It’s surprising how little the gaming industry makes use of the rich source material found within the historical Wild West. The time of cowboys, saloons, six shooters and tumbleweeds is a goldmine of interesting characters, both good and bad, not to mention settings and storylines. In fact, it’s almost a shame that we don’t get many Western-inspired video games these days, although it could be said that the lack of over-saturation is a good thing. Then again, at least some companies have been attempting to pay homage to that era, providing us with a limited amount of great and memorable experiences like Sunset Riders, Red Dead Redemption, GUN and the above-average Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood. There aren’t too many to speak of, of course, but this very week has added one new title to that list of notables. That would be Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, the downloadable Xbox LIVE Arcade, PlayStation Network and PC game from Techland and Ubisoft.
Having debuted during this console generation as a brand new IP, the Polish-developed Call of Juarez series has lived longer than most probably would’ve expected it to. That’s a good thing in my books, because, although the original game was clunky and problematic, it was a decent experience that showed promise. The game’s release ended up paving the way for its impressive first sequel, which is criminally underrated, but the series took a major downfall when its third entry hit store shelves. We’ll simply try to forget that Call of Juarez: The Cartel exists, because that abhorrent modern day western doesn’t deserve any recognition and needs to be buried in the dirt alongside Atari’s E.T. cartridges.
The good news for those of us who love engaging in dusty shootouts is that the franchise did not end with its weakest link. Instead, its developer and publisher regrouped and decided to try something smaller. The result of that experiment is, of course, Gunslinger, which I’m happy to report is both a standout shooter and the best Call of Juarez game to date. It comes as a bit of a surprise given what was mentioned above, but it’s true: This really is a great way to spend that fifteen dollars that happens to be burning a hole through your digital wallet.
So, what is Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, exactly? Simply put, it’s a less serious take on the Wild West than those that have come before it. The scowls remain, but things are far less stoic this time around. Instead, gamers are treated to a slightly campy but thoroughly interesting and coherent experience, which is told from the perspective of one potentially delusional drunk named Silas Greaves. You won’t know his name, but he’s a popular bounty hunter whose exploits have been recorded through the use of dime novels.
Everything begins when Mr. Greaves steps inside of a quiet saloon in an unnamed town. It seems like he’s there for a reason, but it becomes apparent that drinking is his first priority. That leads the gun-toting badass and his gruff voice to a round table full of townsfolk who’ve noticed who he is, or at least who he claims to be, and want to ask some questions. So begins the included narrative, as our new friend Silas eagerly describes his life as a bounty hunter, including his search for those who once wronged him. It’s an interesting story to say the least, especially since it’s hard to tell if what’s being told is the truth. Things jump around and new pathways regularly appear out of nowhere, but that’s where a lot of the fun lays.
Adding extra intrigue to the playable events is the appearance of popular historical figures like Billy the Kid, plus Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. If what Silas says is to be believed then he played a major role in those folks’ lives, and vice-versa. I won’t say anything more out of fear I’ll ruin something, so we’ll leave it at that.
Now, let’s talk about the gameplay, which is just as fun as the story-based ride.
Controlling Silas through his narrated backstory, players must make use of bullets, dynamite, cover protection and platforming in order to get the job done. Unlike the problematic first-person shooters of yesteryear, the platforming is solid here, though it’s unspectacular. Additionally, the gunplay is fast, fluid and fun, although it doesn’t present any revolutionary mechanics. You simply point and shoot, though you can choose to add perks to your different gun types (six shooter, shotgun and rifle) whenever you level up with experience points earned from kills.
Where Gunslinger‘s gameplay differs from most games of its ilk is in its concentration mode. Utilized to slow down time and highlight enemies for quick kills, the meter is a helpful tool that is easy to build up through normal play. Essentially, you kill baddies to earn help to kill even more. The trick, however, is to make sure to use this mechanic at the best moments possible, meaning gigantic shootouts consisting of your digital avatar and a bunch of baddies. Those aren’t uncommon, though, and the good news is that it doesn’t take long to replenish one’s concentration meter once it’s been depleted, especially if said player has certain perks equipped.
Standard first-person shootouts aren’t the only gunplay segments that show up throughout the course of this affordable experience. They’re actually flanked by an expected duel mechanic. Those take the place of standard boss battles during some of the several hour-long game’s campaign, though some average to below-average basic battles do appear from time to time. I much preferred the duels, which were better designed and less frustrating on hard difficulty.
To win a duel, one must choose honour or dishonour, then cater their approach as necessary. What’s the difference? Well, to win with honour, a player must wait for his opponent to draw before doing so, making things more difficult. Conversely, the dishonourable approach allows one to draw his gun before his counterpart, allowing for a much easier victory. Either one is allowed, and both require the use of two joysticks, with one pertaining to gun draw speed (based on hand proximity) and the other factoring into Silas’ concentration. The higher the concentration indicator is, the easier it is to aim at and hit a baddie following a draw. It’s pretty simple stuff when it comes to execution, and is only complicated when it’s being explained.
All of the campaign’s duels are playable outside of the narrative, through a secondary challenge mode. It, alongside its arcade counterpart, wherein players must try to get high scores on short stages through the use of creative, chained kills and resulting multipliers, adds a lot of replay value to an already rich release. Not only that, but added difficulty, because only five retries are allowed throughout a run of fifteen different duels.
Last, but not least is the presentation factor, which is an area where Call of Juarez: Gunslinger happens to excel. It’s colourful, has solid voice acting and doesn’t take itself too seriously, employing a cel-shaded look and comic book-esque effects. On top of those facets, a widescreen visual approach is utilized, while old-looking comic scenes portray saloon story segments. It all looks good, and the same is true of the red hue that adorns enemies who’ve been highlighted during concentration mode, although a small amount of frame rate stuttering did mar my playthrough.
If you’re looking for a new Western game to sink your teeth into, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is a great candidate. Not only is it fun and rich, offering lots of content, but it’s also very affordable thanks to its reasonable, fifteen-dollar asking price. So, grab your six shooter and head out on Silas Greaves’ journey. I promise that it will help you forget about The Cartel.
This review is based on the XBLA version of the game, which was provided to us.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is a triumph for Techland, presenting a high-quality Western-inspired first-person shooter that will help players forget about its most recent predecessor.