Ranking the E3 2017 Press Conferences [Pixelkin]

Read the full article on Pixelkin

It’s a pompous, yet time-honored tradition to grade each publisher’s E3 press conference. Companies go through an interesting cycle every year where some have exciting new game announcements or console reveals while others tow the line with some extended trailers. And some just go completely bonkers.

Here is our ranking of the E3 2017 press conferences.

Read the full article on Pixelkin

Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – Child of Light

Ubisoft effectively distills all the best elements of a traditional JRPG into a fun and beautiful 10-15 hour package.

I have finished another backlogged game via Rogue’s Adventures. You can read my latest Final Thoughts below and also on my gaming blog on Game Informer.

Developer: Ubisoft Montreal

Publisher: Ubisoft

Release Date: April 24, 2014

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Charming, fairy tale-like indie games are all the rage right now – even AAA publisher Ubisoft had to get in on it. Child of Light isn’t an indie game at all. Instead it cleverly distills the best parts of the normally long and bloated JRPG into a tight 10-15 hour experience. It’s lovingly wrapped up in a beautiful hand-drawn art style and expressed through a constant rhyming structure throughout the whimsical dialogue. The story is a bit basic and linear, but overall the condensed RPG experience works remarkably well. Continue reading “Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – Child of Light”

Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag

An amazingly fun open world pirate adventure that would better served without the Assassin’s Creed franchise trappings.

I have finished another backlogged game via Rogue’s Adventures. You can read my latest Final Thoughts below and also on my gaming blog on Game Informer.

AC 4 Black FlagDeveloper: Ubisoft Montreal

Publisher: Ubisoft

Release Date: October 29, 2013

 

Assassin’s Creed is one of many major game franchises that I have never played, and never had much interest in (see also Metal Gear Solid, and any horror franchise). I didn’t have anything particularly against it (other than Ubisoft’s terrible treatment of the PC) but the historical settings didn’t really excite me, and the themes seemed a bit dour and serious for my taste.

Enter Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag, my first Assassin’s Creed game. Black Flag takes place in the early 18th century, during the height of merchant trade, colonization, and pirates along the new world and the Caribbean. I adore the pirate theme – the ships that act as your mobile command center, the unique combination of swords and pistols, the dichotomy of lawlessness and imperialism. It translates so well to gaming it’s a shame we haven’t seen more pirate games. I still count Sid Meier’s Pirates! as one of the best, and the remake is over 10 years old.

Thus I finally decided to give an Assassin’s Creed game a chance, after a hefty Steam sale of course. Black Flag immediately immersed me into its fun world of pirate assassins, naval combat, and the open world of the Caribbean sea. In many ways it embodies the modern AAA video game – dumb story, cliché characters, incredible production values and tons of collectibles and modern gaming conveniences.  Continue reading “Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag”

Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – South Park: The Stick of Truth

A perfect combination of the show’s aesthetics and humor with a fun RPG system makes South Park: The Stick of Truth one of the best licensed games ever made.

I have finished another backlogged game via Rogue’s Adventures. You can read my latest Final Thoughts below and also on my gaming blog on Game Informer.

Developer: Obsidian Entertainment (with South Park Digital Studios)

Publisher: Ubisoft

Release Date: March 4, 2014

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I was slightly late to my South Park fandom. The first season aired back in the ancient era of 1997, and I’d written it off as a silly Beavis and Butthead style adult cartoon. While it was quite silly and full of shock value, I didn’t begin seeing its incredibly clever social commentary and political skewering until several years later. Around the time South Park was in its fifth or sixth season I caught up on all the episodes, and I’ve been a diehard fan ever since.

To say I was looking forward to South Park: The Stick of Truth is a big understatement. Developed by beloved RPG developer Obsidian, they were tasked with directly collaborating with Matt Stone and Trey Parker in creating an epic RPG with the look and feel of the show. Licensed games usually fare poorly in their translation to gaming, but all the previews looked fantastic, and The Stick of Truth made it onto my Most Anticipated Games lists….for 2012, 2013, and 2014!

