Wot I Think: Call Of Juarez – Gunslinger

By John Walker on May 20th, 2013 at 5:00 pm.

While it’s the fourth game in the Call Of Juarez series, Gunslinger is not directly connected to its preceding brethren. A Western that tells the unreliable memories of cowboy bounty hunter Silas Greaves, through first-person shooting, for a remarkably low £12 pricetag. Should it climb atop a horse for dairy consumption, or might it be the sheriff of this here town? Here’s wot I think:

It turns out there’s still plenty of room in my heart for a linear shooter. A shooter with quick-time events. A shooter with checkpointing instead of quicksave. A shooter that only lets you carry two weapons at a time. It turns out that these things matter far, far less, if only a game remembers to let the player have fun. Gunslinger is a lot of fun.

Don’t worry if you’ve not played any of the three previous Call Of Juarez games – it is in fact entirely mystifying why this game even has the words in its title, since it features nothing of South America, no Mexican characters, and indeed doesn’t include nor mention the character Juarez whatsoever. But that matters not – this is an Old West game in which you play through the memories of bounty hunter Silas Greaves, and his encounters with, well, pretty much every famous name of the era.

And it quickly becomes apparent that they are not entirely reliable memories, which is key to a huge amount of the enjoyment on offer. Greaves, now an old man, tells his tales to an audience of fellow drinkers in a bar. Tales of how he met, duelled with, and most often killed, the biggest names in Western mythology: Jesse James, Billy The Kid, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid… you get the idea. The games’ missions play out each of these memories, in which you explore the loosely-open locations and shoot an extremely doubtful number of enemies in the face, then most likely finish with a duel.

What makes this so enjoyable in this instance comes from two main factors. Firstly, and obviously most importantly, it’s just very well made. Without snooty pretentions, it embraces that it’s a shooting gallery, with enemies popping up and down from behind rocks or buildings all around you. The relatively small range of weapons on offer pack excellent punch, headshots almost always kill in one hit, and the game’s “Concentration” offers you brief periods of uncanny abilities to pick out opponents – something you can augment with the range of unlockable skills, via gathering XP. And there’s little to fault throughout all that.

Secondly, for once this is a game that appropriately deploys irony. So many games set out to satirise their genre, while failing to come close to the games they’re mocking. Or more aggravatingly, sardonically commentate on gaming’s more frustrating features by deliberately including gaming’s more frustrating features. Gunslinger makes neither mistake, while successfully teasing the eccentricities of the shooter.

For instance, for a shooter to be fun, you need to do a lot of shooting. But to do a lot of shooting, you have to have a rather unrealistic number of enemies for one person to kill. In Gunslinger, this is explained by Greaves’ obvious and ludicrous exaggeration in his tales. His audience of three other men respond accordingly, one credulously gobsmacked, another cynical, a third infuriated by the obvious bullshit, their co-narration occurring over the top of the game as you play it.

But it’s not left there. Wonderfully, the volume of enemies can sometimes be attributed to Greaves’ becoming distracted in his telling. At one point the game seems to get stuck, sending repeated waves of baddies in the same spot, until the storyteller remembers himself and moves things on. At another, he excuses himself to go to the bathroom, at which point the game begins to loop itself in a sequence where nothing happens at all. Out of context, both scenes may not immediately sound fun, but in context these, and other moments like them, are lovely.

This gimmick plays out in other wonderful ways. At some points Greaves’ drinking companions call him on outright lies, at which point the experience you’re having can suddenly change as he adjusts for facts. Or impassable canyons will rearrange themselves before your eyes, as ladders and new pathways literally fall from the sky in order for his story to continue. Occasionally he talks himself into such an impossible situation that he has to backtrack entirely, meaning the game rewinds itself in front of you, and you play out a sequence in an entirely different way.

On top of all this, Gunslinger looks stunning. It’s a superb demonstration of how artistry is always more important than perfect tech, its visual style looking like someone made Borderlands in a new version of the Source Engine. Scenes are often utterly beautiful, the landscape breathtaking, the towns meticulously detailed and crafted. This is all in Techland’s own engine, Chrome Engine 5, which looks like it can now compete with the best.

Within these gorgeous locations, the enemies are pure cartoon characters, brightly coloured and animated like Western caricatures. A shot to the head sends up a ludicrous splurt of shock-red blood, while bullets whizz past you throwing cartoon tunnels of air behind them. Somehow what would otherwise be considerable gore ends up feeling peculiarly innocent in its daftness, complete with grizzly splattering sounds.

