Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is a return to the Wild West, and a return to form for series developers Techland, following the flawed modern interpretation of the series in Call of Juarez: The Cartel in 2011. And the decision to release it as a downloadable title on Xbox Live and Playstation Network suits the structure of the game extremely well.
Gunslinger follows the story of aging bounty hunter and gunfighter Silas Greaves as he arrives in a saloon in Abilene in 1910. He’s asked about his past by a group of fellow drinkers due to his fame, and the game unfolds as a series of flashbacks which feature a wide number of Western legends including Billy the Kid, Jesse James, and Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid.
You can choose to follow the story through to completion over 14 levels in Story mode, with 3 difficulty levels, a New Game Plus option to keep everything you’ve previously earned, and a Recollections mode to go back to individual levels. Those same levels appear in Arcade mode with the focus on high scores, and the end-of-level pistol duels also feature in their own collection of Duel Challenges.
There’s no multiplayer, which is a good thing in my opinion. As a break in theme and approach from the regular epic military and futuristic shooters, Call of Duty: Gunslinger is great as a relatively compact DLC experience for a more manageable price.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger – Story Mode:
Story mode introduces each level with a short narrated sequence of the aging Silas telling his story, with the occasional interruption or snoring from the other saloon characters. It brings some context and also attempts to explain why this historically unknown character has ended up encountering almost every famous Cowboy that existed in real life. (In the real world, outlaw Dave Rudabaugh reportedly did encounter Pat Garrett, Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid and Doc Holliday before his death at the age of 31).
The focus on single player brings some nice touches, such as the game changing to reflect the narration, as when Greaves makes a mistake, or clarifies what really happens. Almost every level has a moment where the events may rewind and play out differently, or the terrain will radically change as the story progresses.
Those narration-led changes, and the reasonable quality of the voice acting throughout lift what is mechanically a reasonably standard FPS game. Left trigger targets, right trigger fires, and reload, crouch and jump are in the usual spots on the controller. But there are some Call of Juarez specific commands to note – the right bumper triggers Concentration mode which highlights enemies and gives you more time to take them down before they return fire. The mode fills up over time in combat to give you longer to take advantage.
You also get ‘Sense of Death’ which can allow you to escape a final bullet by choosing left or right to dodge and survive. It means that deaths are relatively rare in normal mode, and you’ll progress through fairly quickly without a huge number of frustrating choke points. You’ll also occasionally be given a quick reaction section of button prompts to automate a section of a gunfight, but these quicktime passages are brief and well-used to allow you to start taking down masses of enemies.
And you’ll want to keep moving to see what happens next. The story occasionally comes close to cliche, but usually with a knowing nod to Western movie conventions, and there’s a definite desire to see which characters and situations will pop up before the end of the tale, which does have a couple of decent twists.
Along the way you’ll build up experience which unlocks skills to improve your weapons, ammo and concentration. The guns available aren’t particularly wide ranging, but are appropriate and enough to allow you to vary your approach – and dual wielding pistols is suitably enjoyable as you mow down a posse on your tail. Personally I tended to favour the rifle and a long-distance approach, and all the guns have a decent weight and sound to them which makes them satisfying to use.
Get through the generic bad guys, spiced with the occasional enemy with a wooden shield, shotgun or gatling gun, and you’ll often end the level in a pistol duel. In this mode, you face your enemy with the challenge to keep the focus reticule on them with the right stick, move your hand with the left stick for faster reactions, and be ready to draw with the right trigger at the suitable time for an honourable kill (Or you can draw first and still proceed without the honour bonus).
Each level has a small number of collectibles which are never too far from the main path, and each gives you a short history about the real characters and concepts you encounter.
And that’s it really. There isn’t much opportunity to stray from the main path, there’s not a huge amount of collectibles or unlocks, and the game itself took me around one weekend of gaming to cover on Normal.
But that’s not a bad thing. Gunslinger gives you a compact and enjoyable experience set in a different time and with enough audio and graphical flair to make it a pleasurable experience which won’t involve months of your life to complete.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger – Arcade and Duel Modes
In addition to the Story mode, there’s a full Arcade option which allows you to hammer through levels of enemies. You’re scored on combos and time taken, and there’s a full leaderboard for friends and other players. You do unlock skills separately in arcade mode, based on your overall score, but these open up fairly quickly.
And the Dual mode puts you straight into shootouts with the main game characters. You’ll need to survive about 10 gunfights to finish the mode, so the odds are against you. But Techland do at least give you 5 lives with which to try and make it. The duels never stop being a constant juggling act as you try to keep your focus and hand in the right position, and attempt to outdraw your opponent at just the right time.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger – Verdict:
I’ve really enjoyed Call of Duty Juarez: Gunslinger. As someone who always had a soft spot for the Wild West, and a fan of films like Eastwood’s ‘The Unforgiven’, ‘True Grit’ (Including the Coen brothers remake), and 3:10 to Yuma etc, the aging gunfighter isn’t exactly a new concept. But it’s still relatively fresh in gaming, especially in a year dominated by the usual Call of Duty, Battlefield and epic next gen titles.
The low price, short length and focus on single-player also means it’s not a daunting experience. It’s the videogame equivalent of a John Wayne repeat on Sunday afternoon TV. You want to see how on earth Greaves met and fought with or against so many legends, and how his tale will resolve itself. And the mechanics are familiar to any FPS fan, so within seconds you’ll be confidently taking on bad guys until you come up against the end-of-level opponents. Only 2 or 3 choke points stand out in the game, and they’re pretty much all confined to someone with a gatling gun forcing you to use cover to sneak up to shoot or dynamite them.
Overall Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is a game which seems to essentially know it’s limits, and produces a suitable enjoyable experience within them. You’re left wanting more, which is rare for an FPS game these days.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger – 7/10