Platforms: Xbox Live Arcade, Playstation Network and Steam
Reviewed On: Xbox 360 (XBLA)
After the brutal disappointment of The Cartel the Call of Juarez series was left floundering, with many wondering if it would ever see the light of day again. The first two games, both set in the wild west, weren’t top-notch triple-A titles, but they provided a good amount of fun for what they were, especially if you picked them up on sale, and so it would have been sad if the series had never been given another chance, especially since westerns are in short supply. Here we are, though, with Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, a smaller, downloadable title that runs circles around its predecessors, offering some of the best action you can find on XBLA.
Call of Juarez returns to its western roots as you take on the role of one Silas Greaves, a legendary bounty hunter. The story picks up as our grizzled veteran rides in to town and visits the local bar, where a few of the locals greet him and persuade old Greaves to recount some of his heroic tales. And so begins a story in which Greaves narrates his adventures as you play them, speaking of his many adventures and how he met and went toe to toe with many of the most famous names out there, such as Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and even Jesse James.
The story is a simple one of revenge, neither complex nor nuanced, and yet it’s still a highly enjoyable and engrossing romp that captures the legendary spirit of the west that many people have in their head, rather than the darker, grittier reality. The writing is solid throughout, capturing the traditional style of speech we associate with a western, with a couple of fun jibes aimed toward familiar game clichés along the way as well for good measure. The actor playing Greaves manages to inject a special something into his voice that makes him an instantly more likable and relatable fellow than any that have come before him in the Call of Juarez games. His gruff, world-weary and yet somehow still slightly playful tone is perfect for narration duties, and it’s hard not to end up listening to him speak with the same wide-eyed, excited, infatuated look as the youngest man sitting around the table has plastered on his face.
Developers Techland use this framing device in a couple of cool ways. Since Greaves is sitting in a bar telling his story there’s always the ever-present question of exactly how much of what he’s saying is the truth and how much of it is either lies or embellishments. As you’re playing a through a level you might hear Greaves tell his audience that a barn materialised in front of him in the fog, like it came out of nowhere, and lo right in front of you said barn will fall from the sky, crashing to the ground. You might be battling a horde of Injuns with no escape when Greaves explains that a route he had not seen before seemed to open up before him, and lo as you’re playing said route will indeed appear. There’s also other cool uses, like how you might end up playing through a section only for Greaves to remember that that’s not actually quite how it happened, and so the game will rewind and play the revised version. At one clever point you even end up playing a good section, only to find out that it was just Greaves explaining what would probably have happened had he taken that path, and that he actually took a different one altogether, causing the game to rewind and you to go down a completely different path. t’s a great idea and my only regret is that they didn’t always use it to its fullest, as I’m sure there’s plenty more that could have been done with it.
Backing up the storyline is the game’s gorgeous visual style which brings the wild west to life with an intense color palette. In between levels you’ll get a sequence of well-drawn still panels of Greaves and his audience, and the game itself is presented in a vibrant, cell-shaded style with plenty of flair thrown in. No doubt many will glance at the game and scream Borderlands impersonator at the top of their lungs, but rest assured Gunslinger has a style all of its very own and isn’t afraid to flaunt it. It’s not just artistically the game does well, mind you, on a technical level the game also impresses with plenty of detail packed into character models and vast draw distances lending the world a sense of scale via some impressive vistas, even though you are kept to a fairly linear path, a path which happens to also feature warning messages should you stray a bit too far and invisible walls that you can bang your noggin off of, somewhat ruining the nice illusion of wandering through the wilderness. The framerate is also as smooth as silky butter, if such a thing were to exist, and in motion it’s just god-damn pretty to look at. The graphics also suit the style of storyline and the type of game this is pretty much perfectly. As a downloadable Arcade game there’s really little to fault with the game’s graphical presentation.
