The Call of Juarez series boasts having some of the finest Western games around, but the inclusion of Gunslinger over the perhaps more popular Bound In Blood may be a surprise. While the earlier games are undeniably excellent, they have aged a fair bit in places – whereas Call of Juarez: Gunslinger still looks great thanks to its wonderful cel-shaded art style.
Gunslinger also has the wonderfully cinematic ‘cheat death’ mechanic that slows down time and zooms in on the bullet that’s about to kill you, and if you avoid it you get your health back. In the moment of your near-death, the game’s whole world turns black and white, apart from enemies, which allows you to dodge bullets as if you were Max Payne. The one-on-one ‘Showdown’ duels also standout and are played almost like puzzles, as you manoeuvre your hands and sights while watching your opponent’s, and you can even kill them before the time’s up if you don’t mind being called “dishonorable.” There’s even a slice of Bulletstorm in here as you earn bonus XP points for pulling off stylish kills.
It’s Gunslinger’s narration mechanic, however, that’s the real standout. You play as Silas Greaves, whose older self is telling the story years later – and sometimes he gets it wrong, or others interject. The levels actually shape themselves around the tale being told, so enemies, areas, and even time itself can change right in front of you. All of which makes Call of Juarez: Gunslinger an unpredictable, incredibly enjoyable, and unique shooter.
Gunslinger has a lot of charm in its short but appropriately wild Old Western campaign, with an excellent storytelling twist and fast-paced arcadey gunplay against wily black-hats.
Silas Greaves is probably full of shit, but that’s OK. He’s a bounty hunter with a million stories to tell, and happy to share them for a whisky or five. Like the times he rode with Billy the Kid, or when he won the praise of Injun magic men, or that shootout he had with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (simultaneously). In short, tales of hanging out with just about every celebrity in the Wild West… and convenient excuses for why nobody can quite remember seeing him there.
This isn’t just a framing device for Gunslinger ‘s nine missions, but a big part of what helps this downloadable budget title wash away the foul taste of Call of Juarez: The Cartel. As expected, it’s a linear shooter set in a romanticised version of the Wild West (which the game itself at one point admits is complete balls). It’s also a shooter Greaves and his audience comment on throughout, the narration routinely changing the world to fit the story on the fly. At one point, for instance, you fight through a mine full of dynamite that only an idiot would go into with guns blazing. “That’s why I didn’t,” rasps Greaves, rewinding the story to tell it ‘properly’.
This doesn’t disguise the linearity, but it does make the straight path much more interesting. My only big complaint about the execution – aside from the fact that the dialogue was recorded as individual lines, and so usually fails to mesh into a smooth narrative – is that Techland didn’t use this gimmick on a full-budget game with scope for even bigger, more varied setpieces.
Restricting Juarez to raw gunplay certainly doesn’t hurt it, because the shooting is excellent. While not rewriting the rules of FPS, there’s a real weight to the weapons, while the action is a mix of regular shootouts and switching to a special slow-mo Concentration mode to take out whole groups in the blink of an eye. This ability regenerates quickly, providing an interesting power balance where you can’t take much damage, but regularly get to go full ‘Angel of Death’ on whole crowds. There’s also a very clever system where, with enough charge, you get a 50/50 chance of dodging a slowed-down incoming bullet that would normally be lethal. Get it right and you stay in the fight.
Combined, the two parts work beautifully. The story keeps things slightly off-balance and constantly throws up interesting moments, while the minute-by-minute gunplay makes murdering your way through that story intensely satisfying.
Yes, the graphics – and the cutscenes illustrated with static, hand-drawn images – are constant reminders that this is a budget game. Far from being diminished by that, however, Gunslinger impresses with just how well it spent its pennies. And, more impressively still, it makes the idea of another Call of Juarez game at some time in the future surprisingly appealing.