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Game: Dead Man’s Hand
Developer: Human Head Studios
Publisher: Atari
Year: 2004
Reviewed: 2007
Platform: PC
Genre: FPS
Reviewer: ValkyrDeath

The Western genre seems to be underrepresented in the world of computer games. It’s strange, since the Wild West seems the perfect setting for an FPS, but surprisingly few have been made. One of the few is Dead Man’s Hand, a budget release from Human Head Studios, who has previously worked on the hack and slash action game Rune and later went on to release Prey. And for a budget release, the game is surprisingly well made and a lot of fun.

Dead Man's Hand Church

The storyline is basically the standard Western vengeance fare. You play as El Tejón, a new member of a gang who realises that they aren’t what he expected. When they start murdering innocent women and children, he stands up to the leader, and gets shot for his trouble and left for dead. Fortunately for him, but unfortunately for his former gang, The Nine, El Tejón recovered. And that’s where you step in to hunt down the rest of the gang and kill them in revenge. It’s not the most complex plot ever, but it doesn’t need to be.

The gameplay is what’s important here, and it stands up quite well. It’s nothing too advanced, and a lot of the levels feel like big shooting galleries, but that’s where the fun lies. Shooting feels very precise, and you can sometimes rapidly hit several enemies in succession. In fact, you’re encouraged to try and do this, since unusually for a recent game, there’s actually a scoring system. Every time you hit someone, you get points, and if you shoot someone else quickly enough afterwards, the amount you score goes up. Hit them quickly enough and you can soon be scoring huge amounts on each hit. And it’s not just enemies you can shoot, everything destructible can be shot for points: bottles, windows, boxes, plates, they can all be smashed to pieces. Anyone who wanted to get a high score would have to shoot everything in the level as quickly as possible with perfect precision. It’s a good way to increase the replayability of a game that’s actually fairly short to play through the first time.

Talking of destruction, there’s an unusual amount of destructible scenery for something with such a simple concept. As well as the previously mentioned breakable objects, walls can be knocked down using cannons at certain points in the game, and at one point, I even missed a man I was aiming at, and knocked out a post instead, bringing the roof down on his head. It’s a level of action normally reserved for big budget games, and is very impressive to see. Enemies also fall off roofs and balconies in a satisfying, typically exaggerated Western style. The whole game is a lot of fun.

Dead Man's Hand Shooting

Graphically the game looks good, with the environments being everything you expect from a Western-themed game. You’ll pass through canyons, Old West towns and saloons and you’ll get to fight your way to the front of a moving train. There’s also a couple of horse riding levels, and although these are on rails, they’re still entertaining and break up the game a bit. Everything runs smoothly, even on fairly low spec machines at high settings, thanks to the brilliant Unreal engine.

Audio lets the game down a bit. While the music is good, and fits the theme of the game very well, the voice acting isn’t quite up to scratch. Most of the accents come across as annoying rather than accurate representations of the characters, but they do usually fit into a standard Western cliché, and on a low budget game it’s a bit more understandable. Less easy to forgive is the lack of any mid-level save system. On the easiest difficulty you can run straight through most levels first time without dying anyway, and the arcade feel of the levels means it is appropriate, but they should have at least included an option to allow game saves for those who need them.

Overall though, despite the minor flaws, the game is definitely worth playing. It’s cheap and entertaining, and while it’s not going to rank as one of the best games ever, it does everything that a game like this needs to do, better than I expected it to.

Save System Review: No mid-level saves at all. The game automatically saves your progress between levels. It just barely gets away with this through the fact that the levels aren’t too long and are mostly quite easy to complete first time. Plus the levels feel like big shooting galleries anyway, what with the scoring system and method of chaining together hits to gain more points. There’s still no excuse for not at least having the option of an in-game save though.

Arbitrary Final Score: 2.5 stars

Is Dead Man's Hand really Aces over Eights or should it just know when to fold 'em? Lay down your cards in the forum!