Part of the appeal of 2010 smash hit Red Dead Redemption was the fact it was a Western, a trusted film genre yet one woefully under-represented in video games.
That's not to say it's been the only notable Western-themed video game. There have been a few, from Custer's Revenge to Sunset Riders to Redemption's predecessor, Red Dead Revolver. All memorable for one reason or another. But there's one Western game that, for whatever reason, is not memorable, yet for many reasons damn well should be.
And that game is 1997's Outlaws.
Outlaws is a game out of time. It was released in the late 1990s when the Western was perhaps at its lowest ebb, removed from its early-90's comeback (Tombstone, etc) and coming before its 2000's renaissance (Deadwood). It was also a strange time for developers Lucasarts, the powerhouse behind countless brilliant Star Wars games going through a weird patch where alongside its licensed efforts it would release games like the God-sim Afterlife.
Into this heady time, then, came Outlaws, a first-person shooter built on the Dark Forces engine, which was not only unique for being a Western game but for the way it depicted that dusty, dangerous genre.
While the game's story is your typical Wild West fare, with kidnapped kin, mysterious Indians and evil outlaws, it was presented in a way that fell somewhere between cel-shaded and hand-drawn, with skies as blue as a Sega game and a distorted, animated appearance to all the characters. The game's cinematic sequences also had a unique look, being quality 2D animations (or when necessary tasteful 3D with a 2D appearance) instead of the flavour of the time, which was crude 3D models or hammy full-motion video.
And while its engine was rather limited in what it could do, the developers still did their best in wringing an authentic Western experience out of the game, with time-appropriate weaponry that even extended to having the player's character, retired US Marshal James Anderson, yank the hammer of his revolver back after every shot.
What was most memorable about the game (aside from an excellent multiplayer mode), and what made it such a standout Western, was its soundtrack. Like Rockstar knew with Red Dead Redemption, a big part of people's identification with the genre is its music, and Outlaws knew this, Lucasarts master Clint Bajakian (Tie Fighter, Sam & Max, Monkey Island 2) putting together an iconic collection of tracks that even over a decade on still sound fantastic.
Sadly, for all its many positives, Outlaws joined Afterlife (which we'll look at another day) in the dustbin of history, its treatment of the genre not exactly appealing to a gaming public that, much like today, was more interested in sci-fi warfare and gore than the dusty trail. It didn't help that by 1997 the Dark Forces engine was showing its age, either; Quake had come out a year earlier and with its 3D graphics blew Outlaws out of the water, a fate only made worse by the release of the stunning Half-Life a year later.
FUN FACT: Outlaws was the first FPS title to introduce a zoomed scope for a sniper rifle, a feature that's now a staple of the genre.
Total Recall is a look back at the history of video games through their characters, franchises, developers and trends.