Tall tales, we’ve all told them. How we caught a fish that was “this big” and how we were the eventual hero of multiple situations. Call of Juarez: Gunslinger takes the idea of spinning a tale to the extreme, following the bar-side rattlings of one Silas Greaves, a grizzled old gunslinger with as many stories to tell as shots of whiskey put before him. And with Silas, the tale gets much bigger in the telling.
In gameplay, this creates opportunity for some really smart and interesting narrative shuffling. The entire game plays out with Silas narrating over the top of the action, along with attendant questions and comments from those listening to him. A query from a patron might see Silas backtrack completely, rewinding time in the game and retelling/replaying the level in a different way, sometimes from the perspective of a different character. Rocks will shift before you as he mutters about “spying an escape I had not seen earlier”, while planks will fall down from the sky as he recalls running across rooftops under fire from endless outlaws. Greaves spins a tale that sees him supposedly mistaken for famous Wild West figures, such as Billy the Kid and Jesse James (and many more), thus ultimately responsible for some of history’s most famous shootouts and bounty kills.
Even though this is a download title, it feels fully functional and as deep as a retail release. As a shooter, it’s slick, fast and fun, with smooth aiming and movement and a deeply satisfying combo system that sees points appear on the screen for feats such as headshots, longshots and explosive kills. A slow-time mechanic builds up as you score kills and, once enacted, helps you to line up multiple varmints with your piece. During this mode, the environment is drained of colour and all enemies outlined in red.
Kills fuel an upgrade system that sees you spreading earnt skills and perks across three different tiers. I spent most of my points in making Greaves a badass gunslinger, allowing for dual wielding of pistols, greater ammo capacity and extra damage during focus mode. I also popped over to one of the other trees to unlock a perk that slows down time a little bit whenever I enter iron sights with a one-handed weapon.
If there’s another game to compare Gunslinger to, it would be Bulletstorm. Levels are clearly designed with Greaves’s unreliable narration in mind, so that waves of outlaws are positioned around the levels in order to heap upon you the greatest glory. One of my favourite levels takes place in an abandoned sawmill, and sees all manner of traps ready to squash clumps of enemies. The shootout at the end is also tense, taking place among stacks of sawn wood, with a boss flitting between the piles quickly and firing back with deadly accuracy. That battle has a real Metal Gear Solid feel to it. Other showdowns end up with the two of you facing off in a duel.
Levels are short but sweet and no single environment outstays its welcome. Nothing is static and entire levels can shift upon Greaves’s whim as he changes the story. In one instance, I explored an entire avenue of approach only to die, upon which Greaves exclaims that that would have been the stupid way to go – instead, he chose to approach from another direction. Another moment sees you play out an endless loop on a train while Greaves relieves himself in the privy, to the doubtful musings of his captured audience for those few minutes.
This is playful and witty in a way that very few games are. As a result, Gunslinger runs at a pace that is ever-increasing, a rollercoaster shooter that gets better with each level. There’s no mid-game slump because its focus is clearly as a low-priced release – although it could easily have launched on disc for $60 and still feel value for money.
Problems are few, relating mostly to frustrations of personal taste. I found that the enemies were a bit too accurate, able to ping me whenever I peeked out from behind cover – even from long distances. The graphics, whilst generally quite good and sporting a kind of half-cel-shaded aesthetic, feel a little bright and garish. It’s also quite difficult at times to pick out enemies from amongst all the similarly-coloured scenery. You have to watch and spy movement or use RB to highlight pistoleers in red. There are some moments when it’s not made clear where you’re meant to go, but this is usually solved by pressing the Back button to bring up an on-screen objective star.
The final major element of Gunslinger, the duels, will divide players. I found them a bit too awkward, as they require you to keep a moving target in focus as well as try and position your hand for a faster draw. Some instances also require you to dodge bullets whilst trying to aim and fire. Then there is one stand-off where you have to shoot two opponents before they get you. Still, the duels are an original take on the famous Western trope, even if it takes quite a few failures before you learn the nuances of the system.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is a major surprise, especially given the mediocre reception of the last title in the series. Interestingly, there’s no Juarez mentioned at all in the story. Gunslinger embraces the franchise’s western heart and presents an action-focused shooter with all the trappings expected of releases three times its size. In fact, it out does most of those very titles and sits in my view as one of the best shooters to come out in recent years.