The game had been stuck in development hell for years after its proud announcement, partly due to the dissolution of then-publisher THQ and its acquisition by Ubisoft. Heavily licensed game plus long, tumultuous development typically results in disaster. I’m pleased to say that not only does South Park: The Stick of Truth defy expectations, but it’s easily one of the best licensed video games ever made.

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From the moment you jump into the character creator the art style and animations completely absorb you into the world of South Park. The show’s unique 2D cutout animation is in full glorious display, and for the first time you can actually walk around and explore the modest open world of the town. Exploring the town of South Park brought me endless joy (and made me pine for a Simpsons-Springfield equivalent game). Everything is right where you think it is, from the South Park Mall to each boys’ cookie-cutter houses in a row.

The initial hook of the story is related to Season 17’s “Black Friday” trilogy, which ended with direct teases to The Stick of Truth. Though South Park goes in some very funny and dark places with its social commentary and pop culture references, my personal favorite episodes are when the kids are play-acting extravagant events and adventures. They juxtapose their incredibly imaginative and increasingly creative adventures with the equally mundane and crazy backdrop of their lives and town.

The Stick of Truth runs with this theme perfectly as most of the kids in town are playing a Dungeons & Dragons style real-world fantasy game using costumes and household objects as weapons. Entire factions are drawn up, war parties are formed, and you as the new kid in town are thrown into the middle of it. In fact, much of the main story missions are heavily inspired from BioWare’s RPGs as you gather allies from other factions such as the goth kids, the kindergartners, and even the girls. Eventually you’re forced to choose a side between Cartman’s humans and Kyle’s elves, though an even darker event causes the boys to join forces in the end.

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Meanwhile you’re free to explore the entire town at you leisure, with only a few locations blocked off Metroidvania-style until you acquire new abilities. The town is a treasure-trove of recognizable locations and hidden goodies, with just the right amount of side quests to add some additional adventuring without overwhelming you with superfluous tasks. I did enjoy collecting friends on Facebook; not only is it fun to find and talk to people but acquiring friends unlocks passive perks.

Loot is everywhere. By halfway through the game I was equipping new weapons and armor sets just about every 15 or 20 minutes, and each one has slots for equipping patches and “strap-ons” to modify them further to suit your needs. It’s an embarrassment of riches and partly lead to the overpowered feeling I quickly gained for most combat encounters.

Combat is designed similarly to Super Mario RPG and the Paper Mario games. When you run into an enemy, be they ginger kids, hobos, mongorians, or nazi zombies, the game shifts to a turn-based JRPG-style battlefield where you take turns using melee, ranged, magic and special abilities. Your magical abilities, of course, are powerful fart attacks that you acquire throughout the game, and are also used to access new areas in the world.

Combat is supported by active button-prompts, letting you dodge attacks and do more damage with the right timing. Abilities utilize active button prompts in various ways, like spinning the joystick to wind up Butters’ hammer throw, or mashing all the buttons to get Cartman to scream various obscenities when he unleashes his electrical V-Chip powers a la South Park: The Movie.

The emphasis on speed and efficiency over tactical depth matches well with the overall gameplay. That’s not to say there weren’t some deep systems involved. Multiple debuffs and status effects were very important in affecting opponents, such as Grossed Out and Pissed Off, and elemental damage could be added to weapons to further take advantage of a foe’s weakness. Armor and shields also played into the combat; often I had to adjust my strategies and weapon mods depending on the area and enemies I was facing.

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Once I learned the various combat systems I breezed through most encounters without much trouble. At the end of combat both health and power points are fully restored, allowing you to unleash your powers as much as you see fit. Consumables are also incredibly prolific, and since using one doesn’t take up your turn you can quickly pop a health or buffing potion and still attack.

You’re allowed one supportive party member from a familiar roster of the main cast to join you, and not only can you switch them out on the fly, you can switch them out right in the middle of combat. While you can’t change out their equipment, each hero comes with their own abilities, and I found them all to be fairly useful in different situations. Battles go quickly but the animations are so much fun, and the enemy variety decent enough that they remained enjoyable throughout my 15 hour adventure.

