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Gun

Sometimes a name is enough. When the teaser trailer for Neversoft's Gun hit at E3, the simple conjunction of those two words was enough to grab everyone's attention.

It had long been known that Neversoft was going to diversify from its Tony Hawk empire to work on a very different property, but there was little more than pure speculation on what it might be. And then: bang! There was Gun.

The trailer was enough at odds with the Tony Hawk's easygoing tone to pique interest - bloody, pounding and flash-cut with enough subliminal viciousness to unsettle even those hardened by long careers of gaming violence.

But that was only the first surprise because, in the flesh, the game is as much at odds with that trailer as the trailer was to most people's perception of Neversoft.

Gun is a wild west epic, intended to hit every gun-toting, whisky-swilling, brothel-raiding, horse-wrangling, fast-duelling sweetspot without ever descending to dumb, lazy stereotype.

There's an extent to which that's all that needs to be said, because the odds are that the answer to any likely follow-up question is a simple 'yes'.

Can you ride into town guns blazing and take out the bandits? Yes. Can you blast people backwards through swinging saloon doors? Yes. Can you ride shotgun with the stagecoach, ears cocked for the inevitable ambush? Herd cattle and befriend local Indian tribes? Take to the rooftops and interrupt an unjust hanging? Yes, yes and yes.

Not that this is simply a freeform game of cowboy indulgence. There's weight to the central character: trained as a hunter, hero Colton is an experienced marksman, used to relying on his guns for his own survival.

And there's a strong story for him to follow - with a father's murder to avenge and a mysterious prostitute to find. This quest forms the main mission structure of the game, as Colton travels to new towns, forges new alliances and earns himself new enemies.

Around this core, however, Neversoft is promising a wealth of content. There's nothing to stop Colton riding into the sunset, looking to discover new ranches or Indian settlements, stopping to replenish his cash supplies by doing a spot of hunting, or taking on mercenary tasks.

Although unannounced, it's tempting to assume that the game will give full scope to the kind of minigames you'd hope to see - poker, surely.

The comparisons to San Andreas' rural excursions are hard to avoid, and it's already clear than Gun hopes to capture that game's sense of scale and possibility.

But here's where the name comes in again. No one bold enough to call their game Gun is going to risk delivering something with combat as woolly as GTA's.

This game's gunplay is elaborate: flicking into first-person for quasi-bullet-time precision, calling on you to aim at ankles and wrists to disable and disarm opponents, forcing you to think about reloading patterns as you blast away with twin pistols, demanding careful manoeuvring as you fight on horseback, tracking targets moving as swiftly as yourself.

Without an extended playtest it's impossible to judge if that elaboration will translate to satisfaction, but there's no disputing the effort that's gone into the raw material for a meaty shooter.

The 360 version is likely to be sumptuous, but the odds are it won't be able to impress as much as the PS2 version: everyone already expects great things from next-gen, but equally everyone already has a measure of just how hard it is to wring this level of smooth, dense beauty out of the older machine.

Not that its just a technical achievement - Gun makes the most of its natural palette, filling the skies with wide, airy blues and cloaking the ground with dusty reds and dewy greens.

The animation is also strong, with the sheen of your horse's coat dipping and shifting as the muscles move and weight shifts from leg to leg.

It's been a brave move - taking the game from drawing board to near-completion in secluded secrecy. Now Activision has a few short months to fire gamers' enthusiasm for Gun; on present form, it won't be a difficult task.

Gun will be available for PS2, Xbox, Xbox 360 and Gamecube in November

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