It's weird, really. You'd have thought that after the success of Red Dead Redemption a couple of years ago, developers would have sat up and taken notice. Particularly in the USA, where everyone wears cowboy hats and rides horses. It would have seemed likely that a stampede of rootin' tootin' gun totin' cowboy games would have flooded the market. But no. It just seems like one of those genres that's never really been that popular with gamers.
I mean, sure, we had the fairly fun Lead and Gold: Gangs of the Wild West, and a couple of other old-west themed bits and bobs here and there, but outside of Red Dead, it's really been the domain of the Call of Juarez games. From the original to the Mexican-themed Bound in Blood, Ubisoft and Techland made the questionable decision to try to bring the feel of the Wild West into the modern day with The Cartel. Thankfully, now, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger returns to its nineteenth-century cowboy roots.
And then some! There are really almost no famous cowboy tales and legends that are not referenced in some way or another in Gunslinger. Players take on the role of the bounty hunter Silas Greaves, who is recounting the tall tale of his life to a saloonful of credulous rubes at the dawn of the Twentieth Century, just as the sun is setting on the golden age of desperados. The whole game takes place in the form of these tales, as flashbacks, and it is here that Gunslinger stands apart.
See, Greaves' memory is perhaps not perfect, and he has a tendency to maybe exaggerate a little. Additionally, the listeners to his tales might sometimes chip in (their conversation is heard as a running narrative throughout the gameplay) and the player's actual actions can be derailed by these fantasies. For example, Greaves may mention a time when he considered infiltrating a gang of bullion thieves by sneaking through the caves beneath their hideout, and after exploring the caves for about five or ten minutes, the player is blown from a ledge by a huge explosion, with a mine cart plummeting towards his face. The game stops, and Greaves says “Going in through those tunnels would have been madness. That's why I decided to go the long way around...” and you're immediately transported back to the spot where you entered the cave. It's a clever bit of misdirection that causes you as the player to always question whether what you're doing is truth or some kind of half-remembered musing on the part of the old bounty hunter.
But what else is there? Well, there's a whole lot of shooting, and the aforementioned references to real-life Wild West heroes and villains. Anyone who's anyone in the age of cowboys either gets shot at by Greaves or helps him out in some way or another. Collectible playing cards provide a little passage of back story on these supporting characters for those of us not too up on our desperado tales, but other than that (and a little experience boost), there's not a whole lot of point in straying too far in search of secrets to collect. Because you're going to be doing one thing, a whole lot. And that's shooting guys.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is a first-person shooter of the old school. There's you, guns, ammo, cover and bad guys. That's it. Ladders and openable doors are reluctantly added here and there, but for the most part this is a straight up-and-down shooter. Ammo is rarely in particularly short supply, bundles of dynamite fill in for the obligatory grenades and bad guys swarm out of every nook and cranny on every level. It's strange to hear Silas foreshadow an upcoming villain by saying “they reckon he killed forty-two men, men with families who cared for them...” when he himself shoots over 70 men before the end of the game's opening level. Of course, picking holes in Silas' account is hardly sporting, seeing as it's supposed to be pretty shaky. Actually, the way in which these legendary characters are introduced – usually with a cartoony three-part splash screen – has a vaguely Tarantino-esque feel to it that fits very well with the rest of the game.
Nevertheless, there it is. Pistols (either single or in a pair), shotguns, rifles and sawn-offs make up pretty much your entire arsenal. Aside from a few unlockable power-ups as a result of levelling, there's not a lot in the way of weapon modifications. The level-up bonuses are, for the most part, creative and interesting, each adding something to the way you play (including frantically hammering the reload key in order to cram bullets into your gun more quickly – a personal