Wild Wild West: The Steel Assassin

Review by Skinny Minnie
February 2002

How I remember the TV-watching days of my childhood! Clark Kent dove into phone booths and Superman emerged to soar across the skies ... Batman and Robin swept the streets of Gotham City in search of the Joker or the Riddler: Zap! Zowie! Pow! ... Wild Wild West's famous train chugged into a different shoot-'em-up adventuring, plot-spinning, puzzle-solving town every week ...

Yes, yes, I too saw the preposterous Will Smith Wild Wild West movie when it came out a few years ago, and no, I didn't care for it, either. Yet the action/adventurer in me had her hope rekindled that year when I heard that Southpeak Interactive was coming out with a PC game starring my heroes Jim West and Artemus Gordon; I just had to buy it! Barring the fact that Jim and Arte are rendered to resemble the movie's stars (with dead-on vocal impersonations, too) instead of the original TV series's actors, Wild Wild West: The Steel Assassin is far more grounded in its TV roots.

Our point-and-click playable heroes are the gun-clad Jim West and the gadget-toting Artemus Gordon, of course! You will alternate controlling one of these two refined, genteel characters depending upon which chapter of the story you choose, using a simple icon system with a mouse-driven interface. In the final chapter, you will actually switch back and forth playing both Arte and Jim for some pulse-pounding teamwork, with a tale-twisting, mind-bending, satisfying ending as a reward! You have a fair bit of freedom choosing a path through the game, via the chapter selection screen. You can elect to play most of one character's chapters concurrently before switching personas. Alternatively, you may bounce back and forth between Jim's interrogating and gun-fighting and Artemus' undercover work and gadgetry usage. Whether you take the high road or the low road, though, both characters will afford plenty of plot-propelling puzzle solving to conquer as well.

In this game's intriguing and original storyline, President Ulysses S. Grant has assigned his favorite Secret Service agents their most difficult case ever: protecting Grant himself from an assassination attempt. You must hunt down the conspirators through the clues they leave behind and conduct a thorough investigation without alarming the general populace or the assassins themselves, Arte being quite more covert in approach than Jim! All the while, Grant makes everyone's lives more difficult by refusing to lay low. The President decides to attend a reopening of Ford's Theater, which of course was the site of former President Abraham Lincoln's assassination by John Wilkes Booth. One of the death threats Grant receives actually claims to originate from the "True Executioner of Abraham Lincoln" and mentions a repeat performance at said theater ... This "Did Booth really kill Lincoln or not?" subplot is also yours to investigate in vivid historic detail as Wild Wild West progresses!

You will attempt to ingratiate yourself with the locals in the towns and ports near the original assassination site, try to glean information about both Lincoln's and Grant's foes, and follow the assassins' trails. There are many puzzles to solve, and though moderate in difficulty they make sense and are very organic to the plot. Help a saloon's bartender repair his bottle-opening machine, and he will give you a new lead. Assist a young waitress, Misty, in mathematically determining which of the guests gets the peach cobbler for dessert, and you'll hear the tale of Booth's fateful stay at that tavern years before. Determined to play this entire game without a walkthrough, I actually cracked open an encyclopedia in my computer room as I tried to help a saloon patron finish three answers of his old-time crossword puzzle. My rewards were a bandage, some liniment oil, and a carved trinket. This game is extremely grounded in reality, much more so than any other action/adventure game I have ever played!

Wild Wild West's story, locales, weapons, puzzles and inventory quite faithfully reproduce the Early American era. There were no such things as unlimited ammo and superhuman health back in the real, turn-of-the-century Wild West. Bandages and bullets in this game are in very short supply, so search your extinguished enemies well. Yes, you must first place a weapon into Jim's hand for him to fire it, and six shots fired from his trusty pistol will empty it, so you'd better send him ducking for cover while you click on the reload button when needed, too. Guns were none too accurate in those days, either, so wait until your cursor/crosshair ring zones in tightly on its intended target before clicking that mouse button to fire! Yes, Jim will certainly die in a shootout if several enemies come gunning for him at once; call for backup to that rootin' tootin' brain of yours instead and take careful note of surrounding items in every scene. Is there a beehive hanging over that crowd of attacking baddies' heads that Jim can shoot down, letting the bumbles do the rumbles for him? Wouldn't that hay wagon make nifty protection from the local gang's shots if Jim pushes it in front of him while he exits stage left?

You will actually face off against the villains as both characters, the difficulty with Artemus being that he is an avowed antiviolence type, even though poor Arte is attacked nearly as often as Jim! Not being armed to the teeth like Jim is, Artemus must rely upon wits, stealth, disguises, and an arsenal of crime-busting gadgets to save him from the graveyard.

