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May 27 2013

Review of Call of Juarez: Gunslinger

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So I’ll be honest, I had very low expectations for this game going in, the series doesn’t exactly have the best track record. The first game was a mess but had potential and while the second game “Bound in Blood” followed up on that potential, the third game “The Cartel” wasn’t an absolute fucking gong show. It was at that point I decided to swear off the series despite the fact that I love Westerns, that is until I heard the premise for this new game: playing as a bounty hunter gunning down all the greatest legends of the Wild West. Well I’m glad I went back on my word because I’ll be damned if they didn’t finally get it right and make what might just be the best Western game ever, and yes I am including Red Dead Redemption in there.

Liar or not, Slias' stories are certainly lively.

Liar or not, Slias’ stories are certainly lively.

That’s a bold claim to make I know but Gunslinger does such interesting things with its premise and takes such a different road from Red Dead that it manages to easily stand alongside it at the very least. You see where Red Dead is the Western version of GTA, Gunslinger is more the Western equivalent of something like Bioshock, a linear single player first person shooter with a strong focus on story. In fact that story is one of the things that makes Gunslinger so damn good thanks to an ingenious use of the “storytelling” framing device. The premise here is that an old and storied bounty hunter by the name of Silas Greaves is telling his life story to a bunch of strangers in a bar and you’re not actually playing through the events of his life as they actually happened but rather his retelling of them. This means that what you’re experiencing is fluid and changes with the telling of the story, so when someone catches Silas embellishing or saying something historically untrue then the game will come to a crawl and the environment will transform to reflect the changes made to the story as Silas backpedals. A great example of this comes early on when Silas is caught in ambush by a bunch of Apaches and is desperately trying to fend them off, at one point someone speaks up and reminds him Apaches were not a part of this story five seconds ago, so he clarifies by saying “no, no, no, I said they attacked me Apache STYLE” and then at that moment all the Apache enemy models are replaced by the same bandit models you were fighting earlier. It makes it clear we are playing one of the people at the table’s envisioning of  the events and having the game very dynamically change with the storytelling makes for a dramatic and unpredictable experience that feels one of a kind.

Billy the Kid did not look like this, I know because the game includes a picture of the real Billy at one point.

Billy the Kid did not look like this, I know because the game includes a picture of the real Billy at one point.

This storytelling framing device also explains away what I like to call the “Assassin’s Creed 3 problem” where the protagonist has extended interactions with every notable face of the era. Silas faces off with almost every noteworthy outlaw to wield a six-gun; he fights beside Billy the Kid, guns down Jesse James and the entire Hole-in-the-Wall gang, and chases the Dalton brothers across state lines. If the events were being told as fact then this would be unbelievable and feel hokey, the same way Assassin’s Creed 3 was with Connor being at every important event of the Revolutionary War, but the game itself throws doubt on the events by having the people at the table grow increasing outspoken about how incredulous Silas’ tales are. It’s clear some percentage of what he is saying is bullshit but the ratio of BS to truth is never revealed leaving an air of mystery to the whole thing and as a result legitimizing the events by changing them from being presented as fact to myth and legend instead. In that regard though there are a couple big names they missed, you never meet up with Wild Bill Hickok for example, but the gamut of outlaws you get to fight over the game’s 5-6 hour campaign is truly impressive. It’s also worth mentioning that the central narrative of why Silas is fighting is actually really good and ends with a predictable yet very well executed twist that once you figure it out early on is very interesting to watch unfold.

There is one last story thing I want to talk about and that is this game’s surprising dedication to portraying actual history alongside all of its bombastic fights against every outlaw who ever lived. You see during the story mode you’ll be picking up collectibles called “Nuggets of Truth” which are cards that feature a bit of actual history regarding the people, locations, and things you’re dealing with. And when I say actual history I mean it, they don’t play into myths like Billy the Kid killing 21 people before the age of 21, they fully admit that number was most likely a fabrication and that only 4 rightfully can be rightfully attributed to him. They even put real pictures of these outlaws on the cards which adds an authenticity to the whole game I really wasn’t expecting, as a bit of a student of history them putting in this extra mile really speaks to me.

Much like Max Payne, slowing down time to enact precise vengeance is a tent pole of the gameplay.

Much like Max Payne, slowing down time to enact precise vengeance is a tent pole of the gameplay.

