- Never insults seven people when it's only packing a six-shooter
Well, gosh-golly-howdy, partner. What in tarnation are you doing all the way out in these parts of the interwebs? Did you get lost on your way to the IGN saloon or something? Ah, well. Since you’re here, why not saddle up and listen while I tell a tall-tale review of a certain game they call… Call of Juarez: Gunslinger.
Now, it’s no secret that the last game in the Call of Juarez series, The Cartel, was deplorable. Set in the modern day with the Mexican Drug War as a backdrop, it was a failure both technically and stylistically, with laughable production values and no soul to speak of. If it were a cowboy, it probably couldn’t shoot the broad side of a barn.
Thankfully, Ubisoft and Techland very much got the hint and went back to the drawing board. The result is Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, a downloadable title that makes a grand return to the Old West while featuring a cel-shaded art style, an ambitious framed narrative and arcade-style shootouts. Does Gunslinger ultimately make its mark, or is it a tumbleweed-summoning bore? We’re about to find out.
Gunslinger’s interludes between missions are told via comic book style cutscenes, and center around around an elderly cowboy named Silas Greaves. After wandering into a bar one day and introducing himself, he’s greeted by the enthusiastic questions of its owners and customers, who are dying to hear about his legendary adventures. He begins to tell them his tales, and during each one, the player is transported to a new level and plays out the actual mission as Silas recollects it.
From there, he never stops providing overhead narration, and during a few points he actually skews his retelling, accidentally or otherwise. This causes the game to rewind and make you replay that section a bit differently, which is certainly a bit gimmicky but nevertheless amusing. In fact, Silas’ role as a charismatic, unreliable narrator adds a lot of personality to the game. Voiced by the talented John Cygan, Silas is constantly boasting and cracking jokes, and despite the constant nature of his ramblings, not once is he irritating to listen to in the least. In fact, he’s incredibly likable, especially when some of listeners begin to doubt him and realize he may be exaggerating some of his great claims, giving him an underdog status.
This stylish framed narrative approach to storytelling is a great way of hiding the fact that there isn’t much story at all here, at least initially. Through much of the game, the plot plays out like a dull and disjointed series of bounty hunting adventures, during which it’s hard to give half a horse’s crap even with Silas behind the wheel. Only a few of the missions feed into a vague revenge motivation, which isn’t fully explored until roughly two thirds into the game. When that does happen, the narrative picks up tremendously, leading the player down some surprising twists and turns before culminating in a rather thoughtful ending. It’s a darn shame the story couldn’t have maintained that level of engagement throughout, especially since Silas ends up having one of the better character arcs I’ve seen in a while.
Part of what sinks the story may be its hard-on for historical references. After all, this is Ubisoft we’re talking about, whose Assassin’s Creed plots have done an unfortunately good job of prioritizing historical nods at the expense of pacing and emotional attachment. Why are characters like Billy the Kid and Old Man Clanton even here? What significance do they add to the plot? What do they offer for the game’s redemptive theme or over-the-top tone? Nothing, that’s what. They only serve to bog down and derail the story in its earlier chapters, reducing a lot of it to unfocused fluff. The game even tells you via educational collectibles that these characters didn’t actually perform the things they do here, so what’s the point? Why not clearly present a long-term goal for Silas right away and just populate the plot with stylized, fictional characters that have something of relevance to say or do? In short, much of the story feels a lot like a Sheriff’s bullet whizzing past a despicable outlaw’s face; a missed opportunity.
When it comes to action, the game is more Django Unchained than The Magnificent Seven. Blood spurts from downed foes as if someone hammered a ketchup packet, thrown dynamite can be shot in mid air, there’s a slow-mo ability, and you even get to man a chaingun at a few points. It’s all gloriously over the top and compliments the game’s insistence on not taking itself very seriously. However, all of that would have been for naught had the core shooting not been as satisfying as it was. Aiming is incredibly slick, and every bullet thuds into enemies with a satisfying sense of impact, complete with a rewarding shower of blood spray and experience points. The shotguns in particular are some of the some of the most pleasingly crunchy firearms I’ve ever had the pleasure of shooting.