It’s odd that its shortcomings should be in the telling, what with that also being one of the game’s biggest strengths. Missions end oddly abruptly, almost always lacking the sense of closure of a completed task or reached destination. Often this is to cut to a duel sequence, where you must balancing a number of factors on screen, while demonstrating blistering reflexes, and these are generally fun too – but again, complete one and the story jumps ahead once again without a sense of a completed moment.

It’s also a shame that clearly so much expense was spared on the cutscenes. The sequences set in the present day in the bar are told out by static hand-drawn images that the camera drinks toward or away from. They’re nicely drawn, but since the in-game engine could likely have done a nice enough job of showing the characters, it always feels oddly cheap and perfunctory.

However, neither spoils the experience, which is then elongated with a replay mode that lets you play the game through again with all your gained skills from the first time, and an Arcade mode that lets you mess around more with the score-gathering that stringing kill combos together can offer you.

Gunslinger is such a good time. I went in with absolutely no expectations either way, and absolutely loved my weekend with it. I certainly couldn’t help wondering how fantastic it would have been for it to be an open world game, with the levels as missions within. It does make that incredibly stupid faux pas of having areas of the sprawling levels you’re just not allowed to walk toward – “You’re wandering from the story” – which rather emphasises that point. But within its own restrictions, it remains the most fun I’ve had with a shooter in ages. Unpretentious yet wonderfully original in its gimmicks, and unashamed of being an elaborate shooting gallery, without casting you as a sidekick to an AI hero who opens the doors for you, it remembers what the genre is supposed to be. And that alone is enormously refreshing. That it delivers it all with such panache, a great sense of humour, and manages to poke fun at the genre without breaking it, is to be lauded.

Gunslinger is out on Wednesday via Steam for an amazing price of £12. And presumably via UPlay too (although my review code didn’t need UPlay to run).

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76 Comments »

  1. FurryLippedSquid says:

    Yay, sounds brill.

    As you say, shame it’s not open-world, but if it’s this much fun who cares?

    • analydilatedcorporatestyle says:

      As long as it has the excellent console focused auto aim as found in Bound in Blood I’m a happy bunny. One thing I couldn’t stand in the stand out original was the excellent graphics and the fact that it didn’t hold my hand too much! Sadly with my advancing years I need a dumbed down experience

  2. maxi0 says:

    £12 sterling? Juarez the catch?

  3. greg_ritter says:

    Wow, the gimmick about tall tales sounds absolutely awesome.

  4. Bhazor says:

    Well thats a pleasant surprise.

  5. amateurviking says:

    I have to admit after the cartel I was expecting trash. Pleased to have an ass made out of ‘u’ and ‘mption’.

  6. ZIGS says:

    although my review code didn’t need UPlay to run

    Can you upload the preview code to a torrent site? Kidding , kidding, put down the coach gun please!! :)

  7. honky mcgee says:

    Good review. The coupling of words into sentences that were then arranged to form a paragraph helped paint a picture of what one could expect from this game.

    One thing though, for a reviewer who despises cut scenes it seems strange to ding the the developers for not devoting more resources to them (especially in a 15 dollar ‘arcade’ game). Personally, I appreciate it when devs include original artwork in game, be it loading screens, intro’s or cut-scenes.

    But you know what they say, you can’t please all the people all the time, and if you’re a game developer you can’t please John Walker at any point in time.

    • John Walker says:

      I suggested they use the in-game engine. And I’ve never said I have a problem with cutscenes – I love a good cutscene. I have a problem with games taking away player agency via cutscenes, doing things you’d rather play for yourself, or endlessly interrupting at the cost of the flow of the game.

      So, well, you know.

      But at least you tried.

      • Brun says:

        Agree, although I’m not really sure how much agency you could cultivate from one drunk guy narrating a story to three other drunk guys.

      • honky mcgee says:

        Thanks for the clarification.

        For what it’s worth, I’d like see a post/discussion regarding cutscenes, how they’ve changed over the years and what role they can play helping to tell a story.

        I still remember when they were used as a reward to encourage player progression (think Final FantasyVII, Parasite Eve). Fast forward to present day where 9/10 game writers agree cutscenes are bad and what we’re left with is the intro to Skyrim. No lavish CGI, no dramatic or cinematic camera angles, but hey, they let you move your head so technically it’s not really a cutscene right?

