First impressions are everything. Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is not Call of Juarez: The Cartel, and for that it is off to a roaring great start. Comeback kid?
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger has the unenviable burden of following in the footsteps of Call of Juarez: The Cartel and for that I sympathise with anyone who has already let slip a firm “hell no” and evacuated from the nearest window, open or otherwise. But heed this survivors: I went in with expectations pegged at approximately the square root of fuck all, and left feeling not at all the same.
The set up is exquisitely simple: there are bad guys, there are guns and there’s you, together in a perfect equilateral love-triangle. You shoot your way through a series of shooting galleries filled with bad guys who are shooting. These shooting galleries filled with bad guys who are shooting are connected by corridors filled with bad guys who are shooting. In these corridors you shoot bad guys.
Don’t be put off, though, Gunslinger works its unambitious setup to its advantage. Rare is the shooter in this epoch of Hollywood spectacle that concerns itself exclusively with the act of removing another man’s face with a squeeze of the trigger, and fewer still are the shooters in recent memory that can rival Gunslinger in just how much fun that act is. This is a shooter that conveys the thump of sending metal through flesh with aggrandised conviction, chiefly through wonderful sonic feedback and a slow-motion mechanic that belabors every quasi-cell-shaded ejaculation of blood cast against a blue sky or rocky backdrop. There’s an air of Red Dead about the drama here, particularly with time slowed. In the simplest of terms, shooting chaps in Gunslinger is a total riot.
You play as Silas Greaves, a grizzled veteran of the untamed American West regaling tales of mettle to a bar-full of dregs. Silas Greaves is not a total riot. Silas’ dialogue – painfully unfunny, excruciatingly constant – accompanies the warfare much in the same fashion as in Bastion, lending the story a dynamic edge that sees predetermined events rewound and revisited from different perspectives as others patrons chime in or Greaves recalls a new fact or angle. It’s a natty gimmick that gives rise to some interesting scenarios but there’s a supermassive black hole reeking havoc somewhere in the cosmos that sucks less than much of Gunslinger’s dialogue. Certainly on the one hand it feels like an opportunity wasted.
Fortunately, on the other, larger, more important hand, it’s a non-issue. The story provides a decent excuse to frequent the saloons, swamps, steamboats, graveyards and wending mountain caves that make up Gunslinger’s tonally wonderful, 14-level campaign and that’s enough of a reason for it exist regardless of suck-factor.
An experience system provides some room to specialise your Silas Greaves too, with three unlock tiers tied to the handful of available weapons. Shots to the head, those that maim more than one target and those that snag moving targets all reward greater XP, and the more kills you string together while the combo counter is ticking the greater the reward. Gunslinger can’t hope to rival the imposing depth of Bulletstorm’s kill list, but it’s terse enough that stringing combos together is effortless and the speed at which you can dispatch a band of goons does a sensational job of conferring the sense that you’re some appalling badass of the untamed west (or alternatively, if you’ve recently binged on Justified, Raylan Givens).
Gunslinger captures the simple shoot first, ask questions never parlance of both the caricature western hero and the stars of ye olde first-person shooters with some panache and is all the better for it. It seems like an odd point to labour over for a game in a genre where you so often take the reigns of a soldier/space marine/cowboy/floating hand and shoot with guns/lasers/bazookas/a tank various flavour of bad guy, but Gunslinger is such fun. And it’s persistently fun, too. Even when it’s concerning itself with iffy duels, QTEs and bits where you’re forced to walk and listen to Greave’s piffling commentary, it’s always quick to get you back into the thick of the good stuff. Which is shooting people with guns, making blood squirt from eye sockets and racking up obscene combos.
It’s also smart enough to end before its charms fizzles out, although there’s replayability in the form of a decent arcade mode akin to Bulletstorm’s Echoes (quick gauntlets designed for chaining kills together with leaderboards to boot) and a dueling mode that I enjoyed slightly more than I reckon I’d enjoy, oh I don’t know, vomitting through a mouthful of straws.
But ending on that image would be a grave (Greave?) injustice. Juarez: Gunslinger emerges from the muck and the mire left behind by Juarez: Cartel with a grin and a clenched fist held high. It’ll surely be dogged by the series’ justifiable reputation – a regrettable affair – but it shares little besides a namesake and genre with its siblings. A far cry from Techland’s previous squelching misfire, Gunslinger is a slender shooter that fits neatly into the AA bracket and bears shades of Red Dead, Bulletstorm and Bastion. It surpasses none of them but, in raw terms of shooting dudes square in the face with a gun, it’s one of the standout shooters of recent memory and proof positive that not all shooters need concern themselves with the pursuit of Hollywood swagger and portentous bilge.
This review was originally published on BeefJack.