Review: Dealing out Death with the Westslingers Gang
Death is a constant companion in Westslingers, a gun-toting strategy game from lone developer Tom Chiu. Recently released on Steam, it sees you take your own gang of outlaws on a crime-filled rampage from town to town in the Old West, gaining skill and notoriety along the way.
You begin your tale by choosing a gang leader and creating a name for their gang before catching the train to Rattle Crossing. Once there, it’s time to collect bounties on two bandit brothers before escaping back on the train. Of course, if you miscalculate and have permadeath turned on, it leads to the awkward situation of a gang with no members and no leader, but you can refill your ranks for free.
Let no one tell you that crime is easy, though. Westslingers has more of a difficulty cliff than a difficulty curve, and climbing up it at the hardest difficulties can feel like you’re throwing lemmings off the other side. Thankfully (as we found out after our initial playthrough), these settings can be changed mid-game by clicking edit before loading the save, so early cannon fodder can be avoided.
That first mission at Rattle Crossing introduces you to many of the combat mechanics. You can move around with your weapon holstered and the most you will do is confuse people. Sending your outlaw to cover (indicated by a shield icon) will draw suspicion, but not fire. Then you can draw your weapon and select a target to attack them (pressing space to pause and enter tactics mode if you want to be cautious).
Fair warning, though — if anyone spots you putting a bullet through Bad Al’s chest, they’re going to raise the alarm. The shooter then becomes ‘wanted’ and will be fired upon on sight whether their weapon is drawn or not. More often than not this is best avoided, so you need to keep an eye on your field of view. Westslingers lets you see up to a certain distance in radial lines that can be blocked by obstacles. If you can see an enemy through a window, they can see you and anything you do.
Shooting people without dying yourself comes down to several things: cover; numbers; weapons; skills; and the element of surprise. Cover we’ve already mentioned, but sometimes there’s nowhere good to hide near your target, so you have to stand out in the open. This is where numbers are important and having as many people as possible to pour on firepower before your target gets a shot in is vital.
Weapons can really put the sting in a fight. One good hit from a shotgun can kill an outlaw outright, which can be tricky in early levels (see: difficulty cliff) when your opponents have them but you don’t. Other than that, you get access to revolvers and rifles. The former is free at the beginning, while everything else must be unlocked with cash rewarded from missions. Each weapon has its merits, but shotguns could be considered essential for packing a punch in most missions (it comes as something of a relief that friendly fire doesn’t seem to be an issue).
Three weapon choices won’t limit you forever, as your outlaws gain experience with each mission. When they level up, their stats increase and you’re able to choose a skill for them from one of two specialisations. These range from the ability to dual-wield revolvers (the firepower of which earned one outlaw the nickname ‘Tombstone’) to being able to heal gang members or throw a knife which instantly kills its target. Each outlaw can have up to four abilities once they reach legendary status, which lets you bring solid teams along to late-game missions.
All this can be accessed via the lineup screen, where you recruit new members to sit around your campfire, level up and customise outlaws and view their stats. Stats aren’t immediately noticeable as you play but do have a definite impact, with vitality defining how much health an outlaw has, accuracy judging their chance to hit someone, dexterity appearing to control how fast they reload and evasion giving them a chance to avoid incoming bullets.
Missions can have a combination of several objectives from killing lawmen and escaping prison (where you start unarmed but can loot weapons off corpses) to robbing banks and securing buildings. Each is timed, with better rewards for swifter completion, but the faster you go the easier it is to fail. Outlaws from rival gangs, sheriffs (who have the unfortunate habit of owning shotguns) and their posses are among the enemies you can encounter.
Securing a hold over buildings may not always be an objective, but it can be a great help to your mission anyway. Each type of building gives a different bonus. Capturing the hotel lets you take control of the madame, who can watch out over areas without drawing too much suspicion and even attack, provided you find her a weapon. Capturing the bank lets you steal money as long as your gang is inside it. Securing buildings presents an interesting dilemma of getting as many bonuses as you can to guard against death or getting the mission done fast for better rewards. When outside them, you can find harmless farmers wondering around. Note that if you keep them alive after they witness a crime, they can escape and anyone they saw will become wanted.
While it can be tough to get going in the beginning with Westslingers, the combat mechanics, satisfying sound effects and overall feel of the game make it great fun to play. Completing missions feels like a genuine achievement. While it could be argued that there isn’t a great deal of content available, what is there lends itself to replayability and more content is on the horizon. The current roadmap points to a free expansion a few months down the line, featuring free travel, an upgradable base and persistent injuries for gang members.