Also On: PSN, PC
Call of Juarez isn’t a series that evokes a sense of quality for most nowadays. Despite an excellent second entry with Bound in Blood, the last title to bear the series name was called The Cartel, and is something best forgotten. So maybe that’s why Gunslinger, this digital only release for Xbox Live Arcade, PSN, and PC hasn’t seen a lot of marketing from Ubisoft. But that’s honestly a shame, considering it’s one of the better single player first person shooters in recent years.
You take on the role of a bounty hunter by the name of Silas Greaves, battle weary and well known, enough so that his exploits fill the pages of dime novels well-read by bar patrons and young men throughout the west. After being recognized during a stop in a small town, Silas decides to set the story straight on a number of his adventures, narrating the majority of the stages that make up the campaign portion of the game. His adventures weave in and out of reality, often touching on real events or people, and his interactions with them. This historical referencing calls on a number of well-known individuals from the Wild West, including Billy the Kid and Jesse James.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger handles this historical stamping better than another Ubisoft property did earlier in the year with Assassins Creed III. It also plays up the thought that Silas might be exaggerating certain events, to the point that entire sections of the game will be replayed from a corrected perspective, or the rare occasion where enemies will actually change as Silas adjusts his own memory. It’s a neat little idea that gets played with just enough in the narration to make it feel unique but not overplayed. And the historical context of Silas’ travels is played off of in a way that doesn’t contradict history but actually feels believable.
Where Gunslinger really shines though is the excellent gameplay that comprises the 5 to 6 hours of content found in the campaign mode. The entire game is based around a scoring system, where every kill nets you a certain number of points, boosted by headshots, killing foes behind cover, or chaining together kills quickly in order to multiply your score. You can keep your multiplier alive by destroying other objects, like explosive barrels or pumpkins. Skilled players will be able to keep a score streak alive far longer than what seems readily possible, and online leaderboards give you a reason to keep improving as you compete against your friends list or the rest of the world.
Gunplay is also really satisfying, despite a relatively low level of variety in weapon types. Silas will use a standard six shooter, shotgun, and rifle at various points, with small variants between the three categories, like the long-barreled pistol or the sawed-off rifle. But firing each weapon, and the subsequent bodily harm and mayhem produced, is 100 percent satisfying throughout. The majority of the time spent in Gunslinger’s world is pure action, with constant shootouts against numerous foes as you push forward from one end of the stage to the other.
It’s also a really great looking experience, adopting a comic book style presentation and design applied to both the world and characters. The only annoyance to stem from this is the forced wide-screen effect that gives black bars to the top and bottom of the screen regardless of screen ratio, something that is mildly distracting throughout the game. But for a digital title priced at $15, I found myself continually impressed with what I saw, especially considering that this didn’t have the luxury of existing assets like the similarly released Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon.
Along with that, Call of Juarez has a fantastic soundtrack accompanying the action of the campaign. It’s hard to directly compare it to anything, it’s not actively trying to rip off Ennio Morricone or any other western style theme, but it also fits this world extremely well. And the voice acting for Silas and the rest of the cast is great, a definite plus considering how much narration Silas provides over top of the stages at various points.
Besides the well-structured campaign, there are two optional modes to check out. One is called Duels, incorporating the equivalent of Gunslinger’s boss fights into a distilled platform, allowing you to face off with historical opponents found or referenced in the campaign. This is a very Red Dead Revolver-like mechanic, giving you the option to focus on an enemy opponent in a man to man standoff, forcing a reticule to stay in place while the enemy positions themselves, improving your overall focus for when it comes time to take a shot. At the same time you can use the opposing analog stick to advance your right hand towards the butt of your pistol, improving speed on the draw so you pull faster. Duels mode distills this into a five life scenario against 15 opponents, featuring a standalone leaderboard.
There’s also an Arcade mode present, which gives you bite-sized stages based on campaign locations to shoot it out with waves of enemies. This mode is all about chain kills and high scores, more so than the story-laden campaign. There’s a scoring system in place for each stage, with three possible gold stars to obtain. This mode also forces you to select a starting loadout based on the pistol, rifle, shotgun trifecta, with unlockable skills that can be obtained if certain score goals are met. I wish that some of the scoring requirements for skill unlocks and stars were a little more transparent here, but overall it’s a great mode if you’re looking for something purely score driven.
All in all I found myself really impressed by what Call of Juarez: Gunslinger brought to the table. It took a series name fouled by a recent entry and essentially turned it into a respectable property once again, without completely abandoning the setting or tone found in earlier titles. It also made me realize that Ubisoft really has a great idea in place here between Gunslinger and Blood Dragon, the thought that a single player focused FPS can still be viable and fun, albeit in a digital space. If we can come to expect this of other FPS titles that don’t want to be bogged down by half-baked multiplayer mechanics, opting to go the digital route to save money in production, then I’m definitely OK with it provided we continue to see quality releases like Call of Juarez: Gunslinger.