Cowboys and bandits; sheriffs and outlaws; gold rush, horseback chases and quick draw shoot outs. Call of Juarez Gunslinger takes reigns of the romanticized depiction of the harsh conditions in the post-civil war United States of America that has been a source of interest and adoration of many a people.
While the Western genre has had success in all areas of entertainment; ranging from cinema and TV shows to novels and comics, it has historically had difficulty finding its mark in the video game business.
In a business filled with kidnapped princesses, angsty street brawlers and blood thirsty soldiers, there have been a select few companies that have dared to tackle the challenge of depicting Old West and build a whole game around it.
Techland was one of these brave development studios that decided to walk in these seldom tread waters with its Call of Juarez franchise in late 2006.
Whereas the first Call of Juarez and its sequel Bound in Blood portrayed an earnest, if flawed, effort into a game based on the Old Wild West, Techland pulled off a Call of Duty 4 with its third installment; The Cartel, and went into modern times.
That gamble proved to be ill-conceived as the series’ venture into modern era not only dealt away with the novel concept of Old West and replaced it with clichéd setting of gangs, drugs and thugs, but also brought with it poor production values, flawed gameplay and poor presentation.
Thankfully Call of Juarez Gunslinger features a return to the series’ western roots and attempts to correct the mistakes made in the past installment of the Call of Juarez franchise as it takes the players back to the world of gold mines and saloons.
Call of Juarez Gunslinger puts the players in the shoes of an established bounty hunter named Silas Greaves as he narrates his past bouts of violent shoot outs and takes the players along for a ride in his blood soaked history.
Essentially a series of flashbacks, Gunslinger follows Silas’ tale in his encounters with legendary figures of Wild West such as Billy the kid, Jesse James, Butch Cassidy, Newman Clanton and Pat Garret.
Each encounter with the infamous outlaws is preceded with navigation through varied old west staple landscapes like farms, towns, mills, mines, caves, mountains, marshes, trains, bridges and ghost towns as well as a shooting gallery of enemies ranging from outlaw gangs to native American warriors.
While the story itself is not something profound and ground breaking, the manner in which it is told is quite novel and refreshing, and adds a lot to the charm of the game.
As mentioned before, the story is a series of flashbacks describing the exploits of bounty hunter Silas Greaves narrated by Greaves himself. However this plot device is explored further as it becomes an integral part of the flow of the game itself.
As Silas narrates his tale he tends to remember forgotten things, correct details he got wrong and reveal facts that he had withheld for storytelling purposes. Each of these changes is perfectly reflected during gameplay as the environments, objects, scenarios and even enemies changes in real time during mid-play.
This direction of game narrative really spices up the main portion of the Gunslinger which could have become monotonous under its totally linear method of progressing through the shooting gallery-esque stages of the game.
While the game could have benefited from a little leeway in accomplishing the mission objectives or at least traversing the environments themselves, however the lack of choice can be excused due to the fact that Call of Juarez Gunslinger is a Budget title.
As a small downloadable title, Call of Juarez Gunslinger takes a different approach than its disk based predecessors. The title takes a decidedly more concentrated and streamlined approach. The game focuses on one protagonist unlike multiple characters from prior installments and even offers a fairly selective set of weapon upgrades and variety.
However, the constrained scope of the game does not limit the first-person shooting gameplay that Gunslinger has to offer. The game offers a fast paced shooter gameplay where each weapon has its purpose and is markedly different in its speed, accuracy, reloads and the damage it deals to the hoards of the enemies that occupy each stage.
Each enemy killed nets the player experience point score, and this score differs according to the nature of the kill itself, with headshots, moving targets and consecutive kill streak combos earning more points than the usual shot in the gut.
These points not only serve as the end of the level score card for judging one’s overall performance but also feed into Gunslinger’s RPG-like; Skill Tree leveling up system.
With each level gained, the player is able to upgrade abilities related to Revolver combat, ranged shooting and close combat allowing players to acquire skills like wielding dual revolvers and shooting a stick of TNT mid throw.
Alongside these upgrades, the game also allows players to utilize concentration mode to slowdown time and highlight the opponents for a few moments to take care of the pressure if things get too hairy.
Similarly, players can also accumulate sense of death, which can allow the players to dodge a potentially lethal bullet and continue on with the carnage.
The game also peppers the constant shootouts with duels that feature quick draw face offs in one on one, one on two and even Mexican standoff situations. However these duels can become frustrating as the mechanics are not explained properly as the factors determining success for each subsequent duel pile up.
