There are three things I’d like to see in more video games: an engaging story (har har, aren’t I clever?), jetpacks, and dynamic narration. The idea of a voice-over detailing what’s happening in the game as you play has always been oddly alluring to me, and I’m disappointed that so few games use that tool. The most recent game I can think of that did it was Bastion, but it’s already been a couple of years since that came out, and there haven’t been any games that I can think of that feature dynamic narration since then.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is one of the last games I would have expected to include this feature, but then, the phrase “I was not expecting…” goes hand-in-hand with my experience with the most recent entry in the Call of Juarez franchise. “I was not expecting dynamic narration in Call of Juarez: Gunslinger,” for example. Or: “I was not expecting Call of Juarez: Gunslinger to be so arcadey.” “I was not expecting such a vibrant, popping colour palette from Call of Juarez: Gunslinger.” might also work. And, especially after the mediocrity that was Call of Juarez: The Cartel: “I was not expecting Call of Juarez: Gunslinger to be so damn fun.”
Developed by Techland and published by Ubisoft, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is the latest entry in the wild west-era first-person shooter franchise that always seems to come up short, at least in my mind. While I found Call of Juarez to be decent enough, it didn’t really wow me. Bound in Blood was a little bit more entertaining, but it still wasn’t a stellar experience. The Cartel was, to me, completely lacklustre. It was boring, it felt uninspired, and it was a disappointing move away from the setting that had given the previous entries so much character. Consequently, I had very low expectations for Gunslinger, which may be part of the reason why I found it so enjoyable.
Gunslinger tells the story of Silas Greaves, an aged, grizzled bounty hunter who recounts the exploits of his almost fantastical life to a gang of locals at the Bull’s Head saloon in Abilene, Kansas. According to Silas, he’s crossed paths with just about every famous figure from the American West during its frontier days, from William Bonny (better known as Billy the Kid), to Jesse and Frank James. He even name drops a few more storied names, like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, though he never comes across them in-game. His days as a bounty hunter seem to be such a star-studded affair that you begin to wonder very quickly just how much of what he is telling is the truth, and a few of the eager ears he’s telling the tales to are openly wondering the same thing by the time the story reaches its climax.
Like the other entries in the Call of Juarez franchise, Gunslinger is a first-person shooter, though it has a much more arcade-y feel. There are only three weapon types – pistols, which act as your near- to mid-range weapon, and double as a sort of rapid-fire option when you dual-wield them, rifles, which are your mid- to long-range weapon of choice, and shotguns, for the gamer who likes to get up-close and personal. Each of these weapons has a corresponding skill tree, which you can add a perk to when you level up. Levels are gained by earning points, which are given with each kill, and in higher volumes as you chain together kills to build up a multiplier. To aid you in this, you can trigger ‘Concentration mode’ when you’ve killed enough to fill the metre. This acts as a sort of bullet-time, slowing down the action and causing enemies to glow bright red for easy shooting.
This arcade focus does an admirable job of keeping the action engaging, despite the fact that a shooter designed around three weapons could potentially begin to feel repetitive very quickly. There are different styles of the three weapons – and ‘legendary’ versions which are unlocked by half-filling and completing each skill tree – but they all function fundamentally the same. The point system ensures that you spend your time trying to rack up kills as quickly as possible, rather than trying to find different ways to engage your enemies. The problem with this approach is that it only works when the firefights come and go quickly, and while most are short and satisfying, there are some that drag out a little bit. It’s at these times that the limited variety of weapons can be a bit of a shortfall, but it never becomes a huge issue. Generally speaking, I found that these longer firefights were the perfect time to light up a stick of dynamite – which function as your grenades in-game – and colour things red that way. Aside from that, there was the occasional gattling gun section to mix things up a little, but that opportunity only arises a couple of times throughout the story.
Even when the firefights began to drag, though, the environments never did. The game’s graphical style is absolutely stunning. The comic-book style lends itself well to the arcade feel, and the colours are so vibrant, and pop so effectively, that it serves as an excellent counterpoint to the myriad of dull-coloured shooters on the market. The environments are effectively varied, mixing stereotypical old-west towns with woods, caves, valleys and pitched gunfights on trains, making sure that you don’t spend too much time looking at the same thing. Each of these different environments are as saturated with colour as the last, but never so much that it’s difficult to see who’s shooting at you. In fact, the game managing to keep environment distinct from enemy, despite the fact that everything is bright and comic-y, is definitely praiseworthy.
