There’s something to be said about brutal honesty, especially with yourself. In the age where single player first person shooters attempt to hide the fact that they are nothing more than a glorified shooting gallery, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger doesn’t even take a second before admitting that it is nothing but. Heck, even the player character, Silas Greaves, admits to such many times throughout the story mode, albeit without breaking the fourth wall.
That’s basically what Gunslinger is: a single player shooting gallery. Nothing more, nothing less. And perhaps it’s that brutal honesty with itself, coupled with Gunslinger embracing its generic nature rather than hiding it, that makes Call of Juarez: Gunslinger such an exciting, pure, and relentlessly fun experience, and easily one of the best games to come out this year.
Immediately noticeable is that Gunslinger is an absolutely beautiful game. Running on Chrome Engine 5, the cel-shaded visuals are very, very similar to the style of Borderlands, and it works. The environments are gorgeous and the details just seem to come to life and jump out at you whether you like it or not. It’s a very engrossing game to look at, and it shows its amazing detail even as bullets go past your head in slow motion, and it actually pulls off Borderlands’ own visual style better than Borderlands itself.
All story cutscenes are presented in the form of still pictures, which convey the story in a very comic book like style, while there’s voice acting instead of the use of speech bubbles. The artwork is great here as well, though the lack of color is probably a weird choice, given how colorful the rest of the game is.
The comic book styles also show up when introducing weapons and characters, much like Borderlands. The game absolutely oozes with style when the already cel-shaded world suddenly stops animating itself mid-cutscene, replacing its 3D models with 2D drawings.
He also has 21 teeth.
The story focuses on Silas Greaves, an aged, fictional bounty hunter who squares off against very real(ish) Wild West legends, such as Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, among others. The entire story is told through the drunken recollection of the near-senile Greaves, who tells a very romanticized tale of his career as a bounty hunter. By romanticized I mean downright impossible, as this form of narrative gives a great excuse to have you play as a young Greaves up against hundreds and hundreds of enemies at each level. It’s a clever way to put more enemies than realistically possible in an area without breaking up the storytelling and atmosphere, and it just works really, really well.
Great, now Silas won't shut up.
Greaves will often banter or talk with the people in the bar. While this is sadly totally scripted, it’s still hilarious to watch as Silas or other folks correct each other on what had really happened, causing the levels to rewind, expand, or change before your very eyes. One minute you’re fighting Apache Indians. The next you’re doing the same scene again against Cowboys fighting Apache style.
Despite its linearity, there are many times in the campaign where you’re given more than one option in routes or approaches, and sometimes, but not always, this will result in alternative dialogue in the bar. At one point I decided to take to higher ground instead of running straight forward. This resulted in a very, very suggestive quip from Silas to the bar girl about preferring to be on top.
The sound design is great at every angle. The voice acting, especially from Silas Greaves, is spot on, convincing, and hugely entertaining. The sound of the guns, from the firing mechanisms to the bullets whizzing by your head, and especially to ricocheting from wooden barrels and the like just reeks of genuine Wild West atmosphere. Realistic it may not be, but the sound definitely sets the tone, and the guitar (and sometimes banjo) soundtrack in the background only backs up the atmosphere further.
Gunslinger doesn’t do anything to break new ground. It uses tried and true FPS mechanics, such as faster weapon switching than reloading, aiming down the sights, regenerating health, door breaching, and even slow motion and shooting a pack of TNT as you throw it to make it explode earlier. What matters most for the FPS mechanics is that they work very well (even hitting the flying TNT is practically automatic, a la Uncharted), they all feel great, and have great controls.
Even though there are only three weapon types, the gunplay is just so immensely satisfying. It’s hard to explain, even harder to show, as videos on Youtube couldn’t possibly show just why they feel so great. But it just gives you an incredible sense of badassery as you gun down your foe with a rusty revolver, and watching as your enemy falls down and flies back in slow motion even while everything else moves in real time just strangely makes you feel lightning fast. It just looks and feels unlike any first person shooter I’ve ever played, despite being as overall (proudly) generic as they come.
