Red Dead Revolver has been a long time in the making. Originally conceived by Angel Studios, and due to be released by Capcom last year, development came to a standstill when developer and publisher couldn't agree on the direction the game should take. With the game having made a positive first impression way back at May 2002's E3 event, it was pleasing to see development of the dormant title revived when Rockstar snapped up Angel Studios (and subsequently renamed them Rockstar San Diego) 18 months ago.
Since Rockstar took the reigns, they say that they have "removed Capcom's personality from it" and, as a result, the spaghetti western-inspired third-person shooter now eschews its original cartoony stylings for a more realistic look and a darker sense of humour. Luckily, it retains the arcade-style pick-up-and-play factor - in spite of the initially bewildering array of buttons it makes use of (more on this later).
The premise of the game is obvious enough: main character Red Harlow witnesses the murder of his family and, er, is out for revenge. Got it? So what this entails is around 20 levels of action-based shooting against a slew of moustache-touting baddies across suitably authentic looking dustcapes, replete with rocky outcrops, ghost towns and - yup - stagecoaches.
In addition to being able to make use of the 30 weapons that the game has to offer (of which you can carry three at once), each of the game's six characters have all the running, rolling, diving, jumping and climbing skillz that you'd expect. In addition, each character has their own unique special ability. In the case of Red, who you play when you start the game, it's a cool Max Payne-style gimmick called Dead Eye: while everything is moving in slow motion, you can lock on to as many as six different targets.
When normal gameplay is resumed, you'll immediately shoot at each point in rapid succession - which is great for earning combo points or taking out multiple enemies at once. One other special mode that we're aware of at present is that of a character named Annie who possesses a Winchester-style repeater rifle named Faith that fires an explosive rocket launcher-style shell.
Killing enemies not only replenishes the power bar at the bottom-left of the screen that indicates how many more times you can make use of your special ability, you also earn virtual cash in the process, which can be spent on new weapons, extra health or unlocking multiplayer modes.
While at Rockstar's London offices, we had the opportunity to play through two levels. The first, which takes place near the beginning of the game, is set in a deserted town in which you have to shoot a number of enemies, each of whom is in a set position, with an old school-flavoured boss propping up the end of the level. Hiding behind scenery proved to be crucial - it's possible to pop out to fire off a few rounds before immediately crouching behind your cover again, a la Rockstar's Manhunt - while Dead Eye also comes in extremely handy when outnumbered.
More interesting though was a much later level we played called The Traitor, a flashback scene in which you take control of a character called General Diego. You find yourself at one end of a bridge, with a slew of enemy cannons facing you on the opposite bank. With the aid of a flare gun, you must direct your own cannons at those of the enemy - easier said than done while you also have a constant rush of enemy gunslingers doing their best to turn you into dog food.
Possibly the most intriguing level of the lot though - and sadly one we didn't have the opportunity to play for ourselves - involved having to take out a moving train while jumping between the train itself, a rickety old man-powered hand trolley that's equipped with a Gatling gun and a horse (entertainingly, you'll also be able to ride bison and cattle).
From what we've seen of the game - which is now around 80% complete - it's hugely playable and there's a commendable sense of variety to the action, in spite of it essentially being a straightforward third-person shooter (albeit a finely tuned one with a unique setting). However, the levels themselves seem to be very much on the brief side and we do question the game's potential for longevity and replay value.
And while the control system does generally work well - you automatically strafe when you have a weapon drawn but can run around normally with it holstered - the camera doesn't automatically follow you if you don't have a weapon drawn. Instead, you must manually control it with the right analogue stick, which does become something of a chore. Also - and this must surely be an oversight - the 'crouch' button is L3, meaning that it's incredibly easy to accidentally keep on pressing it while running about the place which, again, is on the annoying side.
Still, Red Dead Revolver remains hugely playable and, as a reaction against the current slew of squad-based tactical shooters, it's a treat. To see the game in action for yourself, take a look at the new PS2 and Xbox in-game movies below. And if it takes your fancy, you'll be pleased to learn that Rockstar fully intend for Red Dead to become a franchise - so a sequel next year already looks assured.
Red Dead Revolver is released for PS2 and Xbox on 30 April