It was about thirty minutes into Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, when I realized that I wanted to write a love letter, err…”review” for this “far-fetched romp through the history of the Wild Wild West”.
That last quote–pretty snappy huh?
When preparing for a review, I like to keep a notepad handy, so I can write down all the witty back-of-the-box quotes and hyperboles I think up while playing. This is often more fun than actually playing the game.
Here are but a select few from my Gunslinger notes:
- “An interactive steakhouse commercial…”
- “A water-balloon fight in Magic Kingdom’s Frontier Land…”
- “Young Guns: The Animation Series”
- “Video Game: The Video Game…”
I settled on “Call of Juarez: Gunslinger has no business being this good” as my opening statement.
That’s a pretty snide way to open a review for a game I absolutely loved, but as the delightfully grizzled, probably-racist, protagonist of this game says (paraphrasing) , “pull up a chair, and lemme tell ya bout some stuff..”
Before this digitally-downloadable entry in the series, I was convinced that Call of Juarez was junk and that Easter Bloc developers Techland were the video game industry’s answer to those Hollywood knock-off studios that make such classics as Transmorphers and Chop Kick Panda.
Techland isn’t exactly known for originality, or polish, but Gunslinger delivers both double-barreled, making a solid cause for the linear, story-driven FPS in a post-Modern Warfare world.
Gunslinger was the last game I expected to do something interesting with it’s storytelling. This isn’t a triple-A, $60 title with a marketing budget and a Hollywood screenwriter attached–so how did it end up out-storying most games this gen?
Maybe it’s because you play as a storyteller, and an unreliable one at that. Technically the entire game takes play inside a bar–the main character is a washed-up bounty hunter, who my notes describe as “the Forrest Gump of the Old West”. The guy was present at just about every historical event and rubbed shoulders with the entire Rogues gallery of famous Wild West guns, from Billy the Kid to Butch Cassidy. You name’ em, he shot’ em. We learn this as he boasts of past exploits to skeptical drinking buddies, who are quick to call him on history that doesn’t quite add up.
This is where Gunslinger gets interesting. The more the storyteller gets carried away, the crazier the game becomes. One memorable level opens with the protagonist being ambushed in a canyon by Apache natives. It’s classic, un-politically-correct ‘Cowboys n’ Indians’ pulp, until the game comes to a literal screeching halt.
“Wait a minute stranger…” one of the saloon patrons says. “There weren’t any Apache left in the territory at that time!” The storyteller pauses, caught in his own sensationalized rendition of history. “Well…what I meant to say was this gang fought like Apaches!” The game then reels itself back and switches over to ‘what really happened’. It’s not uncommon to see pieces of a level literally materialize out of thin air, as the storyteller changes his recollection.
Free-associative occurrences happen often in Gunslinger, and somehow manage to be thrilling every time. The “no wait, it didn’t happen like that!” structure of the story leads to some dazzling set pieces, and a few twists and turns that will offer both delight and rolled-eyes to those familiar with American History.
Gunslinger has a great look, with a graphic-novel-inspired style that permeates the entire package; from beautifully hand-illustrated cutscenes, to gorgeously rendered Western vistas.
Unfortunately the rather generic, wooden-faced characters don’t look as good as their hand-drawn counterparts, but they’re at least competently animated.
I especially enjoyed the fun little visual details in Gunslinger, like when the player-character twirls his guns after shooting, or blows smoke off the barrel.
Gunslinger is a punchy, perfectly-paced arcade shooter, with a surprising amount of depth I didn’t expect to show up in a $15 game, like…
the dueling mode that serves as level-bookends. This really is a perfect little arcade distraction that somehow manages to be fun, albeit frustrating as hell..
Yes, Techland was generous enough to craft totally separate score-chasing game-modes. The story elements from the campaign are swapped out for more bullets and blood, and get this; all those fancy-schmancy skills from the campaign carry over, and vice versa.
Sure you could probably blast your way through the game without touching this stuff, but it wouldn’t be as fun. Spend your in-game money on cool upgrades that let you do ‘super-fun-video-gamey’ stuff like mashing the square-button to reload faster, or the ability to score an instant headshot after dodging an incoming bullet in slow-motion.
Did I mention that it has boss-fights?
For an FPS they’re actually not too bad–a couple of them are quite good. Like when you fight Curly Bill, in an encounter that riffs on Pac Man, as you chase the crazed outlaw through a maze-like lumberyard.
Moment to moment gameplay stuff is right on the money too.
The guns feel great–each shot is a mini-fireworks show of bloody mayhem. There is actually one ‘hook’ that, dare I say, is the best feeling thing is an FPS since the sticky-grenades in Halo–the dynamite-throw-shot. I could never serve in tennis, but if I could, I’d imagine it’d feel half as good as this..
There is no way for me to scientifically measure (I went to public schools), but I’m confident that the ‘feel’ of a gun in a game is 90% sound. Everything here, from six-shooters to shotguns is sweet, crunchy, delicious ear candy.
Apparently everyone had a big mouth in the Old West–just about every NPC has something colorful and loud to say to you. Verbal barbs are exchanged from cover. If you sneak around, you’ll eavesdrop on conversations that are story-relevant. Others not so much…“It makes me nervous standin’ next to all these barrels of gunpowder..”
The voice-acting is stellar. It like they got every vocal-talent from the History Channel and Chevy-truck commercials to deliver terrific, country-fried dialogue that falls somewhere between homage and parody.
Sorry, no dubstep here…Outside of a haunting in-game rendition of the American hymnal “O Death” by the protagonist, the music is typical cowboy stuff. Galloping arrangements punctuated by steely electric guitars and wailing harmonicas serve the genre well.
I recall an interview with ex-Gears of War director Cliff Bleszinski where he predicts that the games industry would soon only be able to support lower-budget indie/casual games and triple-A blockbusters, with no room in between. I respect Cliffy’s opinion, but I think he may be wrong, because we now have Call of Juarez: Gunslinger; a budget-priced game that takes risks creatively and offers more raw thrills than most $60 FPS titles.
Also, it’s $15! I mean, c’mon. That’s like the price you would have paid for a video game back in the Old West.