Release Date: May 21, 2013
I’ve always had a soft spot for Westerns. One of my all time favorite films remains one of my childhood favorites – 1993’s Tombstone. The gunfights, the one-liners, the larger than life characters all created an indelible interest in a genre that had long since waned from mainstream appeal. Indeed to be a big fan of Westerns necessitates being a fan of classic cinema, and as a film student in college I was afforded lots of opportunities to dive into the worlds of Sergio Leone and John Wayne.
Despite a brief resurgence in the late 80s and early 90s, Westerns have become a rare breed, and rarer still among gaming. You can probably count the number of Western-setting games made in the last ten years on one or two hands, making magnum opus’ like Red Dead Redemption all the more special (Side Note: Red Dead Redemption might be my favorite game of the last 15 years).
Part of the problem with those few Western games is that they are almost all exclusively shooters, and the guns of the era don’t lend themselves to a whole lot of variety. I’m personally not crazy about first person shooters in general; I enjoy the BioShock series much more for the story-telling than the gameplay, and I stopped trying to keep up with most competitive shooters years ago (I do enjoy the occasional cooperative romp, like Evolve).
Thus I’d never given the Call of Juarez series a chance, and even less so when the previous entry abandoned its Western setting for a modern one (yawn). Gunslinger was released in 2013 as a shorter spin-off and was lauded for its polished gameplay and humorously unreliable narrator. I was intrigued at the low cost of entry, both the literal cost and the relatively short length, and wanted to give it a try.
Gunslinger tells the story of Silas Greaves, an old bounty hunter that regales his tales of adventure (and mass murder) to a table of bar patrons. Silas reveals that he and his brothers were left for dead by a gang of outlaws, and as the sole survivor he went down a dark path of vengeance and blood – which pretty much sounds like the story hook of most Westerns and video games in general.
Silas’ adventures take him to just about every classic Western location you could think of – from Apache-filled canyons to trains, steamboats, mountain passes, dynamite-filled caves and of course, classic small town shoot-outs. Each level offers a fun new location and while the graphics engine isn’t necessarily the prettiest, developer Techland gets a lot of mileage out of the vast expanses and gorgeous vistas that dominate most backdrops.
Missions are short and sweet, mostly clocking in at maybe 30 minutes. Exploration is minimal and most of the time is spent simply following the obvious paths laid about before you, dispatching waves of gun-toting outlaws and bandits. Gameplay is very similar to those on-rails light gun arcade games as enemies pop up out of cover. A concentration bar can be used to slow down the action in a classic ‘bullet time’ effect, painting targets red and making many of the more chaotic sections much more bearable.
Silas is limited to carrying his revolvers and either a shotgun or rifle. Variety in guns is not a strong suit for most Western games (though Red Dead Redemption performed admirably). Revolvers come in three varieties, letting you choose whether you prefer range, accuracy or rate of fire, while I found the rifle vastly superior to the 2-barrel shotgun in nearly every situation.
Since every game has to have some sort of RPG-like progression system, Gunslinger lets you level up and put skill points into three separate trees (with two paths each), focusing on either revolvers, rifles or shotguns. New custom guns can be unlocked and many skills help rack up the combo points as well as enable perks like carrying more ammo and reloading faster. I went with the rifle skills first as long range combat seemed like the best way to go most of the time (other than occasionally spelunking in caves).
Even on Normal mode Silas can’t take a whole lot of hits, and goes down pretty quick. I had to replay quite a few sections, and some multiple times just to survive. Many climactic moments have you surrounded by a dozen or more enemies and missing a shot or two can be fatal. A few gatling gun boss sections also leave little room for error. Thankfully checkpoints are frequent and easy; I never had any complaints after dying and starting almost right where I died.
One of my favorite features were in the collectibles. Silas can find Nuggets of Truth hidden around the world, and since each level is fairly linear finding them is pretty easy. These Secrets reveal little three or four page stories on various famous historical figures, gangs and places that Silas runs into during his storied adventures. I stopped and read every single one of them. Hats off to the developer, as they were fun and informative addition.
Of course our anti-hero ends up running into just about every famous Western hero and outlaw you’ve ever heard of. His career as a bounty hunter tasks him with taking on the Cowboys and Johnny Ringo, the Jesse James gang, the Dalton Brothers and even a climatic Mexican standoff with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Gunslinger could’ve easily painted a contrived story inserting all these famous characters and narratives willy-nilly, but I found it maintained a nice balance of homage and loving respect for the genre, and built upon the real world stories to insert Silas into them in clever and not entirely reality-breaking ways. Kind of how Forrest Gump ended up at a lot of famous events – Silas Greaves is the Forrest Gump of Western heroes.
The concept of an unreliable narrator isn’t new, but it’s used in some fun ways, including the classic “I just wanted to see if you were paying attention” moment. Silas’ stories get a little too outlandish for our bar patrons, and when they call him out he sometimes recants, and things magically change before your eyes. It’s also used to occasionally hinder or provide progress (“Suddenly, I spotted a ladder”). It’s a lot of fun thanks to some great voice acting, and Silas is a surprisingly deep character.
Call of Juarez Gunslinger is only about six hours long, and even then you could easily finish faster if you are good at first person shooters and didn’t care about collecting the Nuggets of Truth. With gameplay that’s little more involved than a light gun arcade game the real strengths lie in the Western theme, which permeates every facet of the game, from the famous characters to the tired tropes to the wonderfully varied but still thematically appropriate level design. Gunslinger could be a tougher game to recommend if you don’t know your spaghetti Westerns from your John Wayne flicks, but for Western fans and those that enjoy a more narrative-focused shooter it’s a surprisingly rewarding treat.
- Western themes are used to their utmost potential
- Silas’ narration is fun, funny and a neat way to anchor the story
- Collectibles offer rewarding and fun historical lessons and stories
- Short length and frequent location changes helps keep the limited gameplay fresh
- Basic gameplay doesn’t evolve that much over the course of the game
- Shotguns seem woefully inept next to rifles