Review: Call of Juarez: Gunslinger

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Let me tell you about the fun time I spent battling drug cartels in downtown LA. Oh wait, that’s not what happened. That was another Call of Juarez. I remember now. Let me recount the time when my brother and I fought our way through the battle lines during the Civil War. Whoops, I’m sorry. Yet again I seem to be thinking of a different Call of Juarez. My mind is old and I can’t always keep my stories straight. What I want to tell you about is my time with Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, the latest Wild West first-person shooter from Techland.

This new digital download only Call of Juarez tells of the adventures of Silas Greaves, an old gunslinger bent on revenge for acts perpetrated upon him and his brothers forty years prior to the opening of the game. What separates Gunslinger from the rest of the large swath of FPSs currently available is the method in which the story is presented. Silas begins weaving a tale of his adventures in the Old West, offering his view of historical events as told from his perspective of being there. By this I mean Silas revisits several pivotal moments in Wild West history that involve his dealings with well known figures such as Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Butch Cassidy and many other notorious outlaws.

What is so magical about these tales is the fact that Silas is recounting his adventures in the company of others who often question the claims he makes. At times these mild objections to the truth revise the narrative and directly alter what is taking place in the world as you are playing. Sometimes these objections benefit Silas during gunplay, while other times the odds stack against you in a much greater manner. The way the narrative impacts gamplay isn’t always done out of questioning the truth though. At one point one of the members that Silas is telling his story to begins to doze off, and while quietly stalking through a swamp, suddenly loud snoring can be heard. As a way to catch this napping listener, Silas injects a dozen or more Indians into his tale of battle. On the fly the game alters the environment and suddenly there are Indians shooting at you from all directions. Quickly the dozing member asks where the Indians came from and Silas replies that he just wanted to make sure everyone was paying attention.

Just as the narration is top notch, the gunplay feels very solid as well. Choosing between two types of handguns, rifles and shotguns, Silas makes his way through the world shooting enemies to build up a multiplier. The multiplier determines how many points are earned during each level, which in turn help to level Silas and earn additional skills that are spread across the three types of guns. Two additional mechanics come into play during each level. One is Silas’ Sense of Death, which slows down time so you can dodge a bullet which would otherwise end your life. The Sense of Death is a nice touch, but patience is required to determine which way to dodge the blast. Dodge too early and Silas may move directly into the bullet’s trajectory.

Another time-slowing mechanic also allows Silas to see all enemies in red (while the environment mutes to a sepia brown hue) and offers a chance to take out two, three, four or more in quick succession. Learning to adeptly manage this bullet time mechanic is necessary to survive many encounters as the sheer number of enemies thrown at Silas is clearly unbalanced against you, sometimes unfairly so.

The story of Gunslinger takes place across a wide selection of visually striking environments. Using the Chrome 5 engine, Techland has clearly put a lot of time into creating a world that doesn’t feel repetitive and offers plenty to explore beyond the linear path the game funnels players through. Off to the side there are plenty of little touches that could easily have been trimmed out to keep development time and costs down, but because they are included, the game world feels much more lived in and real. I bring this up because while Silas’ narrative may be questionable at times, hidden throughout each level are Nuggets of Truth that offer historically accurate descriptions of people and events mentioned within each level.

One criticism I have with the game is the fact that with or without utilizing the time-slowing mechanic, most enemies die in one shot. This fits for the period of time that the game is set in. Even minor gunshot wounds (in the leg, arm, foot, etc) could be potentially deadly. Yet magically every boss is nothing more than a bullet sponge.  Silas can take a few shots before dying, but even with repeated headshots, most boss encounters take four or five reloads to take down (even with emptying each bullet directly into said boss).

Upon finishing the game, a New Game Plus option unlocks which offers a higher level of difficulty while keeping previous skills unlocked. Additionally, Gunslinger comes with an Arcade mode which pits players against short timed sections of the story and tracks progress on leaderboards. The key to earning high scores in Arcade mode is obviously to keep moving to beat the time, but also to string together kills and maintain a high multiplier. This is a fun diversion, but I am truly humbled by the points I have been able to accrue compared to several folks on my friends list. My scores pale in comparison to pretty much everyone else, but I think that just goes to show how I prefer to play FPS games: I’m methodical and take my time (probably too much) in lining up shots. Still, the Arcade mode is a fun way to relive some of the game’s best moments in quick bursts.

Gun slinging duels, which cap off most chapters in the story mode, can also be accessed as a side mode from the main menu. A total of 15 duels are available in a ladder approach where progression is made to the next rung when a duel is won. Players only get 5 lives, so if an opponent wins a round, progress is halted until a duel is won or all lives have been lost. Dueling is a nice change of pace to the rest of the gunplay found in the game, where the right stick is used to narrow focus on the opponent and the left stick is used to move your drawing hand closer to the gun handle. Listening to the audio cues and pulling the trigger at the correct moment determines whether or not you draw and shoot honorably or not. The trick is to time pressing the “draw” button and then pressing it again before the opponent manages to fire their gun first. This is fun, but also frustrating if you have difficulty with the timing.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is a fun, fresh approach to a tired genre. Having an FPS set in an environment that isn’t a modern military or sci-fi setting is a welcomed change of scenery, and the humor and unreliable narration adds a level of unpredictability missing from many shooters these days. A shorter narrative that offers additional challenges with new game plus is great on its own, but having a leaderboard-driven arcade mode gives plenty of replay fun in lieu of having to deal with online multplayer drama.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Fun gameplay driven by unique narration
+ Gorgeous Old West environments
+ Plenty of replay with Arcade, Duel and New Game +
+ Fantastic music

Cons:
– Enemy encounters can be brutally unfair without proper use of time slowing skills
– Duels can feel cheap and frustrating at times
– Most enemies die in one shot yet bosses take ten times as many shots
– Load times are a bit long (but only occur at the beginning of each level)

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3 via PSN, also available for PC and XBLA
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Techland
Release Date: 5/22/2013
Genre: First-Person Shooter
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.