Hunt down the Wild West’s deadliest desperados.
PC Release: May 22, 2013
By Ian Coppock
Anyone who lives in the western United States knows that legends of the Wild West are a dime a dozen. Most of them are probably fake or heavily embellished, but that’s what makes them fun; particularly the recurring motif of one man riding through the desert to take down an army of bad guys. That trope can probably be traced back to Bass Reeves, who took down more than 3,000 criminals and would go on to inspire The Lone Ranger. Reeves’ story and the trope it spawned can also be traced to the world of video games and to Call of Juarez: Gunslinger.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is a first-person arcade shooter set in the Wild West and can be considered a soft reboot of the Call of Juarez franchise. After the dismal reception Call of Juarez: The Cartel faced, developer Techland decided to take their gunslinging series back to the Wild West setting from whence it came, contriving a new story and characters along the way. Gunslinger is a standalone that has only the faintest references to earlier Call of Juarez games, and it’s probably better for it.
Anyway, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger tells the life and times of Silas Greaves, a grizzled bounty hunter who has spent decades cutting bloody swaths through the Wild West. The game begins when an aged Greaves arrives to a small saloon in Kansas and begins regaling its patrons with tales of his bounty hunting exploits as a young man. Those exploits form the missions of Call of Juarez: Gunslinger.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is set up like an arcade shooter. As Silas Greaves, it’s up to players to progress through a linear Wild West vista full of bad guys and shoot them up in as points-accruing a manner as possible. Gunslinger is generous with its points, giving players bonuses for any kill that isn’t a shot through the heart (headshot enthusiasts take note). Even shooting a guy who’s running away from the battle garners extra points, as does blowing them up with a nearby gunpowder barrel.
Players can spend these points improving one of three skill sets: long-range combat (rifles’n’such), mid-range combat (pistols galore) and getting all up close and personal (holy s*** that is a shotgun). Players can cash in points on everything from being able to slow down time while scoping to having a thicker hide for close-quarters combat. Gunslinger does a great job at making all three styles flow well. Players can also wield whichever weapon they want regardless of skill set, though the skill set can make all the difference. If all else fails, Silas can usually grab a nearby stick of dynamite.
Gunslinger‘s gunslinging is some of the most fun arcade shooting to be had in recent years. The game gets flashy with its first-person shooting as only arcade shooters can, focusing on stylized kills instead of gritty realism. Stripping the gunplay down to basic arcade shooting is what makes it work, and making players feel like a Wild West gunslinger is what makes it fun. Gunslinger aptly balances between providing a challenge for inveterate shooter fans and the fun of being able to line up a row of headshots like old whiskey bottles.
In addition to killing foes with style, Silas can regenerate health by taking cover away from the fight (in keeping with a lot of FPS games these days). Racking up enough kills allows players to slow time and pick off enemies with surgical precision. Silas can also build up luck, which allows players to slow time once more and dodge incoming bullets. Realistic? No. Fun? Oh yes. Even if the arrangements of enemies are almost painfully linear, shooting them with gusto is endlessly entertaining.
The final piece of Silas’s crusade through the Wild West is dueling famous outlaws. Most missions end in a steely eyed showdown between Silas and the now-former leader of all the bandits the player just killed. Some of these encounters are conventional boss fights, where Silas has to take down the enemy’s health bar while remaining out of range. Other encounters, though, are video game recreations of the old high noon showdowns so endemic to the legends of the Wild West.
Duels are the most complex of Gunslinger‘s gameplay features. Players have to keep an eye on their opponent’s stance and how close their hand is to their gun… while also monitoring how close Silas’ hand is to his firearm. Players have to maintain their focus on the other person’s position; the more focus Silas has, the more likely he is to draw quickly. Players get a slap on the hand for shooting first (something George Lucas should know plenty about) and a bonus for killing the other guy even if he draws first.
Gunslinger doesn’t pretend to be anything other than an arcade shooter but this leaves the game vulnerable to arcade shooters’ greatest flaw: repetition. Even as the backgrounds of Silas’s missions change, the pattern of killing a bunch of outlaws in a clearing, walking for a bit, and then killing a bunch of outlaws in the next clearing becomes wearily predictable. It’s not un-fun by any means, but it may preclude being able to enjoy the game in long sittings.
Players who buy Gunslinger on PC might experience a few other problems, particularly texture pop-in. The occasional crash is also not unheard of, and neither issue can be readily addressed in the game’s B-rate options menu. Gunslinger is four years old though, so it should run adequately on most machines these days. Just don’t get hopping mad if the game suddenly dies; at the very least, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger‘s roster of bugs is still nothing compared to Techland’s other games, especially Dead Island.
Texture pop-in doesn’t do much to dispel Call of Juarez: Gunslinger‘s beauty. The entire game is a vividly colored western landscape from start to finish, replete with dusty browns and autumn golds. The production is layered with just a touch of cel shading, which helps its bright colors and sharply textured in-game objects stand out all the more. It’s an enrapturing production that remains consistent across all of Call of Juarez: Gunslinger‘s various environments.
What are those environments, one might ask? Throughout Silas’s journey, players can expect to traverse locales ranging from a dusty old town to labyrinthine gold mines. Gunslinger includes the usual suspects for a western game like big canyons and precarious train tresses but also includes buggy swamps, snowy mountains, and other less iconic environments that hurt no less for beauty. These levels tend to all have similar mission design despite their disparate settings, but the environmental variety does help stymie that aforementioned feeling of repetition.
The story that all of this game design informs is nothing that hasn’t been told a thousand times in other Wild West stories. Somebody betrayed the protagonist a long time ago and now he’s out for revenge, taking down every last bandit standing between him and his vengeance. Though the tale of Silas Greaves does nothing to subvert the trope of the vengeful gunslinger, it does benefit from decent writing, excellent voice acting, and bombastic sound design that captures every detail down to the dry squeak of Silas’s old leather gloves.
One exception Call of Juarez: Gunslinger makes in its adherence to Wild West tropes is exploration of the unreliable narrator. As Silas tells his tale, he makes some outlandish and incredible claims about his story that don’t quite add up. These inconsistencies occur during gameplay as random environmental shifts. Some of these shifts feel gratuitous, like when players fight their way through a mine only for Silas to remember that he actually took the stairs, but it’s fun to see a video game toy with implementing a faulty memory as a game mechanic instead of just a plot point.
Even if Call of Juarez: Gunslinger wasn’t a criminally underrated arcade shooter or a colorful jaunt through an old man’s memories, it serves as a tourney through some of the greatest legends of the Wild West. Silas encounters (or claims to encounter) such famous faces as Jesse James and Butch Cassidy in his adventures throughout the west, making Gunslinger a beautiful tour of Wild West legends as much as a fun first-person shooter. Players into one or either of those things should pick up a copy of Gunslinger and make their own mark on the Old West.
You can buy Call of Juarez: Gunslinger here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.