Saddle Up, Partner: Call of Juarez Returns to Old West with Gunslinger
Gameplay commentary by IGN’s Mitch Dyer and Ryan McCaffrey
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger can be considered something of a reprieve for Techland’s hard-bitten FPS series. While 2011’s The Cartel wasn’t entirely without merit, it shot an otherwise enjoyable franchise full of holes and left it to bleed-out on its modern-day sidewalk. Fortunately, this stubborn old dog has managed to drag itself back to where it belongs so that it might rise again in America’s Wild West.
Gunslinger is eschewing its predecessor’s lacklustre level design and interminable cuss-filled cut-scenes in favour of quick-draw arcade action, which perfectly suits its download-only format. Divided into three distinct modes (Story, Arcade, and Duel), Gunslinger’s central conceit is a series of tall-tales told by grizzled bounty hunter Silas Greaves, which form flashbacks that span his unsavoury career of the of the last three decades.
Story mode follows Greaves’ dealings with some familiar figures of the period, such as Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and Jesse James through a host of score-attack levels. Bonuses are awarded for achieving familiar feats such as headshots and hitting moving targets, while valuable multipliers can only be maintained by regular kills. These points translate into XP that facilitates the purchase of new skills across of a range of upgrade paths that take in pistols, rifles, and the slow-motion Concentration power.
Gunslinger’s unique selling point is Greaves’ narration, which elevates story mode above pure score-attack and paints a vivid picture of each colourful character. However, beside the good there is certain amount of bad and ugly. In the opening levels, Greaves’ narration feels a little heavy-handed as it struggles to balance a stop-start tutorial with otherwise fast-paced action; a separate training mode might have served Techland better than repeatedly reining-in Gunslinger’s natural high tempo. The script occasionally falters too, descending into cliché and farce that doesn’t quite live up to the entertaining voice work.
Where Greaves’ narration succeeds is in setting the tone of the adventure as he gently admonishes his cocksure and reckless younger self. There’s also an entertaining trick to the way that Greaves’ hazy recollections allow for level details to be filled-in or swapped-out on the fly. This occasionally changes the appearance of a scene or the action of a set piece as Greaves recalls a previously forgotten detail or is challenged by a member of his audience. An early example of this narrative dissonance plays out when a young whippersnapper in the saloon recalls how he read in a dime novel that Greaves fought and killed Pat Garrett in a one-on-one duel. After this section plays out, the action rewinds and replays as Greaves recounts how his first meeting with Garrett came to an all together more ignominious end. It’s a neat mechanic that, if used to good effect throughout the game, could introduce a unique narrative twist as well as encapsulating the mix of fact and fiction that still surrounds tales of the Wild West to this day.
The section with Garrett also introduces the duelling mechanic that features throughout the story and as a separate 15-round standalone mode. This initial duel is a straightforward one, asking only that you keep a drifting cursor on Garrett, then draw and shoot. Additional factors such as moving targets, correct hand placement, and honourable kills are introduced as the duels progress to considerably heighten the challenge and dictate the overall success rating and potential scoring opportunities.
Gunslinger’s final mode is Arcade, which introduces a choice of three character classes and turns the campaign levels into a shooting gallery in which score multipliers and combos are king. Both the design and gameplay of the bite-size levels offer a pleasing amount of variety, with some requiring traversal from A-B while others charge you with simply surviving waves of enemies or defending an outpost. Each level is linear, but like the arcade-shooters of old, the challenge comes from learning enemy placement and understanding which character is best suited to each in order to rack-up monstrous scores to post on the leaderboards.
Gunslinger seems to be a mixed bag of ideas and execution. However, it’s looking promising that its strengths as a high-tempo arcade shooter will outweigh its weaknesses of an occasionally limp script and finicky traversal sections. While its release this quarter is unlikely to entirely wipe away the memory of The Cartel’s misdeeds, it could go some way to putting a smile back on the face of fans of the franchise and of old-school arcade shooters. If it succeeds in doing so it will be because it delivers something that The Cartel severely lacked: good old-fashioned fun.
Stace Harman is a freelance contributor to IGN and is convinced that zombies will one day inherent the Earth. You can follow him on Twitter.
By Stace Harman