The original Half-Life wasn’t only a groundbreaking FPS, it was also an investment. Mod support and Total Conversions had been around since Doom (hell, Wolf 3D for that matter), but something about Half-Life made them really flourish. It could be the versatility of the engine, it could be that it was simply an extremely popular game coinciding with an Internet advancing past the restrictions of dial-up, but whatever the reason, Half-Life was a modder’s dream. So with maybe half a hundred really excellent mods, it’s no surprise that a few of them got picked up for professional distribution. Counter-Strike you’ve probably heard of. Gunman Chronicles… well…
Believe me, the sentiment wasn’t lost upon its release. At the time, I recall reading more hate that Gunman had gone retail than actual information about the game. Perhaps some people thought there were better mods out there that deserved this treatment (do a Google search for Neil Manke for starters). More likely, fans were just annoyed at having to pay for something they had been expecting to get for free. If you actually think that supporters of a mod might be happy for the team that they’ve “gone pro” and are now getting paid for what they love to do, well, welcome to your first time on the Internet.
It also didn’t help that Unreal was already out and its licensed engine had been driving other projects (like Deus Ex, already on shelves when Gunman arrived) for years. A paid mod for a two-year-old game didn’t exactly grab attention. The result is that it feels like the actual content of Gunman Chronicles got lost and turned obscure under the weight of its controversy. Luckily, that’s what we’re here for. Let’s take a look at what’s inside the box that you (and I) passed right up on the store shelves.
The game takes place in a distant future where humanity is busy conquering the stars. A substantial force of “Gunmen” patrol the various backwater colonies, acting as part army and part sheriffs (and all inspired by the film Starship Troopers). Humanity has already had our first major skirmish with an alien species – the Xenomes – and emerged victorious, though at the cost of more than a few Gunmen. One in particular, a General known only as “The General,” ended up a martyr in the turning point of the alien war. You play as Major Archer, a silent protagonist who served under The General and now seems to take some umbrage to his Christ-like status within the federation. It’s not really a spoiler to say that The General survived, and he’s out for retribution against the Gunmen who left him to die. To this end, he’s amassed a posse of nefarious types and genetically bred a new army of Xenomes held under his control.
After the obligatory peaceful tutorial aboard a Gunman asteroid outpost, the plot will relay you among a couple different worlds ranging from some jungle ruins, to a Wild West frontier planet, to a station overseen by a malicious A.I. (are there any other kind?). Puzzle-solving and platform hopping are kept to a minimum and level design is rigidly linear, so the majority of the game has you blasting aliens and sailing through one scripted sequence after another. There’s some pretty great sequences though, so don’t blow it off just yet.
Despite the stand-alone release, Gunman’s basic structure as a mod always lurks close to the surface. It won’t take long to spot the reused enemy behaviors or powers – the General’s human rebels work exactly like Half-Life’s soldiers (even down to the broken-sentence radio reports), scurrying Xenome breeds are remodeled headcrabs and Bullsquids, and robotic security drones are pretty much the Vortignauts or the floating, ball-launching Controllers. Gunman takes its cues from Half-Life pretty generously in terms of execution too, with long sections of corridors where nothing happens, frequent loading screens within levels, and tons and tons of breaking objects that spawns bouncing, clanking debris.
With that out of the way (and you could do far worse than choosing to ape Half-Life), it’s easy to see why this particular mod was deemed ready for prime time. I’m not sure how much polish and additions were made after they got the funding, but it’s quite fair to call this one of the best HL mods I’ve played. Aside from the execution, they’ve implemented a number of creative and unique gameplay elements that do change the genre, and curiously never seem to have gotten reused elsewhere.
The major addition is the elaborate on-the-fly weapons customization. Every weapon in your kit has its secondary fire key replaced with a modding selection. These are not just different fire modes. Your missile launcher, for example, features selections for payload (explosive or cluster), targeting (guided, lock-on, dumb-fire), flight path (homing, spiral, straight), and trigger (impact or proximity). Each of these is selected and toggled independently, so you can truly program each shot for individual needs.
Your standard sidearm works a bit like Judge Dredd‘s Lawgiver, allowing you to select tight, accurate beams, rapid-fire energy balls, or single charged shots. It even scales up to almost absurd levels with the chemical gun – where you set slider bars for the mixture of acid, base, and propellant to get shots between explosive and melty. Through this system, every gun truly has unique characteristics. Most are even further upgraded with rare kit pickups found in the world.
One of the best aspects of Half-Life, that keep it from being just a simple FPS, are its scripted sequences and setpieces. Gunman brings more than a few of these creative moments. One lengthy section has you stalked by a dinosaur; avoiding its steps crushing through the ceiling, or its snout trying to squeeze through a doorway. Another has you dodging a harassing aircraft while other soldiers ineffectually try to stop it. It’s all the more satisfying when you finally find the way to defeat it. The final levels of the game take place in a crumbling laboratory, and the constant destruction and re-routing as paths get blocked off keep things fairly intense. Not to mention the smaller moments along the way, like boss fights, a reasonable forest recreation, low-gravity sections, and a hull breach or two.
Gunman also sports a few off-rails tank sections. You’re limited by the walls of a canyon or platform, but have free control within these zones. You can also enter and exit the tank at will (and must do so frequently to search for more gas), as well as aim the turret independent of the body. There’s not much to these sections as the tank is basically invulnerable, but there’s still a fair selection of ordinance and plenty of opportunities to kick back and blow shit up. A particular highlight are the pre-rigged farmhouses that shatter when hit by your cannon.
It’s a lengthy run at about 20-25 hours, which means not every section is a winner, and not every moment is packed with thrills. The middle sections do seem to drag, and the cover’s promises of “a western in space” don’t really get explored. You’ll see a few anachronistic levels where homestead cottages and cactus plants share the screen with sci-fi blasters and robot dinosaurs, but most of the game is stuck in enclosed, similar areas like underground stations and temple ruins. Texture work is competent, (though some skyboxes have graphic artifacts) but it’s the lighting that really brings the variety and mood.
Voice work is consistently present, and consistently solid. Eric Snellman as The General has a great sound for the part, and does menacing without being a cackling, mad villain. The overseer A.I. (Cynthia Jones) sounds a bit like Ertha Kitt at times, and fills a complex role well. Any lapse in either performance is something I blame on the nature of the engine and playing back chopped-up audio files. Other voices – namely your enemies – are a bit more bombastic, but tolerable. Sound in general seems to borrow a lot from Half-Life, and the new weapons are a bit Flash Gordon “bzzzap! pzzzow!” but it works.
Ultimately, Gunman Chronicles feels like a “B” action movie – it tells a story well, even if the story told isn’t that memorable. I found some good thrills here, but nothing that stuck with me after the closing credits. If it had maintained a consistent pace of action (like it does in the final third), then it would easily be worth recommending. But it doesn’t, so here we are – an excellent Half-Life mod, if you still have the time for Half-Life mods.
It’s worthy of a retail release (and it was released as a “budget” title at that). Enough content to stand on its own, and some nice surprises along the way.
Didn’t break itself from Half-Life enough to be released as a standalone product two years later. That alone automatically set up a magnifying glass for all its little flaws (occasional boredom, thin plot, lower-res textures).
“I underestimated you Archer, but you have underestimated my explosives!” – The General