When it comes to westerns, gamers, like prairie dogs, have been left to perish in a sun-parched desert. Few developers have seen fit to address the paucity either. Thankfully, Sandlot Games just rode into town with a saddlebag full of goodness in the wild-west sequel, Westward II: Heroes of the Frontier. Like its forbearer, Westward, this ant-farm-filled-with-gunslingers serves up a tasty tin of casual sim and real-time strategy fun.

Similar to the Virtual Villagers games, this western drama challenges you to explore uncharted territories, build thriving settlements and bring the elusive Copperhead Gang to justice. Picking up after the events of the original Westward, this tale continues the saga with a few twists. In Westward II, you direct the fortunes of three markedly different pioneers, referred to as heroes, Marion Morrison, Maureen Fitzsimmons and Terrance Stevens, in the establishment of a new outpost, Oxbow Bend, while seeking to uncover the nefarious Mad Russian’s (yep, he’s back again) base of operations.

As with its predecessor, you continue your western exploration and expansion by gathering various resources, water, food, wood and gold; overcoming natural disasters like drought, fire, plague and tornado; fighting off attacks from marauding bandits; and guiding your settlers to safety, prosperity and, ultimately, happiness. Towns can be customized with over 20 unique buildings and more than 30 luxury items and upgrades, awards are earned for in-game accomplishments and an all-new Sandbox Mode provides added play.

The main game leads you quest-by-quest start to finish while Sandbox allows you to explore three maps in Open Range or Disaster Challenge. In the former you develop your little settlement adversity-free; the latter adds environmental disasters. Another new feature that’s worth mentioning is that Sandlot is offering additional maps for free on its website that you can download and play around with in Sandbox mode.

Thankfully, Westward II begins with an in-game tutorial walking you through the basics: moving characters, interacting with them, building structures, collecting resources and combating bandits as you perform tasks and complete quests. You also learn how to monitor the HUD’s mini-map, resource icons, happiness gauge and character info window.

At first, a limited selection of buildings, upgrades and luxuries are available. But, as you complete quests and construct buildings for the first time you gain experience that’s used for unlocking other items. For instance, initially you can only build a shack, cabin, well and farm. Experience gives you the ability to construct wood huts, gold mines, water towers, granaries and more. Upgrades include corn, pigs, pumpkins, cattle, picks and dynamite. Example luxuries are the gazebo, statue, outhouse (luxury or necessity?), fountain and town bell. While you’re told what to unlock at first, the choice soon becomes your own.

Of course, you need to balance resources so you don’t run out. Otherwise, you might find yourself unable build needed structures or to fill your townsfolk’s bellies, halting progress. In some instances, you may need to restart a quest if resources are depleted. A lack of resources in Westward II affects your town’s happiness, as well as your settlement’s success. If it drops too low, settlers will leave and new ones won’t move in. Factors that lower happiness include overpopulation, plagues, droughts, famines and bandit attacks, while luxury items such as outhouses and statues and higher-level buildings like saloons and banks increase morale.

Quests you encounter during play vary in scope and difficulty, and usually include several tasks. They range from simple assignments like building a farm and gathering food to the more complex of establishing a complete logging outpost with everything required in a self-sustaining community, or constructing several bridges across a river to restore commerce and rescuing a town from no-good outlaws. Quests, completed and in progress, can be viewed at any time so you know what still needs to be done.

In comparison to the original Westward, the biggest change is the move to 3D graphics. You can zoom in and out moderately to view objects more closely or increase your perspective, buildings rise out of the ground as constructed, animated effects add life to the western landscape and characters change attire to match their assigned jobs. Solid production values extend to the audio, as well, with great music, sound effects and humorous banter from your hero and townsfolk adding to the atmosphere. Interesting "side-quests" increase engagement, play is highly addictive and surprisingly deep, and Sandbox Mode extends the product’s overall value.

However, as with Spaghetti Westerns of old, a bit of cheesiness is present. While the move to 3D visuals provides a technological advancement over its predecessor, it also serves to reduce the former game’s hand-drawn charm, replaced with a polygon-infused appearance. Time spent in developing the new 3D engine would have been better invested in perfecting the existing product. Moreover, some vagueness exists in the task aspect of portions of the game, leaving you at a loss for what to do next. And, the HUD, while attractive, consumes too big a chunk of real estate.

Compared to other casual games, Westward II’s difficulty is a bit steep at points. There are initially a few too many bandits to deal with before you get a sheriff’s office and sheriff and deputies, and it’s also very easy to run out of food if your town grows too quickly. The tutorial is not detailed enough to offer help about how to properly deal with these issues or avoid them – the game could possibly have benefited from offering users several difficulty levels.

Nonetheless, Westward II: Heroes of the Frontier is another entertaining, challenging resource management game set in the far-too-infrequently-chosen western milieu. Most folks will be obliged for the opportunity to be a hero in this upbeat version of the Old West.