The first person shooter (FPS) is by far the most maligned genre in all of videogaming (although, to be fair, this is just because there isn't a large "porno" genre… yet). Striving as it does to simulate for people the experience of shooting other people in the face (or groin, depending on the gamer's tastes), the FPS has been accused of everything from desensitizing the youth of America to training a generation to be heartless killing machines. As games get more graphically impressive, and we creep up on the day that some company takes the time to model all of the individual bone fragments created when a human head is pulverized by a shotgun fired at point blank range, Dead Man's Hand is something of an interesting iconoclast-a first person shooter that has completely divorced its gameplay from the reality of taking a human life.
First appearances would suggest that it's just another FPS in the slew of current titles. While its western theme isn't especially common these days, everything else about the game is very familiar, from the variety of weapons to the high-end physics model to the well-animated yet similar-looking enemies. Dead Man's Hand screams "just another FPS" with all its might—which makes the fundamental difference in experience that the game offers from other FPSs so striking, although not necessarily in a good way.
The first step to accomplishing this shift to morally neutral violence is, naturally, removing all realistic consequences of violence from the game. Scouring the levels as I might, I couldn't find a single drop of blood anywhere. The corpses are also good enough to tastefully disappear a few moments after being shot dead.
The biggest factor by far though, is the game's combo system. There is a counter and an empty bar at the bottom of the screen. Each time a bullet strikes something of value-be it a desperado, a glass bottle or a vulture-the counter ticks it off, a little bit of energy is put into the bar, and the player earns a small number of "legend points." For each successive hit after the first one, a bonus is given on top of the base points, and the combo bar drains a little bit faster. Through fast movement and accurate shooting, as well as finding hidden targets, such as potted plants, which can be tossed into the air and shot like skeet for an exponentially large bonus, the player can rack up tens of thousands of points per level.
This play mechanic is nothing new, and actually feels a little like a missing minigame from TimeSplitters 2, but I was shocked at the tunnelvision that it caused in me. I ceased thinking of my opponents as anything but moving targets, whose hats should always be shot off, if possible while in they're jumping through the air, for a triple score. Many was the time I would run down a narrow street, taking as much care to shoot the various windows and business signs as the outlaws that were firing at me. There were also plenty of occasions in which the game allowed me a respite from the running and shooting as I would stand in front of a packed bar and carefully shoot every single bottle on the wall in a desperate attempt to push my combo counter over fifty.
While this makes for fast and fun gameplay that's easy to pick up and play for a few minutes, challenging a high score before going back to work, it's also not really a deep or satisfying enough experience to build an entire game around. As I mentioned earlier, the entire game feels like a minigame from some bigger, better thought-out game. Perhaps I'm being a little harsh, but I honestly couldn't tell if the designers intended the game to be played this way or not.
One thing's for certain, though-there's not enough game here to be played any other way. While the level design is competent enough, for the most part the levels are so linear that the game might as well be an on-rails shooter (interestingly, the two on-rails levels, in which the main character is on the back of a startlingly willful and fearless horse, are the game's high points). Even the standout feature of the engine, the ragdoll physics, feel a little floaty—dead bodies are just too eager to flip end over end at the slightest impetus. The game doesn't even offer the most basic pretense of realism when it comes to its opponents: unlike basically every other FPS ever, when killed, the enemies don't drop any ammunition.
The game also falls short in the weaponry department-despite the fact that there are nine firearms, all of them with secondary firing modes, too many of them feel similar, don't work the way they should, or just aren't useful. Each time the secondary fire is used, a "special weapon" bar is depleted, but with the revolver (whose secondary function is "fanning," or repeatedly hitting the hammer while keeping the trigger depressed to fire quickly), this system breaks down, since each hit gives more special weapon juice than it costs to fire, the meter can be filled with juice in a matter of moments with no effort. Worst of all, there's no sense of accomplishment to getting a new weapon. They're not acquired in the game; they just appear in the arsenal at the beginning of a new level for no discernable reason, with no explanation of how they got there.
I suppose I should say a few words about the story—it's the standard tale of a criminal betrayed by his gang and left for dead… Which basically means that players are asked to play as a murderer, whose only good quality is that he's killed slightly fewer innocent people than the "bad guys." Actually, he might be a little less sympathetic than the villains, since, in addition to being a murderer, he's also something of a liar-the main character "El Tejon," claims to have been "shot in the back and left for dead," but the opening cinema clearly demonstrates that he was given a fair chance to draw for his life, and he lost. It's a little bit sad when a game's "story" consists of maybe thirty lines of text, and I can still find a problem with it.
So the game isn't playable as anything but a gussied-up target shooting experience. This would be acceptable if there was some depth at all to the shooting gallery. The first time I beat a level, I was told that I'd earned 8000 points. My first thought was "Is that a good score?" There aren't any challenge scores, or items to unlock by surpassing those scores, or extras of any kind. Except for the joy that self-motivated people get from beating their own best scores, there's really no reason at all to go back to cleared levels. Interestingly, the other current western game, Red Dead Revolver contains the exact same combo dynamic, only in that game the cumulative points earned can be used to buy art gallery pages, weapon upgrades, and multiplayer characters, which only serves to make DMH look all the less polished and professional.
Dead Man's Hand is a mildly diverting shooting gallery, a mediocre FPS, and a slap in the face to those of us who have been waiting for seven years for a decent western-themed shooter. Steps should have been taken at some point to decide whether the game was going to be a real FPS, or just an elaborately disguised trap shooting simulator. That decision was never made, so the game hovers somewhere in between, an unsatisfying experience any way it's approached.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PC version of the game.