It’s back to the Old West for Call of Juarez, following an ill-advised visit to the drug-fuelled foul-mouthed world of today that every one of us recognised in The Cartel. It was a documentary of our times, like looking out of the window, but Gunslinger returns to the escapist mythopoeic dust of the Old American West and it might just have enough aces up its cowhide sleeve to erase all memory of its immediate predecessor.
Guns will be slung, that’s for sure. In the tutorial level that formed the live demonstration I watched at Ubisoft’s ‘Digital Day’ yesterday at least a hundred men must have been shot down in what was an astounding display of violence: barrels, conveniently loaded with TNT, sent bodies pirouetting through the air; bullets punched through fence posts and then straight through the gut of the lawmen cowering behind. It’s almost a shooting gallery with targets popping up so thick and fast that the revolver has to function like an automatic weapon to put them all down, and unlockable skill trees do allow for lightning fast reloads.
Somewhere along its route back to the ghost towns and gold mines of the wild frontier, Juarez seems to have picked up a few tips from Bulletstorm and The Club. Stringing combos together sees experience points and words floating out of the dead – “headshot”, one might say, or “running kill” as a fleeing gun for hire is shot in the back. Those experience points allow the player to purchase skills, including a hammer reload option that causes rapid button-pressing to throw bullets into the chamber at an impossible rate. The ‘concentration’ mode is back as well, slowing the action, but that’s a skill that doesn’t need to be unlocked and recharges with each kill.
There’s another meter to charge as well, taking the form of a pair of lucky dice. Called ‘sense of death’ it’s a literal lifesaver, causing any potentially lethal bullet to trigger that same slow motion, although this time to perform a dodge. The bullet hangs in the air for a second and it’s possible to lean to one side or the other in an attempt to survive with nothing more than a graze. Absolutely ludicrous but in a way that suits the game’s arcade sensibilities. It looks to be a very silly and entertaining take on the well-worn tales of the West and the most interesting feature is directly related to the storytelling rather than the gunslinging.
As well as Bulletstorm, I wouldn’t be surprised if Bastion has been the talk of Techland in recent times. The story shows both sides of the law, in and out, but all from the perspective of a single character who spends the game sitting in a saloon rather than wandering the trails, gun in hand. A crowd gathers around the old-timer as he tells his shaggy dog stories, including the tutorial, which tells how he was side by side with Billy the Kid when the young upstart was hiding out in a farmhouse, under siege by Pat Garrett and an army of hastily recruited bounty hunters.
When you meet these legendary characters in game their traits flash up on the screen as the world becomes a saturated cartoon, more Borderlands than Badlands, fitting with the graphical style of the cutscenes that show the saloon and its motley denizens. They chip in from time to time, interrupting the story as you play it. This doesn’t stop the action, it just cuts into the flow of the gruff narrative and it’s the main character’s voiceover – and the occasional dialogue between him and his listeners - that hooked me more than the admirably overblown violence.
I could be mistaken but I immediately made a connection between this grizzled drunkard’s tales of glory and the unfeasible events that take place in the actual levels. He’s bullshitting, right? Did he ride with Jesse James and later turn bounty hunter and bring in some of the most famous names of that time? Did he really kill more men than the bubonic plague? These are heavily embellished memories or outright lies, just as much as a make-believe modern war, and I hope that the writing and concept are sharp enough to play with that idea. As it is, the tutorial level seems to show that the narration will react to the player’s actions, whether he chooses one route or another, and the approach he takes to certain fights.
It helps that the voice acting for the lead is strong, although the supporting cast aren’t quite as convincing. An inquisitive youngster in particular is a little too reedy, but maybe that can’t be helped when he’s locked in dialogue with a man who quite possibly gargles with gravel every morning after downing a bottle of sour mash whiskey to break his fast.
The release date is Q1 2013 so hopefully it won’t be too long before we’re allowed to play for ourselves, but Gunslinger already looks like a step in the right direction for Juarez (not difficult considering its last entry), although the combos and kill streaks make it something different, not simply a return to yesteryear’s Western. I expect it to be a lean game, all muscle, gristle and lead, compact and tight. There’s a weight to the shooting, a declaration of the power of the gun in a land in which it was law, and the way that the fairly small introductory map transitions smoothly between objectives – defend, assault, escape – is impressive.
Also impressive is the reasoning behind releasing the game only in digital format, which doesn’t mean a great deal from a PC perspective but means it will be less than ‘full’ price on consoles, appearing on PSN and XBLA. Whether that reflects on the size of the game we won’t know until we have a better idea of how much is included, but when asked we were told that the decision had been made because there was no desire to add a multiplayer mode or any other girth that would distract the team from making the best version of the single player campaign possible.
Based on the short section shown, it’s possible that Gunslinger will attract the sort of folk who enjoy score attack modes and the plotting of perfect routes and aim, but there are also likely to be slower paced levels ahead. It’s an intriguing and unexpected game though, and if the narrative has half as much playfulness as I’m hoping, should entertain even a lackadaisical trigger-finger like my own.