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'Hard West' Is Like 'XCOM' in Cowboy Boots

Getting Weird in Hard West.
November 22, 2015, 1:00pm
Image: CreativeForge Games

They don't make a lot of Westerns anymore, they don't make a lot of tactical strategy games like XCOM anymore, and they never made a lot of video games about the Wild West, which is too bad, because these are some of my favorite things.

That's why I pretty much have to love Hard West, a new game for PC and Mac, which brings all of them together

It takes inspiration straight from Weird West, an often-forgotten sub-genre that mixes classic Westerns with demons, ghosts, vampires, and the occult. There's the card-sharp who gets gunned down, only to make a pact with the devil and rise as an instrument of bloody revenge. There are two gold miners in trouble, a trio of Pinkerton detectives who might be clones, and a trip to a Mayan temple.

It's somewhat fitting that Hard West explores these stories as a turn-based strategy game: turn-based strategy is a game genre that, like Westerns, was also once a powerhouse. After the '90s, turn-based strategy fell out of favor until the delightful alien invasion game, XCOM, reinvigorated the format in 2012. Just as Hard West draws inspiration from the Weird West literary canon, it borrows all of its best mechanical ideas from XCOM. Mixing the two together makes it one of the strangest games I've seen in some time, stirring in derangers, 12-gauge shotguns, and cannibals aching for human flesh.

Though its bones are borrowed from XCOM, Hard West tries a few new tricks. Guns work best at different ranges, so you'll want to get your men with shotguns up front and keep the rifles in the rear. Rather than beginning each level in combat, Hard West gives you the opportunity to keep a low profile, sneak around, and find good positions before the fight kicks off. During one mission, my team and I surrounded a bank quietly, then stuck guns in tellers' faces to start the robbery. Eventually the stealth falls away and the chaos kicks on, but that's the good stuff.

Out there on the edge of two once-great genres, Hard West is telling cool stories about the edge of civilization. Some of its stories are even about the edge of humanity and the limits of sanity. It's an unexpected treat—even if it is a little bit odd.