Review: Call of Juarez: Gunslinger brings the Wild West series back to fine form
Sometimes a video game series takes such a massive misstep that you have to wonder what the developers were thinking in the first place. Case in point: Call of Juarez: The Cartel. Instead of sticking to its Wild West roots as the two previous games did, this chapter inexplicably took place in the modern day, and, worse yet, stuck our Western hero with two crap-talking federal agents who were more like nuisances than allies. It was a huge step backwards for Ubisoft and Techland, and one that left us wondering whether the series would recover.
This past week, that query was answered with the arrival of Call of Juarez: Gunslinger. Surprisingly enough, the developer and publisher have managed to make amends, throwing away the cruddy modern-day setting in favor of a return to the Old West – and how. It plays around with legacies in its own way, and there are times that something technical works against it (like loading times), but we're glad to see this cowboy has been put back on pace.
In the game, you play Silas Greaves, a worn-out gunslinger who's sitting around in a saloon, setting the record straight for a few of his fellow drinkers. He explains how he's gotten in and out of trouble over the years, dealing with all sorts of rivals while running into the likes of Jesse James and Billy the Kid, among others. Since Ubisoft is no stranger to altering history to its benefit (Assassin's Creed III, anyone?), I just sat back and enjoyed how things played out.
Most of the time, you're running through Gunslinger in full-on first-person shooter mode. The game's mechanics work elegantly throughout, as you can easily take down varmints using your six-shooter, shotgun and other weapons, while occasionally dodging an incoming bullet (through a neat, if unoriginal, slo-mo mechanic) and using concentration mode to get off some well-timed headshots. Trick shots also introduce themselves over the course of the game, keeping things interesting and helping you build a high score.
In Gunslinger, there's a huge emphasis on getting the best score possible, as you can build combos from taking down multiple enemies or pulling off headshots and trick shots. The better you perform, the more rewards you unlock through your three-tier skill system, and the higher you rank on the leaderboards. After you clear each stage in Story Mode, you can continue to try your luck in Arcade Mode, where you can play merely for the sake of getting as high a score as possible. Again, unoriginal, but Techland has taken this and made it work with Gunslinger. Who am I to argue against not trying to fix something that isn't broken?
The game also has a huge emphasis on Duels. There are times you'll need to take someone head-on in a gunfight, and the system here is actually pretty good. You use the right analog stick to keep them into focus, then draw your weapon and shoot 'em before they kill you. Though the process gets repetitive down the road, it's a neat take on winning a duel, rather than relying on tapping on a trigger as quickly as possible. Plus, you can get some awesome headshots going here.
Gunslinger looks very good for a downloadable game, and runs circles around the unfinished The Cartel. The Western environments are outstanding, from the dusty old towns filled with gunmen to a run along a moving train. The carnage is surprisingly excessive as well, especially when you use a shotgun to shred someone down to size. There are occasional bugs throughout, and the loading times can be a bit excessive, but it's a small price to pay to enjoy this trip into the world of Juarez.
The audio's good as well. The voicework is top notch, especially for Silas, who comes off as brash at times, but still has quite a story to tell. The music is quite atmospheric, making you feel like you're really running through old school Western towns – even with all the excessive gunfire.
I forgive Techland and Ubisoft for whatever the heck The Cartel was, because Gunslinger is one fine sequel. It comes up short when compared to Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption -- mainly because of game length and slight characterization – but it's still great. Silas' story is well worth listening to.
[Reviewed on Xbox 360]