Your mouse cursor has a very intuitive way of changing into an eye when your character can examine something, or into moving feet when he can walk to an area. Then you merely click on the object for the desired result. That same cursor becomes moving gears when you can combine items or otherwise interact with something. It also changes into wide crosshairs when you use it to have Jim point a weapon at an enemy; as the crosshairs' circumference quickly narrows, Jim's chances of scoring a hit increase. You then right-click your mouse to fire a shot. A star-shaped badge in the lower right of your screen reflects each character's five hit points. If your current playable character gets hit five times, you're going to be seeing his name up in lights, on a sunlit tombstone, that is. Jim's inventory is housed in a saddlebag located down-screen as well; Artemus's is in a similar tan luggage bag. You click on the bags to access additional inventory or to apply bandages, which increase hit points again if they've dropped. You also apply disguises here, as well as access each character's notebook of logged events. The icon of the hand must have any item put into it before one of our heroes can use it.

Outside of the Grant Finale, as the story actually calls it, Artemus and Jim do not cross paths, only communicating with each other via a crude cylindrical recording device housed in their fabulous train, the Wanderer. This device, created of course by Arte, is used enthusiastically by him but only begrudgingly by Jim, who often comments dryly about Arte's "silly gadgets." The two do leave each other communications on their separate progress, and Artemus provides much written history, information, and old newspaper articles related to their current case via the world's first microfiche reader, which of course Arte designed himself! You would do well to peruse this information in the train before setting off on your adventures. Actually, explore this whole graphical masterpiece of a location thoroughly, as the pool table in one room of the train contains hidden maps, and a nondescript steel table in a second chamber houses Arte's collection of safe-cracking stethoscopic and crime scene-mapping gadgetry. Jim's weapons arsenal is in a smoked glass gun cabinet, and you'll notice his faithful steed along for the ride if you explore the stall at the end of the train as well.

This 2D-rendered game was graphically impressive when it was released, and it still holds up visually today. The tawny, wooded outdoor locations and vividly green farmers' fields are peppered with colorful old red barns. Weatherbeaten farmhouses with white picket fences dot the landscape as well. Gorgeous black and chestnut horses with swinging manes pull covered wagons along cobbled streets. Indoor taverns have dimly lit fireplaces and house creaky staircases and unfinished basements. There are many attractive cutscenes, some just lending western flair and others providing notable clues to the plot. The characters themselves, however, are blocky and move disjointedly, although always at a good pace.

Elmer Bernstein's musical score just thrilled me with its classic, timeless, adrenaline-surging western themes, and it was as intrinsic to the enjoyment of the game as No One Lives Forever's campy, groovy 60s spy songs were to it. The sound effects are great, too; even clicking on a choice from the main menu is rewarded with a snappy, echoing gunshot sound! Chickens cluck in the barnyards (extra points for that one!), trains rumble and whistle, and horses whinny, snort, and offer pounding hoofbeats as they gallop along. The voice acting was good for the most part, and as mentioned earlier, the two vocal impersonators are dead ringers for the WWW movie's two lead actors. I was especially shocked to see in the credits that it was not Will Smith voicing Jim West in the game after all!

Outside of one puzzle that really aggravated me to no end, I completed the entire game sans walkthrough. Had I known how to play chess, English chess actually, I could have played that puzzle out myself, too. As it was, the way into a town was blocked by a deadly trap where Jim himself functioned as a chess piece on an oversized chess board. If Jim stepped on an incorrect square, metal rods channeling lightning bolts would turn him into sizzling coyote bait! As the puzzle ultimately required 15 moves to complete, I am glad I found a walkthrough ... It was also stressful at times playing Artemus even though there were fewer action sequences in Arte's chapters, because when the action did come, he had no weaponry and could be killed quickly in combat. Fast stealth and calm logic were the orders of the day to complete his missions. There was also one timed boat chase in a harbor where vessel steering skills were Arte's only protection from flying bullets, and there was actually a separate puzzle goal to fulfill all the while; that one took a few tries!

I realize that this game did not do well commercially when it was released, but I assume that many gamers expected that its plot would reflect the flopped movie's own, and they passed on it for that reason. Another thing I did notice repeatedly on the action gaming forums was the mention that this game was just "tooo hard!" Yes, the puzzles are unique and challenging! Yes, the battles require intelligence, on-the-fly planning, quick reflexes, and control! Yes, it may take three careful shots from that sparse ammo before you actually hit one gang member! There are separate difficulty levels that can be set for the puzzles and the battles, with two choices for each, but honestly none of them seemed to make much difference. If you are looking for easy, predictable, spoon-fed gaming, don't travel to the Wild Wild West; traverse down the Road to El Dorado instead!

All told, Wild Wild West: The Steel Assassin is one of the absolute best action/adventures I have ever played, and I've played a lot of them, partner! The action/adventure genre, which is sometimes a dwelling place for lame plots rife with pointless violence and boring jumping puzzles, received quite a cowboy boot in the arse the day Wild Wild West was released. It therefore rustles itself up a giant Sheriff's Star from Skinny! The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: SouthPeak Interactive
Publisher: SouthPeak Interactive
Release Date: 1999

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

266 MHz Pentium-class CPU
3D hardware accelerator with 8 MB RAM
Windows 95/98 or Windows NT
DirectX 6.1 (included)
64 MB or more of RAM
200 MB free hard disk space
8x or better CD-ROM drive
DirectX-compatible video card with 4 MB VRAM

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