Call of Juarez Gunslinger
Genre: Gun slinging
Release Date: 05/22/2013
As a fan of Western movies and books it surprises me that there aren’t more Western video games. The setting of lawlessness and the number of both real and fictional stories to draw inspiration from just seems like something more developers would be able to take advantage of, instead of making some of the carbon copy war games that are made. Techland has tried to make a couple of good Western themed games in the past in the Call of Juarez series, the first being a decent game with some terrible stealth sequences, Bound in Blood which I enjoyed (though staff member O’Reilly disagrees with me), and The Cartel, a modern era Call of Juarez game which was so embarrassingly bad that I figured after that they’d mercy kill the brand.
Instead the developer created Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, returning the series to the old west. Despite previously releasing only one game I enjoyed out of the three previous titles I picked this up, because I’m a sucker for the theme.
Glad I did, because it turns out that fourth time’s the charm for the Call of Juarez games.
The game takes a novel approach to the story. The game revolves around an old man named Silas Greaves in a saloon, telling stories about his life to a small crowd. This narration is laid over the game as you play, and in an interesting twist affects what is happening on screen. For example, if Silas starts describing how foggy it was that day then fog will roll into the level. This is used brilliantly in different ways throughout the game; you might play through the same area in different ways depending on how Silas is remembering the story or how other characters he is speaking to add their two cents to what they think happened.
The closest game I can think of where the narration affects the game so well is Bastion, but the narration for that game is influenced by your actions, while in Gunslinger the narration is what determines and sets your actions up. They also use this storytelling device to explain away typically awkward game mechanics. If you try to wander off of a trail too far instead of hitting an invisible wall you are warned that you are wandering away from the story being told. Enemies having unlimited ammunition or coming in what feels like never ending waves are explained away as the possible exaggerations of a drunk old man spinning tall tales. Techland deserves a lot of credit for using this as a plot device but integrating it into the way the game plays in such a way that adds both to the story and to what is happening on screen.
The story itself is also a good one. I might have been annoyed that the game tried to stuff in every old west legend that it possibly could into the story, but again, the way they crafted the narrative as being told by an older gunslinger who might just be making it all up makes this work well. Plus, within each level there are hidden items to find called Nuggets of Truth; finding these will give you the chance to read the actual history behind the legends, locations, and events used within the game. There’s a sense that those that made the game aren’t just trying to exploit these icons, but actually like the Western tales and history that they’ve based the game on. The story is predictable in how it plays out. However, it unfolds in an interesting way and asks great questions about revenge, like if it’s worth it if it makes you a worse person than who you are seeking revenge against.
Graphically the game has a slight cell shaded look to it, which works well for the game. The game has a dime novel aesthetic running through it, and the bolder lines and colors work well for the theme that they are using. The parts of the story set in the Saloon to set up the levels are told in static screens and occasional comic book style panels. Getting shot will have bullets perforate the screen as though they’re puncturing through paper, and the comic book panels return for introducing boss characters. The levels look great, especially for a budget title like this. Call of Juarez: The Cartel looked worse than this. The draw distance is incredible and each level looks distinct. The music is perfect and the game has some surprisingly strong voice acting. The sound effects for the weapons are powerful and well done.
The game controls similarly to many other FPS games: left stick for movement, right for looking around/aiming, left trigger for looking down the iron sights, right trigger to shooter, press down on the left joystick to run, A to jump, X to reload, Y to switch recent weapons, D-Pad to use assigned weapons, left bumper for throwing dynamite, right bumper for concentration mode.
There are a few things the game does a little differently. The game keeps a running combo for different types of kills, with experience points gained for each kill. These experience points work towards leveling up your character, and each level allows you to unlock skills out of three different classes, each that accentuate different play styles, whether that’s dual wielding pistols, using the rifle, or keeping it close with the shotgun. The skills are well thought out and help the sense that you’re gaining some kind of skill progression within the game. There are also enough skills that you will not max them out in one playthrough, encouraging replayability.
The game features a concentration move, which is a bullet time style slow down effect that charges over time. There’s also a Sense of Death meter, that when full will also slow time down and let you see the bullet with your name on it coming at you, and give you a split second to try and dodge it.
Duels are in the game, because what’s a western game without a showdown to see who can pull leather the quickest? These are used for specific moments in the game and ignore the previously explained control scheme. During a duel, the camera will rest around the back side of the right hip of the main character. A circle will appear as an aiming reticle, you try and hold this circle over the enemy in order to increase the amount of focus for your aim when you draw. The left joystick controls the character’s right arm, allowing you to move it closer to hover over the but of the gun to increase the draw speed. The game starts a countdown, and you can either wait for the enemy to draw first, in order to be honorable, or you can draw first once you hear the heartbeat of the main character thudding loudly. At that point you hit the right trigger to draw and again to shoot when you’ve aimed.
This was a little tricky for me, I’d for some reason pull the trigger twice right away. Meaning I’d have blown my foot off. Once you get the hang of it the duel system it is fun and makes for climatic moments at the end of some chapters, while also throwing in a little variety into the game.
Aside from just the story mode, there is an Arcade Mode and a Duel Mode. The Arcade mode takes locations from the game and challenges you to run through them without the narrative, and with specific enemy placement, with the goal to rack up the highest score as possible. This is a lot more difficult than it sounds, in order to get the highest rating on a level you’ll have to be able to keep a continuous combo of kills from beginning to the end of the level. Arcade also lets you choose between different class types to try and make it through the levels with unlockable bonuses that assist each class. There are certain strategies you’ll have to figure out with each class in order to maximize speed, swapping guns, reloading and aiming in order to get a high score. It’s kind of addictive, knowing you almost pulled off a perfect combo but just missed it by a second made me feel like starting over until I got it right.
Duel Mode is what it sounds like. You get a certain amount of lives and you go through just the duels from the story mode. The score, based on speed, shot location, honorable/dishonorable, etc., gets added together after each round. There are leaderboards for both the Duel and Arcade modes to compare your score to that of your friends.
Beating the single player mode unlocks New Game Plus, so you can keep going back and play through the story again with the skills you’ve already unlocked, and it allows you to continue to keep gaining levels to unlock the remaining skills. An additional difficulty mode also unlocks, the True West mode, which removes the cross hairs from the screen for weapons, removes all other HUD elements, and greatly increases the challenge. I played through the regular difficulty, which was a decent enough challenge, and I’m currently playing through the True West difficulty and I’m enjoying the additional challenge and I really dig how well the game works even with the HUD being removed.
I enjoyed the hell out of this game. The main story is well done and told in an interesting way that interacts with what is on screen, and the additional modes take the different mechanics of the game, like the score you get when killing enemies and the duels, and partition them off into their own areas that explore those ideas further. Both this game and Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon are to me almost better than some of the AAA full price game experiences available. Both games take certain ideas and are crafted in such a way that they don’t feel unnecessarily padded out or had a multiplayer mode or microtrasactions riveted onto the games. Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is just a great game that fully explores the concepts introduced without overstaying its welcome, and has some additional fun modes to screw around with. I really hope that Ubisoft continues to keep creating downloadable budget experiences like this.
Short Attention Span Summary:
The cheapest Call of Juarez games at release is also the best Call of Juarez game to date. While I enjoyed Bound in Blood, Gunslinger is a tighter, more focused experience that’s also more fun to play. I recommend anyone who wants a Western fix to pick it up.