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).