Silas' favorite holiday is the Fourth of July.
But Gunslinger doesn’t come without anything new. One new feature is the Sense of Deat, which allows you to actually dodge a killing blow in slow motion and shortly thereafter regenerate your health completely. It’s definitely cheap, especially because it recharges on its own, and quite rapidly at that. But it is just so much fun to use, and it is so satisfying to not have anything holding you back from jumping into the fray, guns blazing, with that false sense of immortality telling you that nothing can stop you. No longer did I have to spend minute after minute popping up behind cover, then moving to the next one. No longer did I have to spend most of the game regenerating health. I just picked up my six-shooter, darted right into the fray, racked up headshots, then literally dodged a bullet and kept firing. It’s such a simple change to a generic formula, but it just adds so much to the game and changes things up so drastically that it’s uncanny. All in all it is such unrelenting fun that I can’t spend more than two minutes even on my favorite games without at least thinking about jumping right back to Gunslinger soon.
As with Bound in Blood, Gunslinger also features dueling. It's basically a minigame, also accessible from the game menu, where you try to draw the gun faster than your opponent. The story mode let's you essentially skip this, by pulling the trigger when you hear the heartbeat instead of when your opponent draws his gun. But that is considered dishonorable, and it punishes you for doing so. Dueling is excruciatingly tricky, as you have to keep both your focus reticle on your challenger and your hand placed firmly above your revolver. It can be frustrating that you have to keep both in check, especially when the meters that tell you you're doing well are on the opposite sides of the screen, instead of on the reticle itself for easier concentration.
Gunslinger also features skill trees, another feature very similar to that of Borderlands. These skills are nearly all passive, with the exception of a few like the dual wielding “akimbo” skill, which allows you to carry two pistols at the same time). However, very few of these skills are as simple as “increase damage by x%”. Many of them have very active effects. For example, the Devil’s Shotgun skill makes it so your shotgun doesn’t even have to be reloaded, so long as you remain in the series’ signature slow motion Concentration mode. These skills carry over into the New Game Plus mode, but while you can replay old levels any time you wish in Recollections mode, you can't grind your character in them. So be sure to put your skill points where it counts.
It’s a bit weird to explain why all these simple changes to a generic genre make up such a drastic difference in Gunslinger, but it all becomes apparent when you get into the real reason you’d want to play the game: the Arcade mode.
Arcade mode does away with skill trees by presenting you with one of three classes; the range oriented Ranger (obviously), the dual wielding Gunslinger, and the boomstick-toting Trapper. Each of them play on the three skill trees available in the campaign, although they do share some skills that are usually locked with the other skill trees. The rest of it plays much like the Max Payne 3 arcade mode, but it does it one better: It also does away with cutscenes, boss fights, scripted weapon locks, and lets you replay through certain levels while leaving you to shoot many enemies with little to no reason. It’s all about getting that score as high as you can, while obtaining that score as fast as you can. It’s weird how addictive playing through the exact same level, over and over, can be. Not even the enemy layout is different. Not even the gun layout. Nothing. All that changes is how well you get to rack up headshots and how fast you can get the next kill before your combo meter runs out. Yet even though this isn’t my sort of thing, I find myself coming back for more, trying new combos for better points, and testing my skills over and over again.
Harder than it looks.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger isn’t anything new. But it knows that, and it doesn’t try to convince you otherwise, instead focusing on just doing what it is supposed to do, and it does it with such enthusiasm and flair that it amounts to an extremely pure and rewarding experience with countless hours of addictive entertainment.
Should I Play This Game?
What I played
Four consecutive hours on the third level in Arcade mode.
Three story chapters, with several more left.
What I loved
+ The gunplay is immensely satisfying and just plain fun.
+ The drunken recollections that serve as a narration is a hilarious way to present a story.
What I didn't like
- It's really a shame that there's no co-op/competitive mode apart from leaderboards.
- The unique method of storytelling doesn't try much new other than presentation.