If there's one element of action-game design that really stole the singleplayer show this generation, it was the "set-piece"; cinematic sequences that require minimal input from the player, captured by a shaky camera more interested in the falling debris of a collapsing building. These are great to watch, and they can sometimes be all you need to sell a consumer on the quality and ambition of a project.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger communicates an entirely different, but nonetheless substantial message. A quick-fire Wild West first-person shooter with a run and gun sensibility, this is a game meant to be played.
What looks like a monotonous shooting gallery to an outsider is an adrenaline filled combat high for the player. Every downed posse is accompanied by a rich flow of experience points, emitting the same hypnotic qualities of a slot machine unloading its jackpot for the first time. You get addicted to the sensations, and are constantly encouraged to assume mastery over the game's systems during the main campaign or ten stage arcade mode.
All of this is wrapped in a context that enhances the gameplay and the story, drawing inspiration from titles like Bastion and classic Wild West movies to create a humorous and dynamic narrative.
A man walks into a bar (I told you it was humorous!). Silas Greaves, famed bounty hunter and main character of many a dime novel in the early 1900s, enters the saloon on "business". Patrons and staff gather around the table with one of these books in hand, asking him to confirm, deny or elaborate on the wild tales that built his reputation.
Silas narrates his thought processes throughout the gameplay, recounting his showdowns and alliances with America's most notorious outlaws--including Billy the Kid and Jesse James. But the game never forgets that this is a man slowly losing his sobriety, exaggerating his triumphs and escapes. As people around the table chime in with their doubts regarding the authenticity of the events, an interesting bond is formed between three worlds: the outside world where the conversation is taking place, the inside world where the gameplay resides, and the middle world that represents the book itself.
The doubts surrounding Silas' past can often manifest themselves in a heated dispute amongst the group, causing physical changes that impact the level as each makes their case on what really happened that day. The interaction between the characters on the "outside" affect the goals and direction of the gameplay on the "inside". Pathways materialise out of thin air, ladders fall from the sky, a firing line of Apache suddenly transform into cowboys, all in correspondence with the way in which Silas tells his story at the table.
Despite the fact that we are mostly playing through events contradicting the information in the novel, Silas' escapades are framed in an art style reminiscent of the book--resulting in a type of marriage between Borderlands and Valkyria Chronicles. The borders of the screen are made to look like frayed edges, and every gunshot from an enemy cowboy is represented as a tear in the pages on-screen.
When you're kicking down the door on a moving train, activating Silas' "Concentration" to slow time and execute a gang of outlaws, the game's art style keeps the action at a distance, forever reminding you that these segments are questionable and anything could happen according to the conversation outside.
On a more passive level, entire segments can take on whole new meanings depending on how much you trust the memory of Silas Greaves. A potentially tragic and violent ambush becomes a hilarious skit when you consider the legion charging at you could be a mere fabrication made to inflate an old man's ego. This apparent vulnerability is a convenient contrast to how he portrays himself in his stories, and the player is given everything they need to play the role of a one-man-army, legend of the West.
Gunslinger encourages the player to act on their instinct and build momentum by rewarding high combo strings with score multipliers, but the relatively quick rate at which you die does not facilitate a mindless, reckless approach. The most successful sharpshooters will assess their situation before bursting out of hiding like Max Payne in a poncho, spinning their revolvers and blowing away the gunpowder smoke on a job well done.
Getting to such a level where you can perform those feats is a large part of the experience, and solidifies Call of Juarez: Gunslinger as a game where the rich get richer.
Beyond the surface level satisfaction inherent to large numbers emanating from enemy corpses, your progress rides a smooth gradient of improvement in both player skill and character strength. Utilising the environment to extend combo time is a tactic too daunting to consider on an early outing, but there's a substantial difference in how the game is played in its first hour to its last.
It can take some time to settle on a playstyle right for you, but even if your technique isn't improving, Silas is.
The game's upgrade system supports three main playstyles, and any skill is available for purchase when levelling up. A dual wielding desperado, a long-range sharpshooter and a brawling shotgunner, all share skills and legendary versions of each weapon across the perk tree. The system itself isn't enough to completely separate one player from another, but certain skills allow you to deflect bullets or perform instant headshots during Concentration. Combine these unique abilities with your natural improvement as a player, and the sense of growth is incredibly organic.
For the most part, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is more than happy to exist here, focusing on its amusing narrative and compelling gunplay. But for seemingly unknown reasons, the pace of the game is interrupted by a series of lame boss encounters. Not surfer dude lame -- caffeine-free diet coke lame.
The theme of the game's combat is reversed, forcing you to play defensively and patiently. A vengeful showdown between enemies turns into the equivalent of two triangle players engaging in jazz call-and-response. Wait behind cover until the bad man is done shooting his gatling gun, and then throw a stick of dynamite before he returns fire. It sounds like fun now, but wait until you play it.
One-on-one standoffs become a regular occurrence after you are done slogging through that repetitive drivel, but these do little to ease the pain.
In order to gain the best conditions for winning the quickdraw, Silas must focus on his enemy whilst simultaneously keeping his hand in a ready position. You are given a certain amount of time to prepare yourself before you draw your gun, but it all feels so contrived and out of character. The opposition needlessly strolls from side-to-side like a nervous participant on To Catch a Predator, serving only to give your right analogue stick something to do during the downtime. This is at odds with the rest of game's attention to detail in Silas' fantasy, and ultimately, these duels have been achieved with far greater results in other games.
Without a doubt, the game is best experienced when its straddling the line between the three worlds. Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is a game not just meant to be played, but one that rewards mastery. There are layers within its mechanics, many of which can be explored in its punishing one-life arcade mode, and denied in its shallow duel mini-games. But by contextualizing the campaign as a series of questionable memories, it's able to instill a sense of intrigue, pace and surprise throughout the story and the gameplay.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger (Reviewed on Windows)
This game is great, with minimal or no negatives.
Without a doubt, the game is best experienced when its straddling the line between the three worlds.Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is a game not just meant to be played, but one that rewards mastery. There are layers within its mechanics, many of which can be explored in its punishing one-life arcade mode, and denied in its shallow duel mini-games. But by contextualizing the campaign as a series of questionable memories, it's able to instill a sense of intrigue, pace and surprise throughout the story and the gameplay.