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Call Of Juarez: Gunslinger Review: Best Western Shooter Ever?
Notice the operative word in the title of this review: “shooter.” I’m not saying Call Of Juarez: Gunslinger is the best western game ever, far from it. I’m saying it’s possibly the best Western shooting game or FPS ever.
And further, it’s a pretty large landmark for the FPS genre in general.
This is a downloadable title which will still give you more than ten hours of gameplay, not counting its replayable nature (which is pretty high). That’s a challenge to the biggest of AAA blockbusters. This is a downloadable game with graphics to match a high-budget game, to boot. And it’s a downloadable game which has some of the tightest gameplay I’ve ever seen. It’s incredibly fun, skill-based stuff.
That alone should leave mega-produced title developers quaking in their boots. There’s both innovation and fun squeezed into this little, relatively cheap package.
Now, onto the gameplay itself.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger’s brand of cartoony Western action is essentially Call of Duty: The Western.
In the best possible way. Even if you’re not a fan of Infinity Ward’s once-seminal series. I felt this in the games compelling levels and action-packed scenarios; but to be honest, Gunslinger takes more risks and is more innovative than the World Best Seller. This is due to the clever layering of very close-knit game mechanics; a points system for good shots and combos, a slow motion and amazing last stand mechanic, and a levelling and upgrade mechanic. All of which I’ll get onto shortly.
The game is developed by Techland, who are famous for the flawed zombie FPS Dead Island. I wasn’t a fan of that game. Or their games in general; even the decent original Call of Juarez games were good, though not great. Call Of Juarez: Gunslinger, however… I am a big fan of.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger’s levels are tight, lush set pieces of shooting. The action is paced perfectly. On a generous platter you’re served points-paced arcade shooting with all the trimmings, a lean side of levelling and upgrades and a satisfying fleshy core of blasting guys. The just-right shootouts and solid hit-reg for blasting guys fit onto peaks and troughs of tension that a Hollywood producer would be proud of.
All the environments are unique. The game’s comic-book, slightly cel-shaded aesthetic helps this vividness. From dusty towns to railroads, Southern canyons to marshlands, it all looks fresh and hyperreal. Even though this is a static world often made up of decrepit houses and wooden stacks of assorted miscellany, the unbelievably vibrant colours and slight motion to everything is utterly convincing. Even when textures crop up a little bit bland and washed out, it’s easy to forgive.
However, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger’s main success is that it feel open and fun whilst still, in reality, being very tight indeed. And I meant tight. Not only does everything look lush and beautiful in the game’s graphic novel style, but level design is fantastically focused.
Nothing is overused in this game. Unlike most games this generation.You only enter a saloon once or twice. You only fight in a dusty town once or twice. You only fight on a rooftop once or twice. You only fight on a train once. Even the fantastic duelling system is always mixed up. All the way to the game’s final standoff.
In a sense, Techland have absolutely nailed the download-only videogame format with Call of Juarez: Gunslinger. This isn’t a large game in terms of storage, and it uses what resources it has very effectively. I played for around 10 hours just to finish the singleplayer- and that wasn’t counting New Game +, True West difficulty (no heads-up-display, it’s brilliant) or Arcade More or Duel mode.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is a highly economical project in every way. And this fits in line with the title’s sublime arcade-style shooting, which is both satisfying and addictive as hell. I’ll get to that in a moment.
The narrative which develops over the course of the game sets up the tautness of the gameplay action. Players follow the story of Silas Greaves, a bounty hunter, whose various journeys are told in a retrospective narrative. In 1910, he is sits in a saloon telling some people of his escapades in the dangerous Old west. Escapades where he rode with legends; escapades where he killed legends. His dialogue with the saloonfolk runs over the top of gameplay. For the most part this element is endearing and upbeat, with slight tones of a b-movie version of Bastion’s own cowboy Rucks or of a more optimistic Booker DeWitt.
As noted before, it’s a semi-cel shaded game, the graphics a cross between Borderlands and Bulletstorm- but the Bulletstorm comparison goes a lot further. Like Epic’s madcap points-based shooter, Gunslinger has lifted this exact points system. Blast a guy with a six-shooter and you’ll get 50 points. Hit his head you’ll get 100 points. Shoot him through some scenery you’ll get 150. And for chaining together kills the points will multiply- a couple of times over the course of the game I reached a combo of x24: parts where varmint cowboys run out of the woodwork at you from every angle and you spin in Concentration mode shooting them to pieces. The game perfectly captures the fantasy of being a deadly gunslinger, and enables players to enact that fantasy. Enemy AI isn’t brilliant- but it doesn’t need to be, as the main gameplay onus is on the player’s ability to shoot accurately and quickly; not to have extended shootouts with bad guys.