The main story takes place over three days, with each day ending in a large event resembling a dungeon crawl. The first day ends with the classic South Park aliens abducting you, complete with lots of anal probing – resulting in a new anal probe satellite dish to teleport to new places. The story goes in all kinds of really fun, really messed up places – very much appropriate to the series. From infiltrating an abortion clinic and fending off an outbreak of nazi zombie fetuses, to fighting underpants gnomes right under your very noisy, very graphic sex-having parents, the game never shies away from the hilarious shock value that the show is infamous for.

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In addition to the many, many references around every corner, dialogue session, and cutscenes the game even adds its own funny jokes, like an incredibly funny on-going gag about Taco Bell as the cover-up to the UFO crash and presenting Canada as a hilariously pixelated 8-bit overworld style map.

It all ends in a fantastic final assault on Clyde’s fortress of doom (a giant tower in his backyard). Throughout several big story missions in the game you’re pitted within the backdrop of an ongoing battle, and I loved how various environmental traps and abilities could be used to affect foes before ever engaging them in combat, sometimes taking whole groups out completely. Seeing the the various kids so passionately involved in their role-playing is pure fun, and the absurdity and seriousness of it all is a fantastic combination that is quintessential South Park. Fans of the show and RPGs rejoice, for we have been blessed with an amazing adaptation.

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Pros

  • Art Style and animations are perfect recreations of the South Park style
  • Just as shocking and hilarious as the TV show
  • Surprisingly deep combat system that never wears out its welcome
  • Tons of loot and customization options
  • Exploring the town is sheer joy for fans
  • Perfectly paced, with just the right combination of linear story missions and open world exploration and side quests

Cons

  • Other than a few boss battles, combat is pretty easy
  • Summons and Fart Magic are almost entirely unnecessary
  • At 15hrs it’s a bit short for a standard RPG, and a few plot threads or events feel a bit rushed or edited (only one crab person in the whole game)

Final Say: A perfect combination of the show’s aesthetics and humor with a fun RPG system makes South Park: The Stick of Truth one of the best licensed games ever made.

Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon

A mini-slice of Far Cry open-world gameplay wrapped up in a glorious homage to 80s sci-fi action films.

I have finished another backlogged game via Rogue’s Adventures. You can read my latest Final Thoughts below and also on my gaming blog on Game Informer.

Developer: Ubisoft

Publisher: Ubisoft

Release Date: May 1, 2013

Blood Dragon box art

There was a moment late in the game when Blood Dragon’s protagonist Sergeant Rex Power Colt (voiced by 80s/90s sci-fi action hero Michael Biehn) picks up the ultimate weapon called the Killstar and yells out the opening lyrics to Stan Bush’s “The Touch.” The ridiculousness of everything I’d experienced reached a heightened level of awesome, and I let myself get completely immersed in Blood Dragon’s loving embrace  of cheesy 80s sci-fi action films. It’s low-hanging fruit to be sure, but the music, writing, and plot effectively capture the nostalgic era that the developers clearly adore. I just wish its open-world gameplay and art design were as equally inspired and interesting.

I’d never played a single Far Cry game before, and thus didn’t really know what to expect out of this well-received stand-alone expansion to Far Cry 3. The 80s homage definitely appealed to me over the modern day jungles of the main series, and the much shorter run time helped motivate me to give Blood Dragon a shot.

The adventure starts off completely linear, forcing you into a humorous and very self-aware tutorial. A recurring problem throughout the game immediately surfaces this early: just because you make fun of something and mention how dumb it is, doesn’t give you a free pass to actually do the thing. In other words making fun of how tiresome super linear and simplified tutorials are and then giving you a super linear and simplified tutorial doesn’t make it all that much more fun to experience.

There are a few times where it eschews this common gaming-parody tendency (like the surprising lack of a final boss battle), but all too often Rex bitches about doing something and you still have to do it. Most of the side quests, for example, are seemingly interchangeable “go rescue this guy from this group of bad guys” or “go hunt down this creature.” Rex remarks “blah blah kill blah blah,” which is funny and on point, but is in fact what you end up doing.

