Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Lead and Gold: Gangs of the Wild West Review

Lead and Gold: Gangs of the Wild West, developed by Fatshark and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Area buffs and mobile respawn points encourage teamwork, several game modes, four distinct classes, short brutal combat, weapons and maps evoke historical setting, inexpensive
The Not So Good: Control scheme requires unnecessary button holding, no dedicated servers, only six maps
What say you? This low-cost western shooter emphasizes team coordination with distinctive gameplay: 6/8

Yeehaw! No, I am not talking about the unincorporated community in Osceola County, Florida, I’m talking about cowboys! There simply aren’t enough Western games on the PC, as exemplified by a lone entry in the great Out of Eight pantheon. I like the online shooters, so what better way to visit the neglected Old West than shooting other cowboys in the face. Lead and Gold: Gangs of the Wild West features just that, a struggle for gold that may or may not involve lead (spoiler alert: it does). This is Paradox Interactive’s first foray into the evil world of console gaming, but the developers at Fatshark were nice enough to release the game on the PC first, and at a low price tag of $15. How does it stack up against other team-based shooters?

The graphics of Lead and Gold are quite good, especially for a $15 game. The environments in which the game takes place all have nice attention to detail, with animated mills and varied terrain that harkens the historical setting well. The buildings are plenty detailed as well, and the wooden structures like ripe for intense firefights. The characters are nice, too: each of the game’s four classes have distinctive models (the game is in third person) that exhibit good animations when moving and switching between weapons. The game also has some nice effects, with cherry-red blood, explosions, and tracers a-plenty. I was pleased with the graphics in Lead and Gold. The sound design isn’t bad, either, with powerful weapon effects and the occasional rootin’-tootin’ (“no spelling suggestions”…I bet not) canned saying. The game also features some subtle background music that fits the overall theme of the game so well that I hardly noticed it and had to play the game again specifically to evaluate the tunes. Lead and Gold far exceeds its $15 price tag in terms of graphics and sound.

Lead and Gold is a team-based online third person shooter, centered around (a) lead and (b) gold. The game borrows match types from several other titles, although it changes things up by replacing a flag with a bag o’ money. There are six game modes and each are slightly different. Robbery is an assault mode where the attackers must carry gold bags from the defenders’ base. Greed is a capture the flag mode where both teams must carry a single gold bag back to their base. Conquest involves occupying three map zones in sequential order, while powder keg mode entails blowing up certain points of interest. There is also the usual team deathmatch mode called shootout and a cooperative defense game against AI bots for two players. Most games consist of two rounds, where sides are alternated to be fair. I like how the developers have changed up some rules to make classic game modes at least somewhat fresher: gold is heavy so people who carry it are slowed, and powder kegs can be blown up in transit, making them a dangerous commodity to transport. There are only six maps to play on (and powder keg and robbery only support two of them), but they are designed well enough and provide variety (large open spaces, mines, buildings) to keep things interesting. Lead and Gold supports up to ten players (five-on-five), but the maps are sized so that a smaller player count (four players or so) isn’t detrimental to the game experience. There isn’t any single player action to speak of, other than a brief tutorial against AI bots to explain the controls. Being a multiplayer-centric title, then, it surprises me that Lead and Gold lacks dedicated servers: there are the occasional connection issues, as you would expect with peer-to-peer hosting. I think that’s the reason why the maximum player count is kept so low: people simply can’t host more than ten at a time.

While you would think a control scheme for a shooter would be historically defined for any PC game, Lead and Gold includes a poor translation of controls clearly designed for a console gamepad. The problems manifest themselves twice: first, the “zoom” button (use required by all but one of the classes) must be held down instead of offering a toggle option. Secondly, there is a key that must be held down while pressing “fire” to activate your trait ability. Simply binding it to a button (“Q” for example) without having to hold it down would have worked just fine for setting traps or throwing dynamite; the limitations shows the developers tried to cram the controls onto an inferior console gamepad. Unfortunately, neither of these options can be changed. Apart from that, though, Lead and Gold rarely has significant issues. The interface is designed well, clearly indicating important locations on your display, and there aren’t any other usability problems to speak of.

Lead and Gold features four classes of characters, each with different abilities and strengths. The blaster is the short-ranged class, with a powerful shotgun and dynamite. The gunslinger gets a short-to-medium-range revolver that can be fired quickly. The deputy is medium-to-long-range with the ability to spot enemy units for allies. And the trapper is the sniper who can lay traps. The game maps are varied enough where each class gets a location that highlights their attributes. Each class also has a buff that is automatically applied to surrounding troops: blasters provide improved armor, gunslingers better accuracy, deputies enhance damage, and trappers offer more critical hits. Additionally, being near others also heals you over time. Experience earned by shooting others and completing game objectives levels your character up, enhancing your particular buff. Buffs do not stack, so it benefits everyone to have one person in each class; a listing of the number of players in each class on the selection screen would remove guesswork in this aspect of the game. The synergy system rewards working together as a group, since everyone benefits from sticking together. The trapper is an inappropriate class for these benefits, however, as long-range sniping lends itself towards solitary confinement.

Combat in Lead and Gold is short and brutal: the semi-automatic weapons all deliver a punch and seem to be well-balanced, as each class is powerful at their optimal range. Weapons are more accurate when you are stationary, which seems realistic enough to me. Lead and Gold is a matter of playing your class correctly and coordinating with your team in order to maximize damage. Since you can revive teammates who are injured but not dead, being near your teammates is important. The game could do a better job clearly showing whether you are dead or simply incapacitated, though. Fortunately, Lead and Gold does a good job placing you with your teammates, as someone can carry around a respawn flag where others can appear; this really helps to coordinate your efforts and also significantly cuts down on travel time each time you die. Lead and Gold does not have voice chat, though, but since the objectives are straightforward enough, good communication is not necessary for good organization. A couple of other wrinkles to the gameplay include powder kegs that can be exploded and the removal of fall damage, which works to the game’s benefit. It's clear that teams that work together will win, which is the goal of any good team-based shooter.

Lead and Gold is a very nice team-based shooter that differentiates itself in several areas. First is the setting: the Old West theme is strong throughout the game, from detailed levels to convincing characters and weapons. The game also features a number of game modes culled from a variety of other titles, slightly adjusted to fit the theme: straightforward deathmatch, capture the flag (gold in this case), assault, and conquest. Although the game only includes six maps, each landscape is detailed enough and provides multiple paths to each objective location where repetition isn’t an issue. The lack of dedicated servers, however, can become an issue if the host is a poor server. The four classes are balanced nicely, from the short-range blaster to the long-range trapper. The buffs each unit grants to others, coupled with the mobile spawn point a team member can carry, helps to keep players working together; this is far more effective that simply saying “work together!” and not funneling people towards that goal. The old-school weapons mean gory combat, where only a couple of shots are required for death. This actually works quite well with the lower player count and respawn locations, providing intense battles over territory. The controls could use some PC makeovers, as using your special abilities and iron sights require simultaneously held buttons. Still, fans of team-based shooters will find a unique setting and some nice features to promote team-based play.