With the mis-step that was “The Cartel”, the Call of Juarez series seemed to be as dead and buried as the drug lords that were dispatched in modern-day Mexico. The challenge was set for the folks at Techland to revive the flagging franchise with a smaller, downloadable title that is firmly rooted in the old West. Have they been quick enough on the draw to succeed?
Game: Call of Juarez: Gunslinger
Reviewed on: PlayStation 3
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger focuses on the story of Silas Greaves, a former bounty hunter with a personal vendetta, aiming to take revenge for the killing of his brothers by Roscoe “Bob” Bryant. Silas’ story is told through a series of tall tales, described as you play though them, in exchange for free drinks in a bar. The tales get increasingly ridiculous as you play through them, as Silas recalls alternative takes on the demise of famous cowboys, often at his hands. Often, Silas mis-remembers some of the details during your playthrough, and the world will shift around you to compensate for it, which is definitely an interesting way to entwine story and gameplay.
Silas’ revenge tale certainly won’t win any awards, and at times it feels like there are famous Wild West characters thrown in for the sake of it, but it’s certainly a lot of fun, and it serves the purpose well enough to see it through to the end. There’s plenty of humour in the story, and I found myself chuckling out loud on more than one occasion.
Gunslinger is a fine looking game, considering it’s a small downloadable title. The art style is immediately reminiscent of Borderlands, but it’s a style that Techland pull off really well. There’s a slightly cartoony feel throughout the game, but it’s juxtaposed with over the top gushes of blood when enemies get shot, lending a mature feel to the overall experience. I certainly feel that the cel shading throughout the game fits well with the feeling of stories being drawn from memory and the ever-increasing fantastical nature behind them. I’m willing to give the slightly repetitive character models a pass, due to the fact this is a downloadable title, but it does feel sometimes that you’ve shot the same guy about 50 times by the point you come to duel with any given level’s boss.
Each level is interspersed with a comic book style static scene, where Silas continues to spin his stories to the folks in the bar, and these are all really well created. If you’ve played Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, you’ll know what to expect from this style of cutscene. One small complaint I did have is that the game seems to suffer from screen tearing in a few places. It’s not game breaking by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s certainly noticeable.
If there’s one thing that it’s important to get right in a Western themed game, it’s the sound. Fortunately, Gunslinger does it with style. Harmonica strains in the background with jangling guitars, fantastically well voice-acted southern drawls fill the air, and the gunfights never fail to enthrall either, with bullets ricocheting off surfaces, and whizzing past you as you fire off another round from your weapon of choice.
I mentioned the voice acting, and I think it’s important to get across how good it is in this game. The guys behind it really pull off the characters they play extremely well, with Silas’ old, hardened ways giving him the gruff tone that you’re presented with, and the stories providing even more insight. Other characters in the bar listening to his stories give superb performances with surprise, humour, fear and the increasing disbelief all telegraphed extremely well throughout the story. Another thing that I think helps this along is the refusal by Techland to put in the same repeating lines over and over when a checkpoint is reloaded, so you’re not subjected to constant repeats of lines that, no matter how good they are, would definitely get irritating after a few deaths!
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger certainly introduces some novel concepts into the gameplay to keep things fresh and interesting at the right moments. Whilst it appears to be standard FPS fare, it’s got a couple of neat tricks up its sleeve, such as the rebuilding of levels mentioned in the “story” section. Initially this confused me a little, and had me wondering why I was struggling to find the way through a level, or at times flat-out redoing an entire section after seemingly completing it, but once the link between the storytelling and level design clicked, I found it to be a fun addition to the game. Ladders appear out of nowhere as Silas “remembers” bits of the story he’d left out, entirely new methods of entering hideouts become clear, and during one scene set under a bridge, enormous chunks of woodwork rise and fall like something out of Inception.
Differing control schemes are available for akimbo weapons, with the ability to assign one gun to each trigger if you want. Weapons all feel weighty and substantial, and each one feels different enough to get a favourite in each category. Speaking of the categories, the progression/skill system is well thought out, with three separate skill trees to put time and XP into. XP is gained by chaining a series of kills together, some with Bulletstorm-style multipliers (headshots etc). Depending on which trees you fill out will net you a “legendary” gun once it’s maxed. I only got up to the legendary pistols during my playthrough, but they certainly impressed with the time I had with them, reloading quicker and looking really nice to boot. Rifles and shotguns have the right balance of power and accuracy as well, although you need to be pretty spot on with your aiming when it comes to distance shooting!
After ploughing through huge swathes of enemies, you’re often faced with a duel between Silas and a legend of the Old West. The trick is to keep a reticle hovering over your foe with the right analogue stick, and your hand steady over your holstered pistol with the left. If it’s done right, you’ll have a higher chance of being quicker on the draw than your enemy, and having the chance to kill them. I have to say that this is a very neat way of doing things, although I did find myself getting immensely frustrated with it at one point. This ended up being me wanting to draw my weapon before firing it, and pressing L1 and waiting for it to be drawn, rather than just hitting R1, which is the correct way to do so. Once I’d re-figured this out, it became much less of an exercise in frustration and more of a fun mechanic. I shan’t spoil anything, but the final duel was one of the more tense and enjoyable experiences I’ve had in a while.
The only gripe I have with the gameplay is that sometimes the hit detection feels a little off with the enemies. There were times that I definitely felt a little cheated when shots that clearly should’ve landed on enemies were missing, leading to yet another avoidable death. The checkpoints in the game are spaced well enough for this not to be a major problem, but I can imagine getting increasingly annoyed on harder difficulty settings.
For a downloadable title, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger offers a decent amount of replayability. There’s a New Game Plus mode, to satisfy multiple playthroughs, and an Arcade mode, which allows you to redo the game’s levels to gain the highest score possible. There’s also a duel challenge mode, that pushes you in front of a number of the one-on-one gunfights to test your skills. Sadly, there’s no multiplayer. It would’ve been perfect to stick a couple of modes in here, but then I do realise that it would then be creeping up towards a full price retail title.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is an immensely enjoyable FPS. Yes, it’s got a couple of niggling problems, and if it were a full retail game I’d struggle to recommend it. However, for £11.99 (£9.59 if you’re a PS+ subscriber), you can’t go too far wrong. Whilst it’s a short game, the gorgeous visuals and exceptional voice acting make it a really fun experience. It seems like this and Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon are making a case for slightly more adventurous titles from larger publishers on PSN and XBLA, which can only be a good thing. If you’re after a cheap game that’s a lot of fun and slightly different to the norm, I’d whole-heartedly recommend it.