That said, the enemy designs themselves aren’t all that varied. The chapters are divided up based upon which enemy gang Silas is opposing, but they all start to run together after a while. In fact, the only reason I noticed that one gang was wearing red bandanas was because Silas drew attention to it at one point. Other than that, they’re pretty samey. The only enemy designs that really try to differentiate themselves from the rest are the gang leaders. Each chapter ends with a confrontation with the gang leader of the day. This is usually accomplished by a standoff, though occasionally you’re thrown into a more traditional boss fight, complete with enemy health bar.
I was pleasantly surprised by those aforementioned standoffs. When you begin one, you’re staring down your opponent in the environment of the moment. You have to keep your mouse cursor hovering over the enemy to keep your focus up, while simultaneously controlling your draw hand to keep it near your holster to increase your speed when you finally haul leather. Once your opponent reaches for his gun, you have to draw your own, and fire before he can. Alternatively, you can draw before your enemy, and bring him down with a ‘dishonourable’ kill. It doesn’t have any effect on the story, but dishonourable kills don’t get the XP bonus that honourable kills do at the chapter’s end, so I’d recommend only using it if you’re stuck on and/or frustrated with a particular standoff.
I’ve already stated my biggest criticisms with the game – the lack of variation in weapon, and the monotonous enemy design – but it’s difficult to judge them all that harshly, as it’s a budget downloadable title. Because of that, the positives far outweigh whatever other negatives I may have. I could say that the main story falls a bit short – I cleared it in a few hours – but for fifteen dollars, I wouldn’t have expected much more. I could say that the game crashed a couple of times for no reason, but the only reason that really disappointed me is because I really wanted to keep playing, so that ends up becoming a positive in the long run.
There’s also a lot of little things here that I wouldn’t have expected from a budget-priced title, which further undermine whatever criticisms I have. There’s an element in the game through which you can dodge a bullet that would have otherwise killed you, as long as your ‘death sense’ metre is full and you move in the correct direction as the bullet is flying at you, which – alongside the abilities you get from the upgrade trees – create an excellent sense of power so you really do feel like you’re a skilled gunslinger. There are a series of collectibles that you can find throughout the levels that provide historical detail on the people and places you encounter throughout the game. There’s even a New Game Plus option that lets you keep your upgrades and play through the story again, which I appreciate in any game. On top of that, there are two score-based modes, Arcade and Duel, which track your scores via leaderboards. In Arcade mode, you can play through each level of the game, specifically trying to get the highest score possible, and in Duel mode, you try to get the best score you can in fifteen consecutive standoffs. If there was ever a budget title that gave you more content than expected based on its price, it would be Call of Juarez: Gunslinger.
I don’t know what inspired Techland to suddenly create the best game in the Call of Juarez series – and make it a cheap downloadable title to boot – but I’m extremely glad they did. There’s an impressive amount of content for your $15, and an incredibly tight, engaging shooter experience to go along with it. The vibrant colours, excellent narration and addictive, score-based gameplay make the game easy to recommend to anyone who enjoys shooters, and it’s so well-crafted that it’s easy to overlook what faults the game has. It’s not a perfect experience, no, but it’s certainly an enjoyable one.
Here’s The Rundown:
+ Thoroughly entertaining and genuinely amusing dynamic narration
+ Bright, vibrant art style
+ Addictive point-based gameplay
+ A surprising amount of content for only $15
– That said, it does run a bit short
– The limited choice of weapons can lead to firefights feeling repetitive
– Nothing memorable to the enemy design
– I experienced a few random crashes
8 and 8.5 represent a game that is a good experience overall. While there may be some issues that prevent it from being fantastic, these scores are for games that you feel would easily be worth a purchase.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger was developed by Techland and published by Ubisoft. It was released on May 22nd, 2013. It was purchased on Steam for the PC at $14.99, and is also available for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.