methodically. Bad accents all around in this game! Father Zeke has an amusing Southern Drawl. And TN Vic? You just picture him tying lasses to the railroad tracks and foreclosing the mortgages of Orphanages.

I’m really happy with DMH in terms of the vocal aspects of the game and find it to be a fine homage to the genre.

Sound Rating: 10/10

4. Control

I can’t believe how much I enjoyed this game. It really did take the aspects I enjoy from Arcade shooters and add them to the more modern FPS game. Things like shooting rocks or weights or anything else large and heavy onto the skulls of your opponents. And when they blow connects, a giant anvil graphic appears on the screen. CLASSIC. You can shoot the hats off of your opponents for extra points. You can shoot projectiles out of the air. Heck, you can even sneak up on opponents and use a bowie knife if you’re one of those Splinter Cell/Metal Gear stealth loving gamers. DMH lets you have the free sprawling levels of FPS games, but includes a lot of nostalgia in regards to old Arcade shoot ’em ups.

The shot chains are an interesting concept I’d like to talk about. Certain things (Targets, hats, bottles, windows, etc) increase your shot meter and also give you more legend points. The more of these objects you shoot, the higher your shot chain meter grows, which increases your score exponentially. It’s something I haven’t seen before in an FPS. The only downside is, that points seem to do nothing for you in this game, and you can just ignore it. However, this is one of those “Throwbacks” to arcade shooters, when people actually took the time to care about and improve their scores. No doubt this is a dying breed of gamer, but I’m glad to see it in there.

There’s also a Power meter that fills up in the same way. The more you have stocked up in this meter, the more interesting shots you can pull off with the secondary fire trigger (The L trigger). Again, like the shot chain, it’s a nice idea, but not one you really have to pay attention to in this game.

Little things go a long way in this game. Different guns have different reload times. Some guns have kickback to them. The computer can accidentally kill his own men with bad aim or misplaced fire. Watching a crazy Bandito blow up himself and two other opponents with a stick of dynamite is rewarding in and of itself. Heck, even fighting on horseback is a great touch, and something I haven’t ever seen in a game before. First person horse riding? This just brought a smile to my face for the sheer brilliance of it. Again, I can’t believe how untapped the Old West setting is!

Controls are spot on, the engine is tight, and there is no slowdown or weirdness of any kind when engaging in multiplayer mode (either LAN or vis Xbox Live). Again, DMH proves itself to be a surprisingly well done game.

Control rating: 8/10

5. Replayability

Thanks to three levels of difficulty and the ability to replay levels to improve your arcade based point score, I find this DMH to be a little more rewarding than the usual story mode of an FPS.

Of course, like every First person Shooter, the key factor is multiplayer and/or online mode. This game is fun on its own, but with a group of people, it’s even better. You can have up to 8 people play Dead Man’s hand and there are 4 modes of play. The first two are deathmatch and team deathmatch. If you know the genre, you understand it’s simply kill or be killed. The third mode is Bounty. And this is great! It’s everyone after one specific player who has to survive an onslaught from everyone else. Whoever kills the bounty then becomes the bounty and so on until time runs out. I found this to be a lot of silly fun online, because unlike Deathmatch people don’t get pissed or swear or act like an idiot. Bounty is meant to be insane and it shows. And thankfully people seem to get it. The final mode is posse, where your army of human players takes on a gang of computer controlled opponents who keep getting smarter. This is my favorite of the modes as it really fosters communication and teamwork and actually has a decent difficulty level to it.

The only problem with Live mode is it lack the ability to destroy bits of the environment like you could in story mode. Kind of weird that it’s missing, but in the end, it’s more fun to shoot your friends than watermelons.

Replayability Rating: 6/10

6. Balance

It’s very nice to see the game has included three difficulty setting. And even better you can switch between them between levels. The levels also increase pretty steadily in difficulty. The escape from prison is a simple as all get out level. The tracking and killing of Sanchez is a bit harder, but you can get through those two levels with only a scratch or two. But once the enemy starts coming at you 2-3 at a time or dynamite and guys on horseback come into the picture, it gets harder and harder.

And the bosses? Nice little challenges as each one is distinct from the one that came before it. And of course, there’s a special way you need to kill them. Wait. Let me correct that. There’s a way you can kill them with style and with a lot less risk to your own life compared to just going in guns blazing.

I found the learning curve for this game to be under ten minutes and the game ensures it gets harder as you get better. What more can you ask for?

Balance Rating: 8/10

7. Originality

An Old West FPS? An Old West FPS where you can ride horses? An Old West FPS where you play Poker before each level to get you ammo, a higher power meter, and more? These are some great touches on a genre I’m rather sick of. I find most FPS games to now be cliche and pretty much the same. From Doom on, very little has truly changed about the genre, save some different weapons and better graphics. It’s nice to see Human Head went out and took some risks that make the game more enjoyable and stand out from the rest of the genre.

Originality Rating: 7/10

8. Addictiveness

For all the nice things about this game, I didn’t have a compulsion to keep playing it again and again. I had a moderate amount of fun online, but I’d play 1-2 games of it against total strangers (although if people reading this BUY the game…) and then log off. Same with story mode. Play until I beat the boss. Then turn it off and come back to it later. As interesting as I found the game, it didn’t suck me in. It’s a good fun thing to do for 30 minutes to an hour, but I can’t see anyone become a Dead Man’s Hand fanatic.

Addictiveness: 5/10

9. Appeal Factor

This is an FPS for non FPS fans. I generally find the genre boring, but I really enjoyed Dead Man’s Hand for what it was. Some nifty innovation, some fun online play (Posse and Bounty) and some mediocre online play (Deathmatch). The Old West setting gives in a unique feeling amongst all the WW2 Sim/Futuristic alien blasting/Doom wannabes games that have supersaturated the market. I’d like to think this game, if picked up by those disenchanted with the genre will help rekindle an enjoyment of it., but more likely it will be hardcore FPS fanatics playing this game and having a real problem with the arcadey setup of this game. Well…their loss. Not mine.

Appeal Factor: 6/10

10. Miscellaneous
This is going to be an odd thing to touch in. But you know what I really loved about this game? The Manual. Wait. Stop laughing. Go look at the manual for this game. Find a store that keeps their sale copies behind glass but leaves empty cases out. Open the case and pull out the manual and be impressed. They made the entire manual to look and feel like an Gazette from the time period this game takes place in, even down to faux yellow/browned paper. I’ve looked through and read the entire manual 5 times simply because each time I read it, I find something new I missed before. It’s a very nice piece of work and kudos to Seth Johnson for putting together the manual like he did. He also did the script and dialogue BTW, which makes me like him even more.

Appreciate the little things people. From the first FPS where you can have duels on horses to hidden things like a Runestone to bonus shooting galleries and online play, Dead Man’s Hand has really packed a lot of stuff into this game. And I’m quite happy with the result.

Miscellaneous Rating: 10/10

Short Attention Span Summary
Mixing the FPS genre of shooters with the Arcade light gun shooters of yesteryear was something I found refreshing and fun. Always a fan of the light guns, never a fan of the FPS, Dead Man’s Hand actually made me look past my automatic disdain for this type of game, and I found myself having fun with it. I know a lot of people and sites will pass this game over, but it’s worth at least a rental, and with a pricetag of $29, you can’t go wrong buying it either.