Moreover the gameplay also suffers due to sudden barrage of enemies which make such battles an endurance runs where sudden kills can turn the feel of the game from skill based shooting into a trial and error gameplay.
There are also issues that come with any semblance of platforming in first person perspective as stages like the Mountain, Bridge and the Train levels have areas where the player can easily slip and fall off stage resulting in an instant death.
However these small issues act as mere distractions and don’t take away much from the sharp gameplay and fun campaign that the game has to offer.
While the gun-slinging gameplay is topnotch, what makes the game even more exciting is its superb presentation.
Call of Juarez Gunslinger takes a novel approach in how it chooses to depict the Old West to its players.
From the choice of telling its story through cinematics akin to comic books and the cell shaded graphics that replace the drab and barren look of its predecessors with a colorful and vibrant pallet, the game takes an unorthodox approach which pays off in spades.
Aside from the aforementioned change in environments due to changes in narration the Gunslinger also adds to the visuals by details such as splatter of blood and mud on screen, heat effect in dessert, bullet shot rip on screen, leaking barrels due to gunshot damage and blood splashes indicating death of an enemy.
However there is a caveat to all the wonderful presentation and detail as sometimes it becomes difficult to discern enemies from the environment during the heat of the battle.
The fact that the screen starts to blur as the player takes hits also compounds the factor as the damage indicator just gives a vague idea about the location of the aggressor.
That complaint aside, the Call of Juarez Gunslinger offers great visuals and tops it off with performing even better in the sound department.
The game features a constant narration of the story akin to Prince of Persia Sands of Time and Bastion, however unlike the previous games in the Call of Juarez franchise, Gunslinger does not take itself too seriously and the delivery of narration is done wonderfully by John Cygan and the banter accompanying it is both colorful and witty.
Adding to its visual splendor, Gunslinger also features fantastic music and sound design. The soundtrack utilizes guitar, horns and harmonicas along with more modern instruments to evoke the feeling of old spaghetti westerns without coming off as dated.
This wonderful soundtrack is complimented by sound effects with sounds of missed bullets whizzing by, percussive bangs of shots by revolvers, shotguns and rifles and the loud blasts of blowing TNT sticks.
On the whole, Call of Juarez Gunslinger features a wonderful style and a unique flare to its presentation that really compliments the gameplay and storytelling elements of the game.
Even though the Gunslinger is clearly meant to be a smaller endeavor when compared to its predecessors, the game supersedes the past iterations of Call of Juarez in graphics, sound and overall presentation.
What makes the game great is the fact that the gamplay is fun and varied enough that despite the totally linear progression, there is no tedium.
Even with its brisk pacing, the main campaign takes 5-6 hours to complete, so it is not too short to leave one unsatisfied, but it ends before wearing out its welcome.
Gunslinger also offers two other modes to supplement its story campaign; Arcade and Duel mode.
The arcade mode offers the same gameplay from the story mode, without the frills of a story based narrative and is solely focused on earning more points to maximize the end of stage score, which can be viewed in conjunction with the ever present leaderboards.
Duel mode acts like a boss rush mode as it allows players to relive the duels featured in the campaign mode without the riffraff’s of going through the shooting gallery of cannon fodder enemies.
What’s more; the game also offer collectables in the shape of Nuggets of Truth as well as the True West mode which adds the additional challenge of going through the campaign mode on a harder difficulty without any HUD on the screen.
Whereas the game does not bring anything new to the table and certainly does not turn the FPS genre on its head, what it does, it does well. The game is packed with robust and fun gameplay and features fantastic production values for a budget title.
Coming in a release calendar packed to the brim with string of sequels and return of old franchises, Call of Juarez Gunslinger accomplishes the miraculous task of being a downloadable title that is better than its entire disk based predecessors and instead of just cashing in on its brand name, it manages to improve its franchise.
While the game does not offer anything revolutionary in the gameplay department it is a solid arcade shooter featuring competent enemy AI, different shooting abilities and RPG-like leveling up system.
The new cell shaded visuals offer a vibrant and colorful side of the Old West that is a welcome change from the dark and dull visuals in Call of Juarez games of the past.
Wonderful soundtrack and great voice acting manage to elevate the game to new heights.
Telling the story through comic book like cutscene panels and narration of the protagonist literally driving the story forward in terms of gameplay is a novel touch that adds a distinctive flavor to the game.
A 6 hour campaign featuring solid gameplay mechanics and fantastic presentation and the addition of two other game modes and a slew of in game collectables makes Gunslinger a bargain for its asking price of $15.
Call of Juarez Gunslinger is an over-the-top action shooter and anyone with an affinity for FPS and the Western genre would do well to give it a try.