And what kind of game would that be? Simple: Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is a straight-up FPS that focuses almost solely on nothing more than shooting bad-guys, and it rarely ever let’s up from that formula. This is an unashamed shooter, one that to refuses to apologise for that fact and that revels in the satisfaction of a well-aimed headshot and the stylised violence that the graphics deliver. It’s all down to the weapons really, there’s just something so much more awesome about wielding powerful revolvers and rifles from in comparison to modern-day weaponry. Sure, an M16 can lay down a hail of bullets and is a deadly tool, but it’s nothing in comparison to unloading a beautiful six-shooter. Modern day guns are incredibly powerful, but a six-shooter has a certain undefinable quality that makes it feel like it has a soul of its very own. First things first, the guns all feel immensely satisfying to use in this game. Revolvers go off with a pleasing snap and kick your arm back, rifles feel deadly and accurate, and shotguns look and feel like they’ll cut a man clean in half, which they will actually do if you fancy getting in that close. Good use of classic western audio helps as well, with bullets making that unforgettable whizzing sound as they go by your ears and delivering that unmistakable ting as they ricochet off of buildings and rocks, making you feel like you’re in one of this iconic battles. The next step in delivering damn good action is the feedback the game gives you on kills. The game’s always scoring you on your performance, numbers leaping out of bodies as you gun them down, while every headshot is rewarded with a spray of blood and even occasionally a split-second of slow down, constantly encouraging you to nail enemies faster and faster. Enemy AI is not hugely intelligent, tending to take cover and then refusing to move from that location, but it makes up for that with deadly accuracy,and you’ve not got a lot of health at your disposal, either making every firefight feel lethal. Better yet, Gunslinger feels like it’s taking genuine skill to play, unlike most other shooters out there. Battles are fast-paced, lethal and most importantly, outright fun.
Blasting foes also fills up your Concentration meter, which when unleashed with a tap of the shoulder button activates a slow-motion mode where enemies become highlighted in bright red, offering you precious time in which to land those headshots and even up the odds if you’ve managed to find yourself struggling a touch. The rate at which the meter fills is also pretty generous, affording you plenty of opportunities to feel like the baddest ass that ever dared to badass. Concentration Mode is hardly an original or innovative game mechanic, a theme which runs through Gunslinger, but it slots nicely into the action and is a blast to use, unlike in many other titles where such things feel gimmicky.
Another meter also provides a fun mechanic in the ability to dodge potentially lethal bullets at the very last second. It fills up over time and activates automatically in certain situation where the bullet could be fatal, though it can’t be relied upon to save your ass every time as something like a gatling gun round won’t activate the ability. Again, it’s a cool mechanic that fits nicely into the style of gameplay that Gunslinger is going for, which is to say, fun, arcadey and slightly stylised.
Providing the backbone of the action is a fairly typical levelling up system that lets you spend points to unlock skills and stat boosts. As mentioned the game hands out points for every enemy you kill with the biggest points reserved for skillful gunplay, always pushing you to hit those headshots quicker and quicker so as to keep your combo high and thus net yourself the largest amounts of XP that you can. Once again it’s hardly a new system, but it works well here and provides a nice sense of progression to the game, and the skills are generally well-balanced and thought out. There’s a total of three skill trees on offer here, essentially coming down to focusing on pistols, rifles and shotguns, allowing you to tailor your skillset to our personal preferences. personally I went straight for the pistol skills as the very fist one on offer there let’s you wield two revolvers at once, and who wouldn’t want to do that? I’ve got no doubt that most people who pick this game up will make that skill their very first stop, and for good reason.
Most of the chapters within the game finish off with a good old-fashioned duel against one or more of the many famous characters Greaves claims to have met and shot throughout his career. These take on pretty much the same form as the duels seen in the first two games, but since there’s a good chance you’ve not played those (and it should be noted that apart from a few easter eggs and references for fans you don’t need to have any prior knowledge of the series to play Gunslinger) I’ll happily chat about how these work and why they’re they’re bloody awesome. As you face your opponent in a classic stare-down there’s several things that must be done in order to win: firstly, the right stick is used to keep your focus on the opponent as he moves left or right, making it easier to get an accurate shot faster when the time comes, while the left stick is used to maneuver your hand over your holster in order to get a better, faster draw of your revolver. Once you hear your own heartbeat you’re allowed to draw your weapon if you wish, but doing so before your foe is viewed as dishonorable and therefore will lose you some valuable points if done, yet obviously going for your gun first makes it far more likely that you’ll emerge victorious. To do the honorable thing, then, you need to wait for your opponent to make the first move and then trust that you can react quickly enough. Not only that, but you also need to know exactly when to shoot after drawing your gun, because firing too fast will do nothing but put a bullet in the scenery and waiting to long will obviously get you a bullet between your eyes. And finally, there’s always the temptation to go for that big scoring headshot that takes serious skill to pull off but will likely just get you killed and remembered in the history books as a bit of a dunce who got a little too confident. Duels, then, are incredibly tense affairs as you watch your opponent with an intensity that would make a cat proud which require you to bring all of these different elements together – focus, hand position, reflexes and timing – to emerge as the only man left standing. Because of that they feel like they take genuine skill on behalf of the player. At first they’ll likely feel frustrating as bringing everything together correctly can be tricky to get the hang of, but soon enough you’ll discover the knack behind it all and will begin to take immense satisfaction from gunning down your opponent with a quick draw and perfectly placed bullet. Gunslinger is defined by fun, and duels are no exception to this.