Gunslinger’s ‘hook’ in terms of gameplay is its combo-oriented scoring system. By chaining together kills in quick succession, you build up a score multiplier that rewards you with more experience. That experience can be spent on upgrades within one of three skill trees: the dual-wielding Gunslinger, the far-shooting Ranger, or the close-quarters Trapper.
These skill trees lend the game a good degree of customizability and replayablility, the latter of which is emphasized in the New Game + mode. There’s also an Arcade Mode, which allows you to experience the combo shooting in a more concentrated fashion via smaller levels and fully maxed-out skill trees. The scoring system gives the game a more frantic and experimental nature that really helps to stave off repetition during the surprisingly long 8-10 hour campaign.
However, that’s also where we come to a bit of a problem. See, Gunslinger’s arsenal consist of weapons like revolvers and bolt-action rifles, and although they’re not quite as clunky as their historical counterparts, they’re also no red-dot sight ACRs. They require finesse to aim, and their low clip sizes mean they have to be reloaded often.
Combined with Silas’ average amount of health, you’ll spend a considerable amount of time reloading or regenerating behind cover, where no kills can be performed to continue your chain. This can lead to some disappointing instances where you simply can’t build the outrageous kill combos the game encourages you to perform, not due to any lack of skill on your part but rather the inefficiencies with the arsenal. This is especially true with the lumbering shotguns, which can only hold two shells before requiring a not-particularly-brief reload. You’ll get used to this system and learn to make the most of it after a while, but it’s still hard shake the feeling that not all of the game’s mechanics are on the same page.
The one other ace the game has up its sleeve is its dueling mechanic. Modeled convincingly after the one-on-one standoffs you see in classic Western films, these moments have Silas and his opponent slowly strafing around each other, their hands hovering closely above their holstered revolvers. Success in this minigame involves multi-tasking, as you use one stick to gradually inch your hand closer to your gun and the other to keep your foe within a focus reticule. During this tense buildup your accuracy and reaction time increase, and you can choose to draw whenever you feel you’re ready or wait until your opponent does so first, granting you an “honorable” bonus rating.
There’s even a dedicated duel mode, which should give you an idea of how surprisingly involving and refined this mechanic. Not only does it feel fresh, but it feeds wonderfully into the Western style. It’s baffling, then, that Gunslinger also feels the need to roll out a startlingly out of place bullet-sponge boss fight every now and then. These fights are usually tedious slogs and don’t gel with the ‘be quick or be dead’ motif provided by the rest of the game’s fast-paced gunplay. I understand the need to inject some variety into what is essentially an extended shooting gallery, but this probably wasn’t the best way to go about it. The occasional quicktime events aren’t particularly organic either.
Fortunately, not even those sequences can tarnish the game’s sheer beauty. Hey, developers of the world, can every game be cel-shaded like this one? Because if so, we might not even need next-gen consoles. Gunslinger’s aesthetic transcends its low-tech, downloadable base to provide rich colors that are easy on the eyes and allow for environments that are unusually varied for a Western setting.
My continued gripe with most works of the genre is that they don’t graduate beyond brownish-red towns or desert valleys. Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, however, takes you everywhere from swamps, mountains, mineshafts, canyons, forests and more, with each sporting varied geography and color palettes. The game is right up there with The Darkness II, Prince of Persia and the Borderlands series when it comes to cel-shaded feasts for the eyes. It all sounds great too, with stellar voice acting, thunderous gunshots and explosions, and a suitably Western soundtrack.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is not a smart game, despite its best efforts to hide the fact. It really doesn’t provide much more than the opportunity to shred apart bandana-wearing dudes with lead. However, when shredding said dudes is this gratifying, frantic and stylishly presented, it’s hard to complain. Gunslinger’s story may not pick up until it’s nearly over, and its combo-oriented scoring system doesn’t always gel with its slow firearms. However, if you’re able to get past that, the game provide one of the most gorgeous art styles and some of the most fluid and downright pleasurable gunplay you’ll ever experience. Ubisoft have not only struck downloadable FPS gold yet again this year, they’ve helped a struggling series get back on its feet and barge back into the saloon with style.
(Reviewed on Xbox 360. Review code provided by Ubisoft. Many thanks!)