Nintendo's Wii created a problem for Microsoft and Sony. It's not that the brand synonymous with video games invented anything particularly new or innovative. Rather, they implemented it in a package that, however deficient in performance specs compared with Xbox 360 and PS3, sold like AC window units over this past summer's heat wave. The Wii was a double threat: The "Nintendo" badge sold to longtime gamers, while the motion controls compelled impulse purchases in a market entirely new to gaming. People who swore on the bookish, building-blocks-and-Play-Doh lives of their firstborn they'd never buy a game machine bought a Wii. The President of the United States bought a Wii. Nintendo's new console demanded attention, and it demanded an answer from two console makers who'd somewhat recently put the "upstart" label behind them for good.
Sony went the route of refining motion control, developing PS Move, essentially a more accurate and versatile version of Wii's control mechanics, suitable even to Wii's greatest weakness: shooters. Microsoft determined to challenge the nascent control paradigm, acquiring a technology that was indeed fresh and innovative, eventually yielding tangible results in its Kinect peripheral. Although more expensive and a bit finicky about home setup, Kinect proved substantially more popular than Move. Both HD console makers, shimmering in the afterglow of their me-too controller achievements, veered down the same mislaid path that, after the bloom was off the rose, earned Wii critical ire and gamer ambivalence. The hardware was cool — in the case of Kinect, very cool — but beyond a couple of keen titles, the available content was, at best, lacking and, more often, miserably mediocre. How many different ways do you want to play table tennis, anyway?
Although there are several Kinect titles that made me want to buy a Kinect, The Gunstringer is the first game that makes much sense out of paying actual money for the thing. (I'm not overlooking the unique Child of Eden, but it's designed for dual-stick controllers, too, whereas The Gunstringer requires Kinect.) Coming from developer TwistedPixel, I shouldn't be too surprised. The studio is nearly veteran by contemporary standards, thriving on nuts-and-bolts work for other people's games before venturing onto Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA) with The Maw, and better satisfying critics with 'Splosion Man, also an XBLA title. Similarly, The Gunstringer was all but destined for XBLA until Microsoft and TwistedPixel serendipitously decided they had on their hands a game worthy of a whole disc dressed up in Kinect's signature purple plastic box. Moving the title from a digital- to physical-media distribution model allowed TwistedPixel to do some things with high-quality, live-action video cut scenes that would have been unwieldy in an XBLA game.
The Gunstringer is a Wild West tale reminiscent of the movie "Rango," part send-up and part homage. Also, like innumerable books and movies, The Gunstringer is a fictional narrative set within another fictional narrative, the shell story here intended to mimic real life. In the game world, The Gunstringer is a play — really, a big-budget puppet show — with a sophisticated urban audience and harried, behind-the-scenes stage crew. Their spare stories are told in the endearingly amateurish but overall well-acted live-action cut scenes. The Gunstringer himself is a marionette the gamer controls within the play. The play's plot is a stock Western revenge tale rife with genre clichés and described throughout with a pedantic, overwrought voice-over delivered in gruff cowboy twang. For send-up or homage, it shouldn't be any other way.
Graphics in the game, though well art-directed, are no more than you'd expect from what boils down to an arcade platformer with many cartoonish third-person, over-the-shoulder shooting sequences. Filming the cut scenes as live-action was a bright idea. Although they're a throwback to a time when full-motion video (FMV) was often a better solution than attempting story progression sequences in technically challenged console graphics engines, by today's standard of near-photorealistic in-engine cut scenes, they seem almost brand new again. Considering the sets and production values of the cut scenes, it likely would have been simpler to do them in-engine, but the game benefits from the extra effort.