  8. Iskariot says:

    I will have to put this one on my list for sure.

  9. Paul says:

    Very pleasant read, I even somewhat liked Cartel, I will probably love this. Altough I too wish Techland made proper first person FPSRPG set in open world Old West…kinda like RDR, but in first person and with more RPG elements, dammit.

  10. Berzee says:

    The narrator changing the scenery due to audience heckling sounds great. It looks pretty, too!

    Is there a way to disable the profusion of gore? It’s Rated M for a lot of other reasons too and I doubt it’s moddable enough to allow for the customizations I should like, but a “Fountains Of Blood” toggle button would remove one of the obstacles at least (although I suspect that there is a < %1 chance of such a button existing =).

  11. Ayam says:

    John Walker and Jim Rossignol WITs are my favourite things on the front page of RPS – got one from both today which is lovely, thanks RPS.

  12. chills says:

    Well this article sold me, hadn’t been paying much attention to it but ended up pre-ordering. Get it off GMG if you are gonna get it, 9 quid and Bound in Blood for free!

    • Gonefornow says:

      Sold it for me too. Call it an impulse if you must, but It was a good time to try out GMG as well. Seems legit. Getting a free game on top of it seals the deal.

      The game itself sounds like an HD version of Dead Man’s Hand, an old Linear Arcade Western Shooter which I liked quite a lot back in the days.

  13. djbriandamage says:

    How’s the FOV? Acceptable? Adjustable? Bound in Blood was such an outstanding game crippled by unreasonably low FOV.

    • Melliflue says:

      I remember Bound in Blood had a low FOV but I don’t remember it being that bad. It was still playable for me, although I couldn’t play for for an extended amount of time. There are games that have made me feel ill much quicker than Bound in Blood did. I still should not have had to put up with it though.

      I’d like it if games with a fixed low FOV came with a health warning, just like flashing lights sometimes have an epilepsy warning. I think it is important to know if playing a game will make me ill before I buy it :p

      • LionsPhil says:

        Bound in Blood also had ridiculously overegged Depth of Field too, IIRC, since doing that was shaders was still new and exciting and cranking it up to horrible levels was an easy way to make reviewers say it looked graphically impressive because it was making their new graphics cards sweat.

  14. engion3 says:

    Hmm. I played the last Call of Juarez and thought it was decent. I may have to check this one out since it’s so cheap. I suppose I was just turned off with it being Call of Juarez. If it hadn’t been tied to that name I may have given it some more notice.

  15. Zenicetus says:

    Could we have a little more info on how the climactic gunfight duels work? The mechanic with the mouse-laggy hand and church bell they used in Bound in Blood was more frustrating than fun.

  16. Smion says:

    Mexico is part of the North American continent, dude.

    • Faldrath says:

      I was going to post the same thing. That being said, John himself admits he’s rubbish at geography (see his post on Geoguessr last week) :)

    • meatshit says:

      For those who don’t know: Benito Juarez was an early Mexican president who resisted the French occupation of Mexico and fought to make Mexico a liberal democracy. Being a national hero, there are quite a few places in Mexico named after him, including a large city across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas.

    • engion3 says:

      Haha, that’s awesome, even though I probably couldn’t point to 50% of the countries in Europe.

  17. MeatMan says:

    After reading this WIT, I started watching a let’s play video of the game. The first thing I noticed once the gameplay started was what appears to be an objective notification constantly popping up, even worse than Far Cry 3 (before the option to disable it was patched in). Literally, every 5 seconds a pop-up appears (and makes a sound) saying “Return to the Hideout.”

    Please tell me you can disable that. Surely you can, otherwise John undoubtedly would’ve ripped on it. Or is that what was meant by “It does make that incredibly stupid faux pas of having areas of the sprawling levels you’re just not allowed to walk toward”.

  18. Drinking with Skeletons says:

    Some of the problems sound like ongoing ones for the devs: Bound in Blood had some similar abruptness as well as good ideas half-heartedly executed.

    While everything I heard about The Cartel made it sound absolutely dreadful, the writers of this franchise have actually kicked out some pretty darn good westerns. After DCs success with Batman, maybe they should consider a Jonah Hex game?

  19. wodin says:

    delete sorry

  20. LionsPhil says:

    …and indeed doesn’t include nor mention the character Juarez whatsoever.

