From the moment Gunman Chronicles begins with a slow monorail sequence, the game tells you that “Yes, this is like Half-Life.”
But then the train passes by a hallway suspended in anti-gravity. “No, this isn’t Half-Life at all.”
Developed as a standalone mod for Valve’s groundbreaking first-person shooter, Gunman Chronicles noticeably wants to break the mold that it came from. Its style rests firmly between the claustrophobic linearity of its host game and the more expansive set-pieces that would define future genre pacesetters like Halo. No doubt Gunman Chronicles is a fun ride; it has tightly scripted sci-fi action chops and a sense of danger. It’s also an awkward game, the middle child of a genre caught growing midway.
In Gunman Chronicles, humanity rests in the hands of the Gunmen, an elite troop of Civil War-clad minutemen who fight alien threats on the outskirts of the galaxy. You play as one such soldier, a veteran who survived the devastating Banzure Prime attack that apparently claimed the life of the Gunman General. Years later on a search-and-rescue mission, the General reemerges, still alive and seeking revenge against those who abandoned him. His rogue faction, supported by a genetically engineered alien army, ambushes the Gunmen and instigates a full-fledged war. You split from your comrades to hunt the General on his home turf and dismantle his “xenome” army.
Anyone who has played a first-person shooter campaign will know where this goes. You strike an alliance with a berserk AI who aids you in your battle against the General and the xenomes, which become an increasingly prominent threat. Eventually you defeat the General in a dramatic boss battle. So many other shooters before and after Gunman Chronicles mimic this structure that it may never have been fresh, but the interstellar scope of the game is moving it towards something bigger and operatic. Much of the game follows the same beats as Half-Life with environmental puzzles and set-pieces mixed into the action, but they’ve been adapted to fit into Gunman‘s vaster, colorful backdrop.
The combat also borrows directly from its predecessors, but again, the variations hint at Gunman Chronicles reaching for something bolder. Like other first-person shooters in this template, the game’s handful of weapons all fit into archetypes suited for different combat situations. More radically, you can modify them in the middle of combat, not simply changing their firing mode but totally altering their behavior into new weapons. The rocket launcher, for instance, can become a grenade launcher, a homing missile, a mine layer, and everything in-between. These functions seem only partially thought out and are never central to the game, but they offer a glimpse of experimentation in a genre trying to figure out what would come next.
That’s especially true for the rare segments with vehicles. They exist, but the game doesn’t quite know what to do with them – a long way from the genre staples they’d become.
Gunman Chronicles feels like it achieves the most simply by playing with a grand scope. First-person shooters at this point had been characterized by stalking through corridors; Gunman has plenty of that too while also casting a much wider net for its planet0 hopping adventure. As you chase the General across star systems, you visit the same stock industrial settings that you’d find in other first-person shooters like Quake, but also massive Western-inspired canyons and fractured landscapes where quarreling alien species weave in and out of your path.
The game relishes every chance it gets for a massive action set-piece with huge monsters and environmental destruction. The game opens in a collapsing, prehistoric jungle temple where the General’s stooges ambush your allies in a crossfire; the breadth and complexity of this scene dominates everything that comes after it… until the next chapter ends with a battle against a humongous monster and the explosion of a moon. For all its ideas about weapon customization and combat, the physical expanse of the game is what separates it from just being a Half-Life mod.
It does still bear a close resemblance, because it is… well, a Half-Life mod. A terrifically made Half-Life mod, of course, but one working on a larger canvas with the same paints. While some scenes stand out as grander undertakings (the opening scene’s chaos warrants another mention), familiarity works against others. Moving gunfights into bigger arenas with wilder intersections of combat is a change in size, not necessarily form.
The first Halo game debuted a year after Gunman Chronicles and rewrote the standards for first-person shooters with its enormous landscapes and free-form combat sandbox. You can see seeds of those ideas in the escalating scale of Gunman. When you drive a tank across a desert or evade a drone ship patrolling the skies, those moments are exciting and fresh but still distant from the epic-sized action that the shooter genre would grow into. They’re much closer to the original game Gunman that was trying to figure out how to move beyond.
Since Gunman Chronicles is a Half-Life modification (many game files still even carry the Half-Life name), it is possible to play the game on modern systems via a copy of Half-Life purchased through Steam. Follow this guide for instructions. Miraculously, the game’s multiplayer mode is still running!
(This article was partially revised on December 6, 2020.)