Be sure to check out our Tips & Tricks for Westward

Forget everything you know about how the west was won. In Westward, it’s up to you to decide the fate of brave settlers as you set up camp, harvest resources from the ground and eventually build a thriving community that will attract other passersby.

So if you’re bored of the countless gem-swapping puzzlers out there in cyberspace and want to try on a tougher strategy game,Westward is for you.

And dagnabbit, it’s one helluva good time.

The core game-play will be familiar to those who’ve dabbled in real-time strategy (RTS) games, where you must control your characters from an angled top-down perspective, build structures and complete missions to advance to the next stage. (Unlike turn-based strategy games, such as Chess or the Civilization computer games, RTS means you don’t have time to stop and think out a next move as everything happens in real-time, which adds to the excitement.)

After the lengthy tutorial, players will be familiar with the game mechanics, which includes scouring the area to collect wood, mine gold and harvest food. You must build houses and camps to accommodate your growing population, while lumberyards, gold mines and farms can help speed up your resource collection. You can also set up trading posts to buy, sell and trade resources with others.

Without giving much away, the story surrounds a handful of frontiers who were all duped by a Russian con artist (a k a, “The Mad Russian”). Not only were many people sold the same piece of land, but it also proved to be dry patch of desert instead of a fertile spot. Players will take on various missions while wading through this fun and light-hearted tale of early Americans in search of happiness and prosperity. For example, at one point you build a saloon to keep your residents from leaving town (after all, they want some fun after work), but doing so requires a certain amount of wood and gold to complete — not to mention townfolk required to construct the dang thing. Once it’s built, there’s good news and bad news: the good news is you can then hire gunslingers who can take care of the bandits who will appear in your town and begin to destroy buildings. But the bad news is some of your productive workers turn to the bottle, so you must deal with ye old town drunks, too.

Eventually you can build a general store, which lets you buy items needed to solve other issues, plus you must make it through natural disasters such as drought, deal with desertion, and explore your surroundings to make sure you have enough food, gold and wood to sustain your growth.

Controlling your cast of characters is as easy as clicking and dragging them from one spot to the next (a lasso appears when you drag the mouse around more than one person). Structures you can build will be at the bottom of the screen; clicking on an item — such as a well or water tower (to help fuel farms) or outhouses (to prevent plague) – tells you how much it’ll cost in resources to build. Also lined along the bottom of the screen is your mission list, a mini-map (for a larger view), compass, and more.

Aside from the deep and addictive game-play, two of Westward’s greatest strengths lie in the high-production values and in the clever writing. With the former, the graphics, sound effects, music and speech is on par with $50 computer games you’d buy on CD-ROM or DVD-ROM, plus it never deviates from the western theme. The writing is also quite funny, be it some of the characters you’ll meet (Harris Pilton, a hotel mogul!), funny dialogue (Esmerelda Fitzsimmons says “I just can’t get good tiramisu around here!”) or the silly advice when a level loads up (“There is northing more dangerous than a bear holding a shark” or “Saloons are a great place to kick back or get kicked in the back”).

By the numbers, Westward offers up to 30 hours of single-player game-play, spread out over 20 increasingly challenging levels. Players have access to more than 10 playable main characters (and dozens of secondary ones) and more than 25 unique buildings to create to support your growth.

Westward isn’t perfect, however. For one, many real-time strategy games let you zoom in and out of the map so you can get a better look at the action, but in Westward, it’s a fixed camera, so I often had to use the mouse to push the edges of the screen to move the camera to another area. Another issue is you cannot speed up the action if you’re simply waiting to complete a scenario, such as collecting 1000 Gold to pay off a debt. Finally, the game has a few minor bugs such as four or five people getting stuck together in the same spot (they can’t move and you can’t click on one of them) and some “pathing” A.I. issues, such as characters that take an odd route around an obstacle (such as a canyon).

Overall, however, Sandlot Games’ Westward is a fun and fresh western-themed strategy game that is difficult to put down. Its high-production values and clever writing also help make it one of the more polished and interesting adventures to mosey our way in a long while. Be sure to lasso this one.

Be sure to check out our Tips & Tricks for Westward