    But…Juarez was a place.

    • Skabooga says:

      I admittedly have a lot of trouble with my Western European geography, Juarez my sisters and brothers on the other side of the Atlantic understandably get their details mixed about North America.

    • Sparkasaurusmex says:

      I think it’s another DayZ knockoff

    • Diggidy says:

      In Bound in Blood – Juarez was both a character AND a place.

      • F3ck says:

        …in this one it’s his sled.

      • LennyLeonardo says:

        This is true. Juarez was called Juarez because he came from Juarez. So when you went to Juarez everyone was called Juarez, and it was impossible to find the Juarez you were looking for. “Call of Juarez” refers to the moment when your character shouts “Juarez!”, and an entire town turns around and says “Yes?”.

        I think some of that happened.

  21. apocraphyn says:

    Huh, interesting. Might have to splurge on this one, as well as Blood Dragon.

  22. sonson says:

    Had a good feeling about this one since the first trailer,. Shooters that don’t take themselves seriously are usually superior to the ones that do. Can’t wait to play it!

  23. PopeRatzo says:

    Thank you. Bought.

  24. Eddy9000 says:

    “At one point the game seems to get stuck, sending repeated waves of baddies in the same spot, until the storyteller remembers himself and moves things on. At another, he excuses himself to go to the bathroom, at which point the game begins to loop itself in a sequence where nothing happens at all.”

    SOLD.

  25. Shooop says:

    Great! I was interested in this because the old west to me seems an ideal place to set more games in but it’s woefully neglected. The narration crossing over into the game itself sounds funny as hell too.

    This and Blood Dragon’s success hopefully means a new trend of “snarky self-awareness” taking off.

  26. sinister agent says:

    Huh, I didn’t even know there were three of these, let alone four. Sounds terrific though, and those storytelling ideas in particular. Someone’s taken the Prince of Persia time thing and run gleefully amok with it, it seems.

    • LionsPhil says:

      The third was not a western and also terrible by most accounts.

      If you didn’t know when there were just one of these, the first game is really good. The second took a lot of steps back from it IME, in particular anything to do with horses.

  27. RLacey says:

    Hmm… only £9 at GMG, with a copy of Bound in Blood thrown in free? Sold.

    http://www.greenmangaming.com/s/gb/en/pc/games/shooter/call-juarez-gunslinger/

    • wu wei says:

      Region-restricted for me, dammit :(

      GMG have been steadily removing every incentive I have for using their service over the past 6 months.

  28. SCdF says:

    John, how long would you say the game is? Is it cheap because they’re being awesome or cheap because you’ll be done before your tea gets cold?

  29. F3ck says:

    I can enjoy both the open world (fallout, stalker, etc) and linear versions (hl, metro, etc) of some post-apocalyptic dystopia…and understandably, since I’ve somewhat of a love affair with the subject matter…

    …but apparently this is not at all true with westerns (my other favorite setting) for some reason…I can derive no joy from the COJ series whatsoever. Silly, almost to the point of slapstick, is how I remember BiB…

    …I’ve heard RDR got it right, but I’ll never know. Fell out of love with the joystick years ago.

    Anywho, this sounds like more of the same. I’ll pass.

  30. Flammablezeus says:

    Does this game have basic in-game options for FoV, AA, separate audio sliders? Able to rebind keys? Come on this is a PC site, isn’t it? These are basics to know about before diving in. I don’t want another Darkness 2 where I end up with an unchangeable FoV of 45 until months later.

    • Shooop says:

      One of the people from Techland is on the Steam forums taking questions about the game and people have brought up FOV a few times.

      If it doesn’t have some kind of adjustment it’ll be a hard sell.

  31. Shooop says:

    Oh and good news on top of all this, no U-play. But it does however use Steamworks.

    So maybe bad news for anyone who wants it DRM-free.

    And the default FOV is atrocious. No word on if they’ll have a way to adjust it yet. Techland employee talking about the game on the Steam forum:

    http://steamcommunity.com/app/204450/discussions/0/810924134051648630/

  32. LennyLeonardo says:

    Can anyone confirm whether this game has hammer fanning? I mean the shooting thing, not Dakota’s 80′s action movie hero older brother.

  33. frakk3d says:

    I hate to be a spelling Nazi but no one else has so here goes: it’s actually grisly not grizzly. The first means something horrific and the second is a type of bear.

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