On something of a side-note, I do actually feel that Techland missed a fantastic opportunity to introduce a competitive multiplayer mode in the form of 1v1 duels against players from around the world. I’m a strong supporter of not just ramming multiplayer into games that simply don’t need it or where the gameplay mechanics simply won’t support it, but the way duels here are handled feel like they could have worked well in a competitive online environment. Just imagine facing off against your mates, trash talking down the mic as the tension rises: who is going to go for their gun first and prove to be the dishonorable cur? whose the quickest? who is the best?
Back on topic. On occasion the game also needs to sling a quick-time-event at your face. For the most part these are okay and even sort of entertaining, but there are a couple which literally come out of freaking nowhere. The idea is that they’re supposed to represent Greaves impressive reflexes as he spins around to gun down a man behind him, but in practice quick-time-events that hit with no warning while you’re just walking along can be annoying.
By its very nature Gunslinger is a repetitive game with a constant barrage of bullets and blood, yet the core gunplay is more than strong to ensure that you don’t tire quickly of the action, and after you blast through the main story mode, which will take you about four or five hours, there’s plenty more reasons to keep playing. First of all there’s a New Game+ mode which lets you replay the story with all of yours skills intact and an experience bonus as well. For diehards there’s also True West mode which ups the difficulty and removes almost of your HUD, including your aiming reticule, leaving you to use the good old iron-sights to pop heads. After that you can also delve into Arcade mode which places emphasis on gunning down loads of enemies. And finally there’s also Duel Challenge, which puts you in a series of 15 duels with 5 lives.
For fans of collectibles Gunslinger also offers a fair few of those too in the form of Nuggets of Truth, each of which provides a brief historical look at the real people, locations and events that you’re playing through. Unlike most collectibles which feel like something of a chore to hunt down, Nuggets of Truth feel like they’re worth your time and effort as it’s pretty fascinating to learn a little about some of the characters and events you’ve encountered along the way.
Thus far, then, I’ve got pretty much nothing but praise for Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, and that’s because truthfully as a digital download/Arcade game it’s pretty much ideal. Still, the game isn’t flawless with the biggest complaint, and really the only complaint, that I could level at it being that the story sometimes has a habit of getting in the way of the action, somewhat hampering the fast pace of the game. Occasionally you’ll find yourself being slowed down so that Greaves can narrate, or you’ll have to run along a long path so that he can finish whatever he was talking about at the time. It’s still a relatively small complaint, though, because while it did hurt the pace of the game a little it never actually marred my enjoyment of the whole thing.
After the bitter disappointment of The Cartel, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is an outstanding and triumphant blast of pure shooting fun that perfectly suits being an Arcade/PSN game. It’s not an original nor innovative title in the slightest, but it provides brilliant entertainment wrapped up in beautiful graphics and a highly enjoyable storyline. Sure, you could criticise it for being nothing more than constant gunplay, and it’d be a fair criticism, but I honestly can’t find much to fault with Gunslinger, and the shooting is done so well that even after a solid few hours of play I was still having a blast. And for that reason I can’t recommend it enough.
+ Silas Greaves is kind of awesome.
+ The gunplay is satisfying and fun!
+ Looks damn good.
– Story can sometimes get in the way of the gameplay.
– Duels would have made for great 1v1 online action.
The Verdict: 4.5/5
Yes, I know, it’s a massive score for a game that does nothing original and is nothing but shooting from start to finish, but I dare you not to have fun with this game. As a digital release it really is a superb title, focusing on its core gameplay and doing it very well. The previous Call of Juarez games were hard to recommend as full-priced retail releases. Perhaps Call of Juarez has found a new home in the smaller, digital world.