Call of Juarez: Gunslinger Review — For A Few Dollars Less
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is built around one truly great idea: a frame story. At the beginning of the game, grizzled bounty hunter Silas Greaves walks into a bar in Abilene, Kansas and sits down. In exchange for a succession of free drinks, he regales the other patrons with tales of his past exploits, which include a series of showdowns against some of the Wild West’s most recognizable desperadoes.
Each of the game’s missions plays out as one of these stories, with Greaves narrating the action and the player gunning down bandanna-swathed foes. The narration is unreliable — Greaves is old, forgetful, and increasingly drunk — and in some ways, this device works magic. It justifies the shooting gallery-style gameplay; Greaves has a tendency to exaggerate wildly when describing the number of enemies in his path, so there are plenty for the player to gun down. The narration also allows for some interesting level design: as Greaves’ memories shift, players will find themselves assaulting a bank from the back instead of the front, or climbing up a ladder that just materialized out of nowhere. And as the game goes on, the narration also leads to funny dialogue exchanges between Greaves and the bar’s increasingly incredulous patrons. As the bodies pile up at the feet of the yarn-spinning bounty hunter, it’s hard to not agree with them.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Xbox 360 (XBLA), Playstation 3 (PSN)
Released: May 22, 2013
When it comes down to it, the frame story is one great idea among many others that are only decent. Gunslinger largely conforms to the template of mid-grade Wild West action that Techland has been pumping out since the original Call of Juarez in 2006 (which had some narrative quirks of its own). The release of Red Dead Redemption has made these first-person efforts largely obsolete, but at least the Polish developers have seen the writing on the wall, releasing Gunslinger as a $14.99 download instead of a full-price boxed title.
Experience also breeds competence, and the shooting mechanics in Gunslinger are satisfyingly polished. Players can wield the expected arsenal of 19th-century weaponry: a variety of pistols, a rifle, a shotgun, a sawed-off, and a fistful of dynamite. Killing enemies fills a Max Payne-style “Concentration Gauge,” which can then be used to trigger bullet time and line up headshots.
There’s some semblance of a cover system, which is useful, since the enemies in Gunslinger have that annoying modern habit of being deadly accurate at any range. Though the game leans heavily on the cliche of regenerating health, it adds a couple of its own twists: incoming damage is depicted as bullet holes, which make parts of the screen look like burnt parchment paper, and a new “Sense of Death” gauge, which enables players to dodge otherwise deadly bullets at the press of a button. This gauge refills gradually over time, ensuring that the power can’t be abused.
Despite grounding the action in Greaves’ narrative exaggerations, the shooting gallery gameplay does get a little stale. Few gamers have an inexhaustible appetite for plugging cowboys in the forehead, and the ways that Gunslinger does try to innovate — with quick-time events, Gatling gun mow-downs, and armored shotgunners charging forward — fall mostly flat.
The game also grafts on an extensive, arcade-y, score-challenge system, with XP, chained combos, levels, unlockable abilities, and a New Game Plus feature. It’s well-executed, sure, but it also serves as a way of papering over the game’s short running time and lack of fresh ideas. Too often, contemporary game designers punt on making gameplay inherently exciting, hoping to ensnare gamers with the excitement of a new high score or a particularly tricky combo. That’s not to say that such systems can’t be fun, but they feel like a compromise — like we’re expected to just entertain ourselves.