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Other than the enjoyably cheesy dialogue cutscenes, presented in tiny retro-style comic panels, the opening and first few missions are incredibly linear and play too much like a mediocre shooter. Despite its retro sci-fi setting (2007 – the future!) Rex is still armed with your basic heavy pistol, sniper, assault rifle and shotgun. His one unique tool is the cybereye, which lets him zoom in and automatically mark any enemies he sees. This reveals them as thermographic images – critical for a stealthy approach.

I don’t play a lot of stealthy first-person shooters, but the ones I have played that give you the option, I often enjoy taking that route (Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Dishonored). Blood Dragon encourages the stealthy approach to the many enemy strongholds that dot the island, at least to get far enough to shut off the alarm system. The alarms are clearly marked on your map and if an enemy gets to it after spotting you, a huge contingent of forces spawns in and runs at you, making your job extremely difficult. Rex also can’t take a whole lot of hits, despite being a super-powered cyborg soldier, and can only carry a limited number of healing items. This combined with a lack of mid-mission saving definitely led to some frustrating woes before I got a handle on the stealth systems.

Thankfully I enjoyed the stealth gameplay, and the game mechancis make it fun. All enemies give off a red glowing aura, the cybereye lets you mark and track them, and stealth takedowns are incredibly fun, easy, and can potentially take down multiple foes together in a chain. You also get access to the bow early on, an ideal long-range stealth weapon. The only thing you can’t do is move bodies, so once you start killing you need to move quickly.

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The world opens up after you take your first stronghold, with the help of the titular blood dragons. These giant glowing laser-shooting lizard-dinosaur things roam the world with impunity, often getting into random battles with creatures and other cyber-soldiers. Each stronghold is protected by a dome that keeps them away, so a major strategy in taking down strongholds is to sneak in and disable the dome.

Looted cyber-hearts from enemies can be thrown and act as a lure for the giant creatures, resulting in a very satisfying and angry pet that be somewhat directed around. The blood dragons are a lot of fun, both as a useful tool and a fearsome foe, and when you finally have to take one down later in the story, it presents just the right amount of terror and awe.

Taking down strongholds is the main purpose of the open-world gameplay, as they lead to sidequests, provide fast travel opportunities, and give you a safe place to respawn. They’re also entirely optional, as are collecting the various collectibles dotted around the world (CRT TVs and VHS tapes, naturally).

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The sidequests can give a few mini-opportunities for stealth, but often I could just go in guns blazing and kill them faster than they could kill the hostage. Even with rewards doling out nice weapon attachments and upgrades, I mostly skipped them (that and two of my favorite weapons, the bow and mini-gun, had no attachments to earn).

The main story is only about half a dozen missions long and as the case with many open-world games there’s an awkward disconnect between continuing the story and just roaming around doing your own thing. Frankly the art design and level design of the world just weren’t interesting enough to make me want to explore the world, and given the retro sci-fi setting that is a hugely wasted opportunity. The mundane island dotted with the occasional enemy fort doesn’t contain a whole lot of secrets, and while there are a few variety of enemies, they all basically look and behave the same, save for the inevitable zombie-types that crop up later on. The blood dragons do add a unique twist to exploring the island but unlike say, Skyrim’s dragons, there’s no real incentive to fighting them.

Blood Dragon makes up for its lackluster open world gameplay with its fantastic story and main missions. In fact, I would recommend anyone taking on Blood Dragon to mostly stick with the main story. The comic-style cutscenes are extremely well done and often laugh out lout funny, and the missions throw a lot of unique curveballs at you that keep them fresh and interesting. Stealthily planting bombs on a dam early on goes awry, and ends with Rex taking down dozens of soldiers, helicopters, and jeeps with the newly acquired Terror 4000 (the awesome mini-gun). Holding down the fire button on the mini-gun results in Rex screaming and yelling incoherently while you fire; if that doesn’t endear you to his personality than this game probably isn’t for you.

