Call of Juarez: Gunslinger
It dawned on me while playing Techland’s thoroughly enjoyable shooter Call of Juarez: Gunslinger just how satisfying the traditional Western arsenal is to use. It’s because low-technology guns change how you play. Take the common or garden revolver. There’s a satisfying sense of importance to each click of the mouse when you only have six shots in your gun. You can’t just fire off twenty rounds and slap a new magazine in, instead you have to make every shot count. The game’s monstrously powerful double-barrel shotgun kills pretty much anything in one blast. Miss with that shot, however, and you’ll be scooping up what’s left of your liver with your kneecaps.
Gunslinger casts you as legendary gunfighter Silas Greaves, who is taking a break from his hectic daily routine of perforating absolutely everyone in sight to have a relaxing drink. Soon a crows of admirers, sceptics and (predictably) well-endowed tavern girls gather round to hear the ageing Silas tell a tale of revenge and murder. It’s all as predictable as a Coldplay album, but Silas’s story is still a fun ride. The storytelling mechanic of using Silas as an unreliable narrator is a nice way of justifying the increasingly ludicrous action sequences. It also allows for some fun tinkering with the narrative – gameplay will rewind a few paces as our hero remembers something he’d missed, or a ladder will conveniently pop out of nowhere to lead to the next level, sparking some dubious muttering from his audience. There’s plenty of cameos from real-life figures along the way, and it’s fun to see Gunslinger’s cartoonish interpretation of iconic figures like Billy the Kid and Butch Cassidy.
With Gunslinger having less weapons to choose from than many other first person shooters, extra care is taken to make each one feel distinct and powerful in its own right. Sounds are universally great, from the whir of a cycling chamber to the crackling thud of a shotgun blasting through a door. You’ll have your favourites, but each one is indispensable in the right situation, and there are enough guns scattered about that you never find yourself stuck in an unforgiving situation with the wrong weapon. Combat itself is fast and deadly, with one or two bullets typically enough to take your enemies out. Silas isn’t much less vulnerable himself. Tactical movement and conservation of your concentration bar, the game’s bullet time system, are key on higher difficulties, where the most fun is to be had. Triggering concentration mode allows you to take out large groups of enemies efficiently, but it drains fast.
Chaining together kills earns you extra experience, which can then be traded in to unlock skills from three branches. Gunslingers dual-wield pistols, rangers focus on sniping from afar with rifles, while trappers use shotguns and copious amounts of dynamite. In one playthrough you’ll earn enough points to dip into a couple of the trees, giving you a chance to find out which style you prefer. Completing the game gives you a New Game Plus mode, letting you keep the skills you’ve unlocked in your second run-through.
Occasionally there is the sense that too many different subsystems are coming into play. In addition to your basic slow-motion mode, there are infrequent quick time sections when you’re ambushed by groups of enemies. To the developers credit missing a button doesn’t automatically lead to a game over screen, instead making you defeat the bad guys manually, but it interrupts the otherwise smooth flow. On higher difficulties it feels even more unfair. These sections only pop up at scripted moments; you can be as careful as you like and still the game will leave you in the middle of a clearing with little cover, and getting the sequence wrong here is as good as an instant game over screen. Some of the skills feel more designed for consoles, too. One of the talents you can unlock snaps your crosshair over the enemy when you initiate bullet time, taking away some of the satisfying sense of precision you get from using a mouse to line up the shot.
Dueling, a core mechanic that closes out several of the single player levels and even has its own mode, is clunky and frustrating. You’re tasked with keeping a slowly moving crosshair central on your target to increase accuracy, while tapping the directions to keep your gun hand next to the holster for a quick draw. It’s an awkward system. You can see the intention, to make duels a more challenging and complex affair, but it ends up being little more than an unsatisfying minigame that you have to struggle through at the end of each chapter. Firing your weapon, which is so gratifying in the main game, becomes ungainly and unresponsive. Sometimes you’ll be certain you have your target painted dead on, only to see your bullets fly wide. It stops short of being a disaster, as most of the showdowns can be completed after a few frustrating attempts and a little luck, but it’s definitely the weakest link in a game which otherwise gets the core elements so right.
That simple, stripped-down feeling is what makes Gunslinger so endearing. This game knows exactly what it is, and makes no excuses for it. It’s a far cry from the bloated, awkward mess that was The Cartel, Techland’s last entry in the series. In fact there’s the sense throughout of a back-to-basics approach by a developer that’s listened carefully to previous criticism. In addition to the campaign, there’s a welcome arcade mode with several maps for you to gun your way through, but there’s no tacked on multiplayer to distract from the experience, and the breakneck pace and instantly rewarding shooting is refined to a tee. For a budget price, Gunslinger provides a hugely entertaining experience, distilling the dime-novel heroics of the pulp Western and an excellent, satisfying combat system into one immensely likeable package. Bravo.