The audio is a mixed affair, though not mixed between good and bad, just different. The cut scenes imply a videotaped movie produced by a bunch of precocious high school students — a movie that turns out a lot better than anyone expected. In gameplay, the only thing substantially qualifying as dialogue is the voice-over. Other sounds are character outbursts — growls, screams, shrieks and squeals — and, of course, the sound effects of six-shooter rounds, shotgun blasts, dynamite explosions and the like. The original score is spectacular, properly evocative of Spaghetti Westerns, yet far from a note-for-note rip-off of genre great Ennio Morricone.
The Gunstringer's brilliance lies in its Kinect-driven control mechanics. Players control the titular character, but he's controlled as a marionette. Gamers don't mimic running and jumping, ducking and dodging; rather, they hold up their left hands in the air as if they're grasping a marionette's cross bar. (There's a swap option in the control settings for left hand-dominant players.) Gunstringer is controlled in this way, dragging him here and there by his strings, making him leap over obstacles and race up ramps — forward motion is automated. The player's right hand controls aiming and shooting, and, in some sequences, punching. The player points at Gunstringer's targets with a reticle represented by a large red ring; lock-on highlights the target in a thick red outline. Once locked on, firing rounds is triggered by a swift upward motion of the right hand. Lots of up-and-down motions result in a volley of gunshots that will wipe out a fair number of enemies all at once.
Gunstringer's principal weapon is his six-chambered pistol, but, thankfully, reloading is automatic and immediate. Most players will take a little while learning to aim, and it never achieves pinpoint accuracy, but the targeting system is very forgiving. Difficulty can be increased by changing various game settings, but for the basic purpose of telling the story in an enjoyable, interactive fashion, the default difficulty is almost perfectly balanced. This isn't Call of Duty. It's not even Duck Hunt. Sacrificing fluid gameplay for challenge would have been a mistake.
Kinect games virtually demand a co-op mode, and The Gunstringer has one. The most obvious solution is throwing two Gunstringers on the screen and letting them tackle the various cannon-fodder foes and boss battles as a duo. The game's story is silly enough, there's no risk of destroying the narrative just by dropping in a copycat character for two-player sessions. However, TwistedPixel chose another, better model for cooperative play. Too many bodies and hands moving and swinging in front of a Kinect at the same time can tax the sensor's ability to detect control gestures and distinguish between players. The Gunstringer's co-op play is designed so that one player controls the puppet via his strings, and the other takes care of targeting and shooting. It's truly cooperative; by comparison, most co-op modes might be better termed "companionable." Even if the decision was made more out of concern for technical limitations than gameplay design, it makes for a far better two-player experience.
Player fatigue is almost always an issue with motion-controlled gaming. Along with all the usual game specs, Microsoft is labeling Kinect title boxes with activity levels. They've determined The Gunstringer is a "sitting-standing" game. While I had a better time playing while standing, in this title, the fatigue level isn't much influenced by overall fitness and physical strength of the player, as are many of the sports and dance games. What wears out a gamer is holding his or her arms aloft for long periods. TwistedPixel obviously designed in some breathers. There are breaks at cut scenes and sequence shifts, and you can get a few moments rest while Gunstringer is hunkered down behind cover, but the game still isn't a great match for marathon gaming sessions.
The Gunstringer has an ESRB Teen rating, especially for some reasonably tasteful blue humor. Parents, not to worry: Younger kids won't understand why in the world "Dry Hump Canyon" is funny, and adolescents can pretend they don't get it.
If The Gunstringer alone isn't enough to win your heart, a free code to download the fast-and-fun XBLA title Fruit Ninja Kinect is included in the box. If you own a Kinect and you've been looking for a quality title with a real narrative, something that doesn't just simulate a smoky, bedazzled dance club at one in the morning, you won't need the bonus game to get an incredible experience out of The Gunstringer. TwistedPixel's impassioned effort succeeds because they overlooked few details in production, properly balanced gameplay even though it means you won't see much of The Gunstringer at Major League Gaming events, and, most importantly, kept their ambitions for the game within the scope of Kinect's limitations. Right now, The Gunstringer is the best reason to own a Kinect, other than showing off your fancy console system at parties.
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