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The story has Rex fighting back against insane rogue army general Dr. Sloan, a classic hyper-conservative, war-mongering villain that looks and sounds like General Treister from The Venture Bros. Rex is aided by Sloan’s former research scientist Dr. Darling, and she sends you on missions to undermine his control. Many of them involve large underground facilities, often with several big rooms of soldiers where a stealth approach comes off like a tactical appraisal, not unlike the Batman Arkham games.

There are a lot of fun scripted moments, like using a flamethrower to take out blood dragon eggs a la Aliens, hang-gliding your way through enemy blockades, avoiding cyber-sharks in the water, and eventually riding your own weapon-mounted blood dragon for the on-rails finale. The adventure ends much, much stronger than it started, and I found myself fist-pumping and giggling along with the game.

In giving you a smaller slice of Far Cry’s open-world gameplay Blood Dragon is mediocre at best, with a boring world and bland art style. The real treat comes from the excellent story and soundtrack by Power Glove, though I presume many of the references and nostalgic enjoyment are lost if you didn’t grow up with and adore 80s sci-fi action films like Terminator, Aliens, and Robocop. Stick to the main story and immerse yourself in an impressive and well-scripted 80s-tastic adventure.

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Pros

  • Well-realized story that hits all the right notes for 80’s sci-fi action genre
  • The blood dragons are scary, powerful, and awesome additions to any situation
  • Large open-world island with tons of strongholds and side quests
  • Fantastic synth-heavy soundtrack by Power Glove

Cons

  • Bland art and level design
  • No mid-mission saving
  • Forgettable and recycled side quests
  • Mostly boring, conventional weapons
  • First-person vehicle driving is a nightmare

Final Say: A mini-slice of Far Cry open-world gameplay wrapped up in a glorious homage to 80s sci-fi action films.

 

Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – Call of Juarez: Gunslinger

I have finished another backlogged game via Rogue’s Adventures. You can read my latest Final Thoughts below and also on my gaming blog on Game Informer.

Developer: Techland

Publisher: Ubisoft

Release Date: May 21, 2013

I’ve always had a soft spot for Westerns. One of my all time favorite films remains one of my childhood favorites – 1993’s Tombstone. The gunfights, the one-liners, the larger than life characters all created an indelible interest in a genre that had long since waned from mainstream appeal. Indeed to be a big fan of Westerns necessitates being a fan of classic cinema, and as a film student in college I was afforded lots of opportunities to dive into the worlds of Sergio Leone and John Wayne.

Despite a brief resurgence in the late 80s and early 90s, Westerns have become a rare breed, and rarer still among gaming. You can probably count the number of Western-setting games made in the last ten years on one or two hands, making magnum opus’ like Red Dead Redemption all the more special (Side Note: Red Dead Redemption might be my favorite game of the last 15 years).

Part of the problem with those few Western games is that they are almost all exclusively shooters, and the guns of the era don’t lend themselves to a whole lot of variety. I’m personally not crazy about first person shooters in general; I enjoy the BioShock series much more for the story-telling than the gameplay, and I stopped trying to keep up with most competitive shooters years ago (I do enjoy the occasional cooperative romp, like Evolve).

Thus I’d never given the Call of Juarez series a chance, and even less so when the previous entry abandoned its Western setting for a modern one (yawn). Gunslinger was released in 2013 as a shorter spin-off and was lauded for its polished gameplay and humorously unreliable narrator. I was intrigued at the low cost of entry, both the literal cost and the relatively short length, and wanted to give it a try.

Gunslinger tells the story of Silas Greaves, an old bounty hunter that regales his tales of adventure (and mass murder) to a table of bar patrons. Silas reveals that he and his brothers were left for dead by a gang of outlaws, and as the sole survivor he went down a dark path of vengeance and blood – which pretty much sounds like the story hook of most Westerns and video games in general.

Silas’ adventures take him to just about every classic Western location you could think of – from Apache-filled canyons to trains, steamboats, mountain passes, dynamite-filled caves and of course, classic small town shoot-outs. Each level offers a fun new location and while the graphics engine isn’t necessarily the prettiest, developer Techland gets a lot of mileage out of the vast expanses and gorgeous vistas that dominate most backdrops.

