When Call Of Juarez: Bound In Blood swaggers, spurs jangling, into the Rambling Rose saloon, the only western FPS that doesn't gulp or look up from his cards is Outlaws. A couple of years ago I wrote a little ode to this Colt classic for PC Gamer UK.
The year is 2070. In a room in Badgerlands, a Basingstoke care-home, shrivelled ex-games reviewer Tim Stone sits gazing out of the window at the plastic trees and robot rooks. Ask him what day it is or who's on the throne, and he hasn't a clue. Ask him to sketch a plan of Sanctuary - the second level in ancient Wild West shooter Outlaws - however, and his rheumy eyes light up, his withered hands fumble for electropencil and synthipaper.
Sanctuary was the level LucasArts chose for the Outlaws demo and I probably know it better than I know any other FPS level. For much of 1997 I was almost a resident. I scampered through its dusty streets, crept along its alleyways, leapt between its tar-paper roofs, blown away by the freedom and the atmosphere. Oh, and the shotguns.
In contrast to most of its contemporaries, Outlaws didn't cattle-drive you from kill to kill. On maps like Sanctuary, there were no prescribed paths. If you wanted to begin by hopping over the wall beside the stable and making a dash for the chapel, you could (though you'd probably get grievously perforated in the process). If you preferred to clamber onto the roof of the store and start sniping the goons outside the saloon, that was ticketyboo too.
The open-plan levels were complimented by something I mentally christened 'Fidget AI'. Put simply, alerted gunslingers were unpredictable gunslingers. Eight out of ten times you could dart around a particular corner and find Blue-Shirted Cowpoke With Winchester Rifle standing in his usual spot. On the other two occasions, he'd be nowhere to be seen. Where was he? If you were unlucky, or unwary, he was standing right behind you squeezing the trigger of his repeater.
Death can come quickly in Outlaws. On the 'ugly' difficulty setting (the connoisseur's choice) a single bullet or blast of buckshot can banish you to Boot Hill. Aware of this, the sensible vengeance-seeking-ex-Marshal soon finds himself creeping around like a cattle thief, taking deep breaths before pushing doors open, and beating hasty retreats when things go prickly pear-shaped. Remember that bit in Pulp Fiction where the bloke charges into the room and empties a Magnum in the direction of Travolta and Jackson, missing with every shot? Outlaws' sophisticated ballistics actually models freak happenings like that. Unusually for a mainstream shooter, the crosshairs are only the vaguest of guides - slugs and shotgun pellets (all individually tracked) rarely go exactly where intended. A scattergun might be the perfect weapon for train clearing, but use it up in the mountains or outdoors at Bob Graham's ranch and you'll have trouble hitting a barn let alone a barn door.
Counterpointing the unexpected realism of the gunslinging are corpse physics that owe much more to Yosemite Sam than Sam Peckinpah. Shotgun blasts regularly kick cowboys clean across streets. Dynamite detonations hurl hapless hostiles over multiple buildings. LucasArts obviously didn't intend us to take their frontier fantasy too seriously.
The tongue-in-cheek tone really lets rip in the cartoon cutscenes and taunts. You can't walk ten paces in Spittin' Sanchez's ruined fort or Dynamite Dan's swanky cathouse without some hidden henchman bawling a confidence-corroding jibe: 'You're outnumbered.", "You've lost your edge Marshal.", "Hope you got a coffin picked out." They want you to get mad... reckless. Naturally, the best put-down's are reserved for the bosses. "Aw meester, I seen better shooting at the county fair." still tickles me, as does the priceless "My horse pisses straighter than you shoot.".
And no celebration of Outlaws would be complete without a mention of Clint Bajakian's and Mark Christiansen's stunning contributions. Clint's Morricone-inspired score is up there with the best game music of all time and Mark's animated credit sequence - all bold colours and galloping screen-print silhouettes - apes the opening titles in spaghetti Western classics like The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly quite brilliantly.
With so much on offer, how come Outlaws didn't break the 80% barrier when assayed back in PCG43? I don't have the review to hand, but suspect the game's dated duds cost it points. Even by 1997 standards the cowboy sprites are poorly drawn and clumsily animated. The angular Dark Forces 3D engine copes well with building interiors and abandoned gold mines, but butchers rural locales. Mountain passes and canyons look like Death Star trenches.
There's also the possibility that the reviewer sat down to write with level 5 - the sawmill - still fresh in his mind. Irksome key and switch hunting occurs throughout the game, but this chapter takes things to excruciating levels. If we ever see a sequel, I pray the puzzles are few, and the unscripted Sanctuary-style skirmishes many.