The gameplay also does some interesting things with the whole Western genre by expanding upon the whole slo-mo gun fanning trope we’ve seen a million times before. Just as in Bound in Blood and a billion other games you can activate a “concentration mode” where time slows to a crawl, enemies glow so you can see them, and you can carefully pick your shots. This mode also activates if you’re close to death and one more bullet will kill you, giving you a last second hail mary maneuver to dodge the bullet and keep on firing. While this mode is a little on the bog standard side of things it is enhanced by having both a good skills progression system and a combo mechanic that rewards quick and stylish kills very much like the severely underrated game “The Club”. The best part is that with the skills progression system you can really easily customize the way the game works for the way you want to play. If you’re a long-range guy than a focus on building extra concentration with headshots, gaining slowdown and extra zoom while aiming, and learning the ability to easily shoot dynamite out of the air will help supplement that style of play. If you’re a dual wielding type then having the game give you extra combo points and damage while in concentration mode will serve to only help you rack up the score (which of course will allow you to unlock more skills). Or let’s say aiming is not for you and you want to get up close with a shotgun and dynamite, well skills that allow you to shrug off some damage, make bigger explosions, and dual wield sawn-off shotguns will turn you into an avatar of fiery death. Or you can generalize and drop points into all three of these styles, picking only what seems to fit the way you play, the skills system is very malleable and doesn’t constrain the player in any way.

The duels are intense and difficult leading to a lot of genuine tension and loud cursing.

The duels are intense and difficult leading to a lot of genuine tension and loud cursing.

There are also a couple of extra modes to play around with aside from the story, Arcade and Duel mode, and surprisingly neither of them are multiplayer. Arcade mode essentially just puts you through a score focused run through levels from the story mode stripping away the story content and forcing you to choose one of the playstyles described above. These playstyles level up persistently though and the combat is fun enough to make going through these score runs worth your time. Duel mode on the other hand is pretty much a boss rush mode with the game asking you to complete 15 duels in a row. These fights use a dueling mechanic that was used for most of the boss fights in the story mode and this mechanic, despite being hard to get a handle on at first, is very authentic feeling and a lot of fun once you get the hang of it. The way it works is that you and your opponent face each other and you must keep both a reticule on them and your hand close to your gun so that as soon as you see them reach for their iron you can draw and plug ’em. In the main story you can fail and redo these fights as much as you want (which is good because they are damn hard) but in Duel mode you have only five lives to get as far up the 15 fight ladder as you can. It’s definitely going to require some practice and it’s nice to have one of the game’s more unique types of gameplay immediately accessible.

For $15 this is a surprisingly pretty game, even the dirtiest back alley made my jaw drop.

For $15 this is a surprisingly pretty game, even the dirtiest back alley made my jaw drop.

Lastly I’ll talk about the presentation which is just pure greatness both aurally and visually. Starting with the sound you get a one-two-punch of great voice acting and perfect Ennio Morricone style western guitar playing throughout. Obviously with the storytelling framing device, good voice acting is a must and the bulk of it here is done by a single man, the guy playing Silas Greaves. He does a  fantastic job portraying the gamut of emotions one would go through while telling their life story; he’s jovial when he needs to be, he puts on the right kind of air for when he’s bullshitting, and during the last level when the story comes to its climax he gets intense and just slightly out of control like he’s reliving a terrible memory rather than just retelling. It’s this fantastic voice acting that really sells the story and the way they’re telling it. Of course that’s only backed but by the fact that when you’re in the thick of a gunfight the music rares up like the best parts of “The Good The Bad and The Ugly”. You get that feeling of flying through some of the best gunfights ever put to film and it seems like that was exactly this game’s goal. Visually the game has surprisingly vibrant look for the traditionally washed out looking West. There is a very slight degree of cell shading going on here, somewhat reminiscent of “The Darkness 2”, and it works really well against the game’s deep green Virginia pines and orange sun blasted mesas. It also means blood really pops on screen when you kill someone making your rampage more visually interesting then I find most shooters to be.

While Red Dead Redemption gave you a great Western world to explore, this feels like a true Western experience, putting you through trials and pitting you against villains evocative of a million bad Sunday afternoon spaghetti Westerns. The slow knowing drawl of the narration that Silas Greaves provides to his own story and the bombastic exciting shootouts truly evoke the feel of the Western as a genre and in doing so provide something no other game really has, and I have played a lot of Western games so I would know. GUN certainly didn’t do it, Samurai Western didn’t either, Red Dead (Redemption or Revolver, take your pick) got pretty damn close but had different focuses in mind; if you want a full on “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: The Game” then this is probably as close as you’re going to get. This being the case I can happily give Call of Juarez: Gunslinger a 5 out of 5 stars and my full recommendation;  I can think of no better weekend than alternating sessions of playing this game and watching old Westerns. In fact if you want a suggestion, go watch Joe Kidd, it’s a great Clint Eastwood classic and it’s available on Netflix.

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