There’s always been a dramatic gulf between the blood-soaked depictions of the Wild West with bodies littering the streets, as seen in such classics as Sam Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch, and the equally lawless but far less lethal reality of the frontier. Call of Juarez: Gunslinger explores this disparity between facts and legends that survive the ages, especially when an unreliable narrator starts putting holes in the truth.
Gunslinger was preceded by a misguided third entry in the series that saw the disastrous attempt at updating the loosely connected adventures of the McCall clan to the contemporary struggles of the drug war along the U.S.-Mexico border. Stepping back from that interpretation, the franchise slips comfortably back into its spurs and period western roots.
No longer (apparently) connected to the ongoing saga of the McCalls, Gunslinger settles for a combination of tall tales being recited over a frosty brew in an Abilene, Kansas saloon in 1910. The encroachment of modernity, also a cornerstone of the thematically similar Red Dead Redemption, is clear as protagonist Silas Greaves is nearly run over by a newfangled motor vehicle trying to cross the street. The inauspicious opening reinforces the desire and need to cling to the fading legend of the Wild West.
Akin to the well-received Bastion, Gunslinger frames its levels around a seasoned narrator recalling dramatic chapters in the lives of some of the West’s most famous outlaws and lawmen. You play as infamous bounty hunter Greaves who just happens to stop by to whet his whistle. There, the awestruck residents gather round to buy him round after round to ply him for stories from his heyday. A combination of dime novel thrills and the over-the-top action setpieces emerge with little prompting.
The narration isn’t just an expository shortcut. Gunslinger plays with the idea of an unreliable narrator, finding interesting junctures in each level to subvert expectations or mislead the player and audience. They range from the distinction between an Apaches attack or attacking Apache-style, to a sudden change in remembered climate and foliage, to running out of ammo because the story demanded it. And, sometimes, someone in the bar simply nods off during Greaves’ storytelling. Over the course of several episodes, Greaves finds himself on every side of the law, allying himself with some questionable characters in order to settle a vague matter of personal honor that places him on the opposing sides of many of the west’s great confrontations.
As a budget-priced digital title, Gunslinger cuts straight to the six-shooter action. These towns are cleared out of civilians long before gunsmoke fills the air. Your only environmental concern will be the next piece of cover and how long it will take to reload your revolvers. As it happens, reloading is much more drawn out and tense process when wielding these vintage firearms. There are only 3 types of weapon available (explosives notwithstanding): revolver, rifle, and shotgun. They pack a mean punch and the odds are constantly skewed against you. Concentration, earned by making kills, allows you to slow down time and pick off clearly highlighted targets.
A combo system rewards kills made in quick succession and feed into the game’s XP system. As you level up, it’s possible to unlock bonuses and abilities along one of three tracks: Trapper, Gunslinger, and Ranger. Each differs in focus between short, medium, and long-range weaponry. A persistently recharging “Sense of Death” meter, when full, allows you to dodge a fatal bullet and even return fire in the blink of an eye. Far from overpowered, the ability replenishes slowly enough that it can’t always been counted on to save your bacon.
In period games such as this, something feels somewhat off about using iron sights but it can often times become a necessity. Shooting from the hip is tough, particularly given how aggressive the enemies are even on the normal difficulty. Fortunately, my hip-firing needs were more than met by the alternate “Akimbo” dual wield option that maps each revolver to a separate trigger on the controller. There’s a world of difference between dual wielding the rapid-fire Quickshooters and the powerful Rangers that could be felt both in the game and in the controller’s vibration.
Most critically for a western game, the dramatic duels seen in the first two Call of Juarez titles make a welcome return after being unceremoniously cut from Call of Juarez: The Cartel. Familiar to fans of the previous Call of Juarez entries, these tension-fraught showdowns return largely unchanged. Keep the target centered with the right stick and your hand hovering close to your gun’s butt with the left stick. You have the option to win honorably or dishonorably by opting to draw before or after your opponent touches his gun. These nail-biting highlights are sure to give you pause while you debate taking the moral high ground and will put many an eager bounty hunter into an early grave, especially when dueling against more than one opponent.
In addition to the story mode, there are also arcade levels that revisit story mode settings and challenge players to fight their way through gauntlets of enemies as fast as possible for points and leaderboard bragging rights. The only one available, Grand Valley, was a blood-pumping shootout along rickety wooden walkways teeming with varmints. It lacked lateral or vertical complexity in the level design, but the action was plenty fun in the heat of combat.
Gunslinger‘s cel-shaded looking graphics are evocative of Borderlands‘ western aesthetic and suits the exaggerated depictions of confrontations, characteristic of the woodcut illustrations filling the pages of the era’s dime novels. The difference between the present day cutscenes’ semi-realistic style and the game engine’s heavily stylized renderings are deliberately pronounced. It’s only fitting to have a variety of visual interpretations in a game based around the elusiveness of a singular vision of history. On top of the graphics, the audio in Gunslinger doesn’t shy from doing a lot of heavy lifting in setting the right tone. Gunslinger‘s soundtrack hits all the right notes with its twangy western riffs and driving guitars. Gunfire erupts with distinctive thunderous claps of varying volume and pitch depending on the weapon wielded.
In playing four story mode chapters, Gunslinger comes across as a game eager to name drop — perhaps too eager. For Western buffs, it feels like a game of ‘spot the reference.’ For everyone else, there are numerous “Nuggets of Truth” serving as the perfunctory collectible secrets. The problem is that the grounded, historical background of these “Nuggets of Truth” scattered about undercut the exaggerated, loose interpretations of historical figures. The low number of confirmed kills stands in stark contrast to the dozens of bodies that pile up in every level. Still, the sheer volume of Wild West figures named, even off-hand, speaks of extensive research… even if that research is ultimately in the service of placing the fictional protagonist in the midst of all manner of historical encounters.
The narrative conceit of Call of Juarez: Gunslinger gives it the ability to deconstruct the mythologized idea of the Wild West while simultaneously letting players indulge in the fictionalized, wanton carnage deeply ingrained in our imaginations by Hollywood. A brief aside where an older bar patron recalls the same events as Greaves has me hoping the final game will take more opportunities to occasionally break from Greaves’ perspective to show just how the West wasn’t won. You can check it out yourself on May 22 when Call of Juarez: Gunslinger will see release on XBLA, PSN, and PC for $14.99.