Missions are short and sweet, mostly clocking in at maybe 30 minutes. Exploration is minimal and most of the time is spent simply following the obvious paths laid about before you, dispatching waves of gun-toting outlaws and bandits. Gameplay is very similar to those on-rails light gun arcade games as enemies pop up out of cover. A concentration bar can be used to slow down the action in a classic ‘bullet time’ effect, painting targets red and making many of the more chaotic sections much more bearable.

Silas is limited to carrying his revolvers and either a shotgun or rifle. Variety in guns is not a strong suit for most Western games (though Red Dead Redemption performed admirably). Revolvers come in three varieties, letting you choose whether you prefer range, accuracy or rate of fire, while I found the rifle vastly superior to the 2-barrel shotgun in nearly every situation.

Since every game has to have some sort of RPG-like progression system, Gunslinger lets you level up and put skill points into three separate trees (with two paths each), focusing on either revolvers, rifles or shotguns. New custom guns can be unlocked and many skills help rack up the combo points as well as enable perks like carrying more ammo and reloading faster. I went with the rifle skills first as long range combat seemed like the best way to go most of the time (other than occasionally spelunking in caves).

Even on Normal mode Silas can’t take a whole lot of hits, and goes down pretty quick. I had to replay quite a few sections, and some multiple times just to survive. Many climactic moments have you surrounded by a dozen or more enemies and missing a shot or two can be fatal. A few gatling gun boss sections also leave little room for error. Thankfully checkpoints are frequent and easy; I never had any complaints after dying and starting almost right where I died.

One of my favorite features were in the collectibles. Silas can find Nuggets of Truth hidden around the world, and since each level is fairly linear finding them is pretty easy. These Secrets reveal little three or four page stories on various famous historical figures, gangs and places that Silas runs into during his storied adventures. I stopped and read every single one of them. Hats off to the developer, as they were fun and informative addition.

Of course our anti-hero ends up running into just about every famous Western hero and outlaw you’ve ever heard of. His career as a bounty hunter tasks him with taking on the Cowboys and Johnny Ringo, the Jesse James gang, the Dalton Brothers and even a climatic Mexican standoff with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Gunslinger could’ve easily painted a contrived story inserting all these famous characters and narratives willy-nilly, but I found it maintained a nice balance of homage and loving respect for the genre, and built upon the real world stories to insert Silas into them in clever and not entirely reality-breaking ways. Kind of how Forrest Gump ended up at a lot of famous events – Silas Greaves is the Forrest Gump of Western heroes.

The concept of an unreliable narrator isn’t new, but it’s used in some fun ways, including the classic “I just wanted to see if you were paying attention” moment. Silas’ stories get a little too outlandish for our bar patrons, and when they call him out he sometimes recants, and things magically change before your eyes. It’s also used to occasionally hinder or provide progress (“Suddenly, I spotted a ladder”). It’s a lot of fun thanks to some great voice acting, and Silas is a surprisingly deep character.

Call of Juarez Gunslinger is only about six hours long, and even then you could easily finish faster if you are good at first person shooters and didn’t care about collecting the Nuggets of Truth. With gameplay that’s little more involved than a light gun arcade game the real strengths lie in the Western theme, which permeates every facet of the game, from the famous characters to the tired tropes to the wonderfully varied but still thematically appropriate level design. Gunslinger could be a tougher game to recommend if you don’t know your spaghetti Westerns from your John Wayne flicks, but for Western fans and those that enjoy a more narrative-focused shooter it’s a surprisingly rewarding treat.

Pros

  • Western themes are used to their utmost potential
  • Silas’ narration is fun, funny and a neat way to anchor the story
  • Collectibles offer rewarding and fun historical lessons and stories
  • Short length and frequent location changes helps keep the limited gameplay fresh

Cons

  • Basic gameplay doesn’t evolve that much over the course of the game
  • Shotguns seem woefully inept next to rifles

 

Final Say: A short and sweet shooter that takes full advantage of its fantastic Western theming.