I know what you’re thinking: Another Call of Juarez game? Really? Well yes, Call of Juarez this may be, but don’t let the name fool you – this aint’ the yella-belly flop y’all was expectin’. This scaled down mini-sequel skips a full retail release in favour of digital distribution and a lower price point. This approach points to Ubisoft’s probable lack of faith in the franchise following a very poor showing last time out, but developers Techland may well have redeemed themselves.
Gunslinger features three unique game modes, all a slightly different take on the first person shooter outfit that the franchise has worn since day one: Arcade mode, Duels, and Story. The tale told in the story mode is good fun and seen through the eyes of bounty hunter Silas Greaves, who is regaling a group of publicans with tales of his life. Set in the Old West, Gunslinger returns to more comfortable ground than its spiritual forbear, The Cartel. Greaves tells his new friends about the various bounties he’s had over the years, and it turns out that the old Gunslinger has killed, or been acquainted with, nearly all of the Old West’s better known names; Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett and Jesse James are just some of the characters to appear in Greave’s engaging tales. The story is conveyed via moving, comic book-style stills that dance around the screen whilst Greaves is speaking, transitioning to missions that you play out seamlessly. Greaves cuts in periodically to speak about his memories of the mission you are on, keeping the on-screen carnage in context.
Call of Juarez titles of the past have been, or at least tried to be, expansive, large scale, all singing all dancing affairs. For the most part, it felt like Polish developers Techland were biting off a little more than they could chew. The ideas were there, but the execution let them down – and nowhere was this truer than in Call of Juarez: The Cartel. So here we are, two years on, and I can report that a change in direction on several fronts has brought about a series of improvements.
Techland has dropped the gritty realism of past games and opted for a more humorous, arcade-style approach to the gameplay. Gone are the reams of text and boring cut scenes, and in come countless enemies and thrilling gunfights. A new score system encourages you to aim your trusty six-shooter revolver at the head of the enemy, thus gaining you more kill points, which are put towards the new levelling system. When you earn enough kill points and level up, you’ll be given a token with which to gain a new ability, weapon or attack.
Shooting is the name of the game here; lots and lots of shooting. I hate to think how many lowlifes met their maker at the hand of my right index finger on my first play through of the Story mode, but it’s fair to say there are a lot of grieving mothers in Gunslinger’s version of the Old West right about now. There is a good balance between shooting speed and finding the killer shot in Gunslinger, but don’t expect to find an auto-aim assist here; you will need to be razor sharp if you are to avoid an early exit.
Speaking of razor-sharp reflexes, you will need to be as fast as lightning for the Duel Battles, which appear at the end of missions in the Story mode or as a dedicated gameplay mode selectable from the main menu. The duels are really well-handled, and ask you to keep a rather shifty reticule over the head of the enemy in an effort to build up “focus”. This is achieved by delicately caressing the right analogue stick, while the left stick controls Greaves gun-hand, which you will need to keep close to his weapon ready for when the enemy starts to draw. Then, if you’ve got everything lined up perfectly, a press of the right trigger will do the rest – unless you lacked focus or had your hands in the wrong place, in which case you’ll be dead within seconds. It’s a brilliantly fun distraction from the mayhem of the main game.
Once you’ve blasted your way through Gunslinger’s Story mode, the Arcade mode is there to keep you entertained for what I suspect will be many hours yet. Featuring 10 (count them, 10) levels, the Arcade mode is all about the points. Every kill gets you a score multiplier, which is reset after four seconds if you haven’t killed an enemy or destroyed a piece of scenery. The Arcade mode is all the best things about Gunslinger concentrated, and you’ll have a blast (literally) battling your way to the upper echelons of one of the levels leaderboards. You will have a choice of four different bounty hunters when you enter an arcade level, each with their own weapon set-ups and skill advantages.
While the game is simple and honest fun for the most part, it does feel a little like a mid-nineties on-rails shooter at times. Your enemies are essentially brainless, and will pop up from behind barrels and out of windows at timed intervals, just so you can get a good shot at them. Their absence of self-preservation is quite staggering, but at least it makes things a little easier for you. I would recommend that hardened shooter players try the game on the tougher difficulty first time through, as the suicidal enemies and inclusion of a bullet time feature add up to a quest that is a little too much like Virtual Cop at times.
Techland’s change of direction doesn’t just extend itself to the gameplay in Gunslinger, as the visual aesthetic gets a complete overhaul this time around, too. The more upbeat and accessible nature of the gameplay is matched by the new look, as it sports a brighter, more heavily-saturated colour pallet and thick black outlines that give the Old West a gorgeous cel-shaded look. The weapon models in particular look great, oozing cartoonish charm. Scenery wise, there isn’t a lot to write home about; just expect a lot of wooden planks and oily sunsets. Silas Greaves and his compatriots are voiced expertly to produce an engaging Story mode, and they speak with all the charm and twang we have come to expect from a title set in the Old West.
VERDICT: Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is a great little shooter that I will happily be dipping into again for a dose of sunshine over the rainy summer months. There is enough here to keep you entertained for quite a while and, for the price, I can’t think of a way to get more bang for your buck. A tremendous little surprise, Techland should be commended for finally finding the formula for success.
VERY GOOD. An 8/10 is only awarded to a game we consider truly worthy of your hard-earned cash. This game is only held back by a smattering of minor or middling issues and comes highly recommended.