With Red Dead Redemption 2 launching on PC this week, we thought we'd take a trip back to 2004, where there were precisely three Spaghetti Western games, and Half-Life 2 was the freshest thing since sliced bread. A time when Avril Lavigne was still sayin' "later boy", and a time when Linkin Park was Breaking The Habit.
The Marshal's Long Shadow
The high water mark of the Spaghetti Western game genre was, at the time, Outlaws!
(1997) from LucasArts - a brillant 90s Quake-like that traded hellspawn for dumbass cowpokes, added amazing ambient audio cd tracks, and hand-drawn animated cutscenes. Hand-drawn sprites and high-speed gunplay made it a compelling game. Frantic multiplayer action included, it was arguably the king of Western titles until Call of Juarez took the crown.
Built on the Jedi engine, it was arguably one of the most technically impressive games of 1997. But its simple 3d modelling and sprite-based engine would soon be overshadowed by another game and cultural behemoth: Half-Life.
GoldSrc: The New Gold Standard
November 1997 marked the beginning of a new era of gaming as a plucky little company - Valve - released Half-Life, a seminal game in the canon of western FPS history. Built on top of the idTech engine, it featured spectacular (for '97) moddability and lighting. Despite being a great game in its own right, Half-Life is remembered for the games that began as Half-Life mods: Counter-Streak, Team Fortress, Day of Defeat. Can't really say the same about Doom, despite supporting custom content in the form of WAD archives.
Maverick Productions created Wanted! and in 2000, Sierra Online and Valve released it as part of the commercial Counter-Strike package in stores. A multiplayer mod at first, it went on to have a single-player campaign released in 2001 that was... interesting.
> "Like a leaky sieve."
The multiplayer mode was essentially Outlaws! in terms of pacing, but with more close-quarters level design and more weapons. The cramped, levels featured verticality, adding a new dimension to combat. What made the mod notable was that it was one of the few commercially released mods that started as an indie mod but did not spawn a franchise. (It was tanked by the story mode, which was... built well, but written like Herb emulating Sergio Leone while drunk, naked, fleeing a village of angry hobos, and writing by candle light)
But for essentially free (to Valve) user-created content, it was pretty good.
Western Quake, 3
In 2003, Ironclaw Interactive released Western Quake 3, a total conversion mod for the Quake III. Featuring six modes, it took environmental detail to the next level in a fairly-balanced multiplayer-only release. Focusing more on "realism", it played at a trot rather than a dash. In the default mode - and Bank Robbery - combat was an escalating quagmire: every minute, players would get more cash, to purchase a weapon with (which would drop on death).
It was the game that hit every single point from every western movie ever. A slow duel in a graveyard, with high stakes as you stared your foe down before the draw? Check. Fighting through a ferry? Check. Fighting through a town in New Mexico? A dangerous mine? A frantic free-for-all in Dry Gulch? Yes, yes, and yes. The maps are etched into my memory forever. But it was the combat that made it great.
Starting with revolvers, by the tenth minute, the rifles would come out, and the Gatling Gun was just a corner away. As the moddb admin INtense wrote, it was awesome.
In 2006, the project was turned over to a new team and dubbed Smokin' Guns. It was ported to the standalone ioQuake3 engine in 2009, with VoIP added in 2012. With fast gameplay, full bot support, and running on the extremely lightweight Quake III engine, it was a favorite at LAN parties. It's still getting updates - and the team recently announced porting to a new engine that supports all sorts of neat features like real-time lighting, raytracing, and shadows. We'll revisit this in a future article.
As Halo dominated retail stores, Valve made a play for the PC market with the legendary Half-Life 2. In 2004, Gordon Freeman returned as the voiceless, crow-bar wielding protagonist. It was a critically acclaimed title, but also a controversial one: the game required the usage of Steam, an online-based DRM and forum software.
Half-Life 2's engine - Source - was a marked improvement over Half-Life 1 and Quake III. By using shaders, radiosity normal mapping, and luxel-based lighting, it was able to render a wider degree of colors and effects that made it look better than previous offerings (Far Cry excepted) while running smoothly even on potato PCs.