Concentration mode is the game’s version of the now-obligatory Slow-Motion mode. For killing guys you get more concentration (a little gold revolver logo which fills up in the top left.) And at any stage you can hit Lb to go into slow motion and have all the badguys show up in bright red. It’s a lifesaver, and a thrilling mechanic anyway.
What’s better, however, is the Sense Of Death mechanic. God, I love this thing.
Instead of lives, you have a Sense Of Death which builds up over a period of about 30 seconds. This is Call Of Juarez: Gunslinger’s equivalent of a Last Stand mechanic. When Sense Of Death is fully charged, and an enemy fires a killing shot at you, time slows down and the camera spins to face that enemy. You then watch the goon fire the shot- and watch as his bullet traces towards you rapidly. The bullet will go either left or right. You can dodge either left or right. Dodge wrong- you’re dead. Dodge right- you get kicked into concentration to blast the guy who shot at you, and anyone else around, while your adrenaline is at a peak. A further purchasable upgrade allows you to insta-headshot the guy who fired at you.
This levelling system adds a further incentive to good play. Not only is it satisfying getting points and combos in the game, the fact that all of these points stack up as Experience to let you get points and level up- akin to Batman: Arkham Asylum- incentivises good play. Finding the historical secrets, Nuggets of Truth, also give you a ton of experience, and you can get an upgrade to notify you when one is nearby. The upgrade tree is on a catchy design of three double-revolver chamber magazines, which you have to purchase upgrades to work your way around. One focuses on the dueller: revolvers and quickshooters. One on the ranger: long range combat with rifles. And one on close, explosive combat: shotguns and dynamite (the game’s questionable version of grenades).
Working your way around the three parallel upgrade trees is compelling. Often, to reach a great skill upgrade, you’ll have to purchase one or two you’re not that interested in, but it’s worth the hit to get double the slowdown in Concentration or double the reload speed for revolvers.
The only problems the game faces is in a couple of minor gameplay areas.
The platforming and jumping stuff is okay, but it’s no Far Cry 3 (with its brilliant climbing and mobility mechanics). Often it’s impossible to judge jumping distances, or where/when you’re meant to be making a daring jump. It’s occasionally frustrating.
But more frustrating is the pretty tedious gattling gun segments. There are a handful of these scattered throughout the games nine (or so) levels, and they basically consist of a guy at the end of an open area on a gattling gun, who will shoot at you. Moving from cover to cover is fun, but killing the guy is a repetitive exercise in getting dynamite and throwing it at him. While you bump off any thugs who come to get you elsewhere.
Yet, the gameplay overall negates these issues. Specifically of worth is the duelling system; a duelling system that puts Red Dead Redemption’s to shame. In a duel, the right stick controls your focus on the enemy, the left stick controls your gun hand (keep it close to the holdster). A heartbeat indicated the enemy is about to draw. The more focused you are, the slower time goes for you to sight up and shoot; the closer your hand is to your holdster, the quicker your draw speed.
It’s an ingenious system that’s complex but not too difficult. There’s real skill involved; unlike Red Dead Redemption’s pretty weak “draw first and shoot in rhythm” duelling minigame.
In fact, a lot of Call Of Juarez: Gunslinger’s gameplay puts RDR’s combat to shame. There’s no cover system in sight, but intuitively taking cover by ducking is easy, and there are systems in place to back the player up when the going gets tough. The amount of times I took a last-stand run into an open space, used concentration to tag the guys around me and send them spinning, before one last guy just about got me with a fatal shot and I dodged it with Sense of Death… And every time it was as thrilling as ever.
The game has a pretty great story too, charting Silas Greave’s journey of personal vendetta across the West, in space and time. Silas’ tale to his listeners is one of an unreliable narrator- and every time they point out an inconsistency or implausable fact of narrative, the world changes. Rocks slam down to provide a path ahead, or a bunch of Native Americans turn into a bunch of cowboys. This gives a sense of Remedy Entertainment’s trippy environments in their game Alan Wake, though Juarez uses a much more believable and compelling justification- the guy’s memory isn’t all it’s scratched up to be, and he sometimes adds details (but for what motive?) Even when the story gets quite heavy and a melancholic tonal shift takes place in its final act- it’s pulled off with remarkable effectiveness.
Overall, it’s a strong game. Incredibly so, for a downloadable title. With this and State Of Decay, players on the XBLA are getting a real treat right now in terms of downloadable releases.