Pistols, cowboy hats and tense saloon standoffs are all synonymous with the Old West, a troubled time where outlaws roamed and alliances were forged or broken. It’s a period that Hollywood once depicted with all the glary-eyed trash talk and dramatic shootouts you might expect. It might be considered strange then, that gaming never really followed suit, barring Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption as a particularly memorable western. Before that, however, was Call of Juarez and its sequel, Bound in Blood, both of which proved to be fun yet flawed outings in their own right.
Platform: PlayStation Network (Reviewed), Xbox Live Arcade, Windows PC
Genre: First-Person Shooter
Released: (INT) May 22nd 2013
Then came The Cartel – a shooter that tried and failed (so horrendously) to bring the series to the modern day. Poor graphics, sloppy handling, repeated and irritating dialogue as well as a total lack of imagination meant the game was a chore to play, made worse by the fact that it was built on a series which always showed great potential. Looking to right the wrongs of the past is Gunslinger, a budget release that returns to its roots and actually gives some full-priced titles a run for their money.
In Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, you play as the bounty hunter, Silas Greaves as he recalls some of his most daring exploits. It’s a story that meanders and corrects itself while it’s being told, as the ageing Silas throws in details when he remembers them. It’s a story-telling technique that we’ve rarely – if ever – seen before, with trees sprouting forth, rocks shifting away and new paths revealed to accommodate the hunter’s retelling. Things don’t always make sense, but it’s usually engaging enough thanks to the fine voice-work and snappy pacing. Characters listening in tend to call Silas out on the finer details, even doubting his claims when things take a grandiose turn.
Cutscenes won’t impress at all, presented via darkly drawn images that do little to build atmosphere. Thankfully these are hardly relevant at all, as it’s the tight gameplay and well-delivered lines that are the stars of the show. You’ll occasionally find yourself playing through an area multiple times as Silas decides to give a little more backstory or remembers things a different way, so it’s never too predictable beyond the game’s usual mechanics. Environments aren’t the most beautiful you’ve seen by any stretch, but it’s an easy thing to forgive when they evoke the Wild West atmosphere as well as they do.
The majority of your time will be spent laying waste to the enemy thanks to quick use of your dual pistols plus shotgun or rifle. Both the variety and amount of weapons you carry are limited, so it’s a good thing that they handle differently and offer their own set of strengths. Shotguns are great for close-range; rifles are long-distance, while pistols are handy for mid-range. They can’t be upgraded in the traditional sense, but you will unlock new and more powerful versions as you upgrade Silas through the skill tree. Finding hidden secrets in each level provides backstory on the real faces from the game, with the bonus of levelling Silas more quickly.
Concentration mode makes dealing death an easier task, slowing time and highlighting enemies for swift kills. It’s not quite the automatic win button of other games that allow for tagged executions, though Gunslinger will have its own form of this should you choose to level up in that direction. You’ll eventually unlock every skill thanks to the welcome ‘new game plus’ mode – which is something a few big-name adventures could learn from. Enemies get stronger and come in their droves, to the point that it can feel like a shooting gallery despite the satisfaction you get from a well-placed shot. Gunslinger also features quick-time events, though these actually manage to be good fun as each press leads to another bandit felled.
Boss encounters boil down to one of two things; you’ll either be going toe-to-toe in a duel (which can seem like a case of luck over judgment with its unwieldy reticule), or facing them down with waves of enemies and an extended life meter. At times you’ll have to race between cover to avoid a gattling gun, but it can be a real nuisance when you face down a seemingly inhuman boss whose health must be slowly chipped away. The duelling mechanic might not be completely sound, but at least it’s quick to retry and doesn’t involve getting blown away unfairly. These standoffs allow you to draw first for an early advantage, for which the game punishes you by branding you ‘dishonourable’ in your final score.
When the camera centres on a single foe, you’ll have to dodge a ‘lethal shot’ Matrix-style. This can be even more hit-and-miss than the duels as it isn’t often clear which direction you should be leaning. Bosses and their followers tend to employ this tactic a little more than needed, and it’s something that the game should have probably left on the cutting room floor. A game can be dramatic without instantly killing you, which the folks behind Gunslinger should learn if (or preferably when) they decide to make a sequel.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is a welcome return to form that will appeal to fans of the Wild West or anyone who enjoys a bit of gunplay. The story unfolds over seven hours and can be replayed with every upgrade intact, plus Arcade and Duel modes provide even more bang for your buck … all at the price of a standard arcade title. That’s a steal regardless of its flaws, which can still be pretty glaring when faced with overwhelming odds. It might not be perfect, but Gunslinger is a fun package that learns from the mistakes of old and plays to the series’ strengths. Strap on the holsters and load up your six-shooters. The Wild West calls.
8.0 – Great. An enjoyable experience, fans and newcomers of the genre will be entertained. Any noticeable flaws are largely outweighed by the positives.