While archaic in some respects (shadows are pre-baked for objects) the engine remains technically impressive and powers a surprising number of recent titles. A modified version of Source powers Titanfall and Apex Legends, for example - and Source also powers DOTA 2.
Valve shipped SDK tools starting in January 2005, giving modders access to nearly every tool used in the making of Half-Life 2. Valve also offered commercial licenses to use the engine to nearly anybody with $50,000 to spare.
The modding scene exploded in popularity.
The French Confection
When it came to making Source engine mods, it was the French who had the earliest and best scene. Planete Mods - at pmods.net - was the de-facto French scene host/incubator. Unfortunately, not much remains in terms of records; Planete Mods used a... unique proprietary CMS/forum software that was extremely hard to properly index.
DeadWooD's story began somewhere in 2004 when John The Frank, TChick, and other parties began work on building a Spaghetti Western mod called... EastWest. Or was it originally Wanted: Outlaws and Lawmen? The history is shaky and unfortunately we weren't able to interview any original team members in time for initial article publication. What we can reconstruct is that progress was slow - and as a hobbyist project, it had a rocky start.
By 2006 the project had already seen a total of 9 contributors quit, including the project lead. It was almost as dead as Paul Maidment's Deadspin. With only a handful of maps in varying stages of completion and a fingerful of weapons modelled, EastWest merged with Wanted: Outlaws and Lawmen, who had just lost their talented star (Rebel_Yell). (Rebel_Yell went onto create Fistful of Frags, which we'll talk about in a minute)
Still, there were brilliant mods coming out of the french scene - Star Wars mods for Battlefield 1942, Quake III mods, even Half-Life 1 mods.
In 2008, down to a team of four who clearly hadn't done any work in a very long time, the decision to hastily throw up an unfinished download was made. December 29, 2008, the file - titled DeadWooD - was released on moddb.
Taking Stock of DeadWooD
In tems of gameplay, it's similar to other arena shooters: you start with the basic loadout - in this case, all the weapons - and collect ammo and other weapons from pre-placed weapon spawns across the map. However, it was built for an archaic version of the SDK (built for 2006) and the maps and models lacked HDR support. It was also lacking bot support, a mind-boggling omission in 2008.
The gunplay is frantic, with near pin-point accuracy even as you dart around like a toddler in a candy shop who found your credit card. A varied arsenal of guns with satisfying sound are useful - a punchy shot-gun that can flatten enemies at close and mid-range, a repeating rifle with iron sights, a sharps rifle with scope, a colt peacemaker, a smith wesson. And a smattering of useless assist tools - dynamite with too low of explosion range, a remote exploding dynamite, and a molotov kaboomtail.
The maps - ew_deadlydust, ew_fallencity, ew_glenriver, ew_hualapai, ew_hudsonferry, ew_nevada, ew_santafeexpress, ew_texas, and ew_wantedfort - exist in varying degrees of completion. Four of these maps are designed for 1v1 gameplay only.
It's frustrating that it released in this state when with just another month of tweaks, it could have been polished to a sheen. Adding basic bot support, disabling the full loadout on spawning, fixing skyboxes on maps were relatively easy in 2008 and have only gotten easier.
But it wasn't all a total writeoff. Because DeadWooD is built on Source engine, it is relatively easy to port maps from one Source-based game or mod to another. And so, I did. A quick conversion of ew_hualapai took about one hour. Getting it optimized and polished took another fifteen. But in the end, I did it.
When Rebel_Yell left the Wanted: Outlaws and Lawmen project, he created Fistful of Frags. The first version was uploaded in 2007 - but it saw rapid updates and iterations, culminating in a Steam release in 2014.
Fistful of Frags is a pretty damn good game.
It was on steam that I released my converted map. Little by little I've started remaking the other DeadWooD maps. One day, the project will be complete. But until that day, you can play ew_hualapi as it was originally intended to play: with friends.
You can get the map for Fistful of Frags here:
One day, maybe I'll get around to polishing and re-releasing DeadWood. It would be easier than writing another blog post. :P