GameGrin recently got the chance to grab a lengthy hands-on session with Techland’s forthcoming Wild West first-person shooter, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger. After the previous rather odd and out-of-place entry into the series, Call of Juarez: The Cartel, it feels particularly good to dip back into what really set the series apart: cowboys, six-shooters and tumbleweeds.
One of the most striking characteristics of Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is its visual style: a nice blend of cell-shading and stylisation that gives it a unique look. It’s a small touch but it is refreshing to see a more diverse, historical palette than the generic military greys of most other first-person shooters. Immediately clear was the tongue-in-cheek humour that brought to mind elements of Borderlands 2, particularly in the clever splash screens that appear whenever you encounter a new character.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger centres on Silas Greaves, an old and inebriated bounty hunter, as he recounts tales of his past adventures and exploits to a bar full of interested, if sceptical, patrons. There is a definite, quirky charm to the story and the flashbacks that make up the missions are regularly interrupted with conversations from the present day. It’s self-aware and carries a pleasing sense of irony that never feels pretentious or excessive.
The opening mission saw Greaves reminiscing about a time when he was responsible from saving Billy the Kid from a house besieged by angry gunslingers. At its core the game is a solid first-person shooter and the controls were tight, responsive and effective. Greaves began with a simple six-shooter but it wasn’t long before he was dual wielding revolvers and carrying a rifle for long-range shooting (or rather shootin’, it is the Wild West after all). Shooting with a pistol in each hand not only looked the part but was immensely satisfying, allowing you twelve shots of hot lead before having to contemplate reloading.
Each kill you make grants you experience that goes towards unlocking a series of skills. As per usual headshots and chaining kills together in combos earns you larger quantities of XP. While it is not particularly revolutionary it works well and already seems well balanced, with skills having to be earned rather than handed-out. There are various other methods of gathering experience bonuses such as shooting pumpkins and gathering hidden collectibles that take the form of “Nuggets of Truth”. These golden nuggets provide little text box-outs providing some true history of the events Silas is involved in rather than the embellished yarns he spins to the enraptured listeners in the present day bar.
Silas also has access to “Concentration”, the somewhat standard time-slowing ability that allows for easier headshots and more efficient chaining of kills. It was initially a little difficult to adjust to this ability as it refreshed a lot faster than expected but using it was essential especially when faced with large groups of enemies. Alongside Concentration, there is also another associated ability, the “Sense of Death” indicated by a small skull and crossbones icon in the upper right of the screen. This takes time to recharge but if Silas’ health drops too low and the ability is available it allows him to dodge a fatal shot by focusing on the bullet and moving an analogue stick either left or right to avoid it. It was a pretty interesting feature and put a different twist on the more traditional regenerating health format.
Silas’ experience can be utilised across three different skill sets, each represented by two six-shooter chambers. The three areas are Gunslinger (focusing on dual wielding weaponry, mainly revolvers), Ranger (emphasising long range sniping and rifles) and Trapper (shotgun and explosive specialisation). Each round in the skill chambers’ diagram offers a bonus and once the first six are filled, Silas is granted a specific boost to a weapon. Improvements which can be made can be anything from shotgun spread to reload time and there is an impressive selection available to cater for different styles of play.
Over the course of the three levels we played there was a surprising variety of gameplay on offer. At the end of each stage is typically a small boss battle that usually took the form of a duel. Here you face against your enemy one-on-one using the analogue stick to focus on them as they move back and forth in order to increase your focus, making it easier to draw and shoot. Honourable players will wait for their enemy to draw yielding an experience boost, whereas dastardly outlaws can draw early and gun down their enemy in cold blood. Sadly the latter comes without an experience boost but you can settle in the satisfaction of being a stone-cold badass.
While the opening stage featuring Billy the Kid was largely linear, the other levels we played were more open and allowed for flanking manoeuvres and slightly tactical approaches. Notably the second flashback Silas recounted involved a daring jailbreak, an intense Wild West shootout in the back streets of a town and one of the meatiest and most satisfying shotguns we have ever used. The shooting felt satisfying and the over-the-top, excessive narrative full of little jokes and asides was truly unusual and refreshing.
All of these features combined in the final portion of the campaign we got to go hands-on with, where Silas was recounting an eventful journey through a canyon. Suddenly besieged from all sides by hordes of Apache warriors, the odds of him escaping alive seemed impossible. Fully utilising Concentration was essential to staying alive and it was only thanks to our Sense of Death we made it through in one piece... However, we were interrupted by one of the slightly obsessive bar patrons who was quick to point out that Apaches shouldn’t have even been there. Silas was quick to change his account of the gun battle and we were thrust back into it with gang members instead.
It was a genuinely funny moment and these occasional shake-ups to the story, along with Silas growing irritation at the others lack of belief, really give Call of Juarez: Gunslinger a unique flavour of its own. The remainder of the mission, which also introduced fistfuls of dynamite, was particularly memorable and it finished with a battle against a deranged, Gatling-gun-equipped madman. The campaign seems already to be strong and has excellent production value for a digital download title.
Before our time was up Techland let us have a sneaky hands-on with the Arcade portion: a series of challenge maps seemingly based on custom built arenas. Before tackling a map you are given the option of selecting one of three load outs based on the different skill sets from the main game. As you progress and earn points in this mode you can unlock other perks to boost skills making the harder maps easier, with six available for each of the skill sets (Trapper, Ranger and Gunslinger). Scoring in this mode revolves around the time taken to kill all enemies as well as your efficiency in terms of headshots, combos, accuracy use of Concentration and several other factors.
In our playthrough we fought through the Grand Valley: a series of raised wooden platforms high up near a canyon. Choosing a Trapper set-up (largely due to that brilliant shotgun and four bundles of dynamite) we were soon blasting away at the hordes of cowboys. At numerous times we encountered hulking giants of enemies complete with top hats and masses of health. Thankfully the use of Concentration to pause time and several barrels of buckshot to the face saw to them quickly and we were soon at the end. However, we were disappointed to learn our score was only average.
It is easy to imagine the Arcade mode capturing the feel of the one more try mentality and no doubt there will be online leaderboards and achievements tied to this mode for the more competitively inclined. Before we left we also glimpsed a “Duel Mode” sitting on the main menu which we were led to believe won’t be a competitive online mode but one tied to the duelling battles fought in the main game.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger was a real surprise, in the best possible sense. After the relative decline of the series with the previous entry it was difficult to see where Ubisoft could take the next instalment. However the production values felt very solid and there seemed plenty of content, especially for a downloadable title. The humour, entertaining gameplay and several different modes to enjoy mean this is certainly a title we would like to spend more time with. Releasing on Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and PC later this year it will be interesting to see how much the price will be. If it is reasonable Call of Juarez: Gunslinger has all the markings of a definite cult classic.