With previous protagonists the McCall brothers nowhere in sight, players now find themselves taking on the role of reminiscing gun-for-hire Silas Greaves, the gritty cowboy equivalent of Forrest Gump, who somehow finds himself right in the middle of key moments of western history. Through this set-up, Greaves narrates player actions (in a Bastion vein) as he shares his experiences with an off-screen audience, bringing us an enjoyable storyline broken down into bite sized scenarios without the need for tiresome plot constraints. In some cases, entire scenarios are rewound and replayed with subtle changes, as Greaves’ weakening memory remembers things differently or the listeners question his accuracy of accounts. If Greaves recalls shooting his way out of a burning barn then that’s what we get, if the newspaper reported that he actually snuck out the back instead then rewind, and we get that too.
Thankfully this is never overdone to the point of being repetitive and with humorous dialogue that genuinely warms you to Greaves’ character, even those rare events that turn out to be complete fabrications don’t deter from their enjoyment nor the barrage of trigger-happy action that the game excessively serves. From defending a besieged train against a flurry of bandits to the traditional, yet somehow still fun, bar room brawls over a card game gone awry, Gunslinger relishes every chance to demonstrate its efficient combat mechanics as Greaves encounters some of the biggest names in the business. Outlaw legends such as Billy the Kid, Jesse James and Pat Garrett all make appearances and with combat leaping between traditional first-person shooting and tense, one-on-one duels, players can never sure of which context they’ll get to meet them.
A common threat to the western genre is that, due to the time period of ramshackle towns and wild expanses of nothingness, locales can soon feel barren and monotonous. Notably, Gunslinger does an excellent job in dispelling that notion through an abundance of stylised visual effects from the onset. Where previous Call of Juarez games kept violence dark and sombre, here bright red blood excitingly splatters from every ferocious bullet wound, delivering not only a gruesomely graphic flair set against an already colourful backdrop but, along with the thunderous soundtrack and aforementioned humour, instilling a fantastically vibrant comic book tone to this entry. If Bound in Blood was a serious epic, then Gunslinger is most definitely a gratuitous spaghetti western and the game works wonderfully better for it.
Admittedly weapon choices are limited to pistols, rifles, shotguns and dynamite, though there is some basic variety therein and the frantic pace of action demands the regular swapping of firearms to find the guns for the job. Killing scores of enemies not only feels disturbingly satisfying but also rewards players with points (akin to Bulletstorm) which increase through the novelty of lethal blows. From basic headshots and long distance kills, to the more challenging strikes through cover or collection of secret items (which tell true tales of the west), once points accumulate to a certain amount, Greaves will ‘level-up’ and gain the ability to purchase new skills for his ever-evolving repertoire.
Similar to the perks of Borderlands, skills are categorised under three different trees, each relating to a specific play style. The Trapper tree for example focuses on closer-quarter combat with skills such as improved armour or the ability to duel-wield shotguns; the Ranger tree serves long-range fighters and grants faster reloads or an upgraded rifle. Players wanting to improve their concentration ability (a special attack that slows down time, allowing Greaves to dodge incoming bullets while highlighting surrounding enemies for rapid execution) can aim for the pistol-based Gunslinger tree, with skills that extend the duration of the attack and increase the score multiplier for combination kills.
They may not make excessive changes to the gameplay (what about a stealth skill tree for example) but their inclusion adds to what is already a tight, well-crafted downloadable package. In addition to a wickedly entertaining campaign, Gunslinger brings a score-attack arcade mode that rates Greaves over a series of custom scenarios, while showdown mode throws him through a series of pistol duels like the old boss rushes of yesteryear. Much like the Wild West itself, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is a melting pot of good ideas and elements that while originating from other titles, have now combined with enough gusto and polish to provide the game a distinct personality of its own.
This isn’t merely a return to form for the series but instead, Ubisoft and Techland have opened it (and the genre) to a whole new direction of stylishly animated westerns that are exciting and rapid enough to compete amongst the usual myriad of military shooters and terrorist hunts. It will be interesting to see if further sequels will warrant retail releases but until then, old wounds have been healed and players can once again ride out into the sunset with a crooked smile upon their blood soaked faces.