As in Puzzle Pirates, you are allowed to develop an avatar, for whom you can buy outfits and abilities. The game-play portions of the game are much more integrated with the theme, though: instead of playing falling-block games to swordfight, you spend much of your time manipulating a team of gunfighters around a map, in one of several western scenarios: grabbing gold nuggets (either lying on the ground or from your opponent’s claim), staking claims in homesteads, and cattle-rustling. Generally there are opposing gunfighters trying to keep you from succeeding.
I suspect that this game play belongs to a larger genre I don’t have much experience — I haven’t played a lot of games that involve the tactical movement of small units on a battlefield and the like, but I am sure there must be buckets of them. Therefore my comments here are from a naive point of view.
There’s a huge amount to like about this game: the graphics are beautiful, the terrains on which you do battle diverse and full of interesting quirks. Features like a train running up and down the middle of a landscape can make a major difference to your planning and timing of operations. There’s also a steam-punk angle to the setting: units include dirigibles and other machine- or machine-augmented creatures, and sometimes your computer opponents are portrayed as early steam robots. The Western-steampunk is not entirely new, but it gets a charming threatment here, and added some variety to the range of things that characters could do.
I’m not very good at the game at all. I have a hard time moving my characters around in a way that’s going to get everything done at once; each character has a delay after moving before it can act again, and while that in some ways simplifies game-play it meant that I was constantly glancing around trying to work out who was active and who was going to be active momentarily. (You’re allowed to give units advance orders, but often my plans went awry because the enemy peskily moved first.) I also found it very slightly distressing: I realize that I may be reinforcing gender stereotypes by saying this, but I don’t enjoy games in which I’m locked in a violent death-struggle as much as, well, other kinds of games. It’s frustrating and feels wasteful. I’d rather play a game in which I build stuff than a game in which I blow stuff up.
Anyway, I played this thing for a couple of hours, enjoyed it a lot despite my incompetence, reflected wistfully that I might get better at it if I played more; threw the client away. Despite the amount of time I sink into IF, I’m puritanical about not getting addicted to games like Bang! Howdy. Some of it has to do with the aforementioned non-enthusiasm for battle and violent struggle as a topic of game-play, even when that struggle is presented in a sanitized way.
A large part of the difference, though, is the feeling of having accomplished something when I finish an IF game: I’ve read the story, I’ve gotten to the end, and I usually have something I can take away and think about. I feel that way about games like Ayiti or ElectroCity, too, once I’ve worked out best strategies and considered the implications.
If Raph Koster is right, these games I’m bad at ought to be designed to teach me skills (like reflexes, timing, or the best strategy for gathering gold nuggets from a hilly terrain) that I currently lack, so in theory I ought to feel as though they weren’t a waste of time. In practice, though, I have no sense of progress or positive gain after a session with the average first-person shooter, or after winning every level of Diner Dash. (Which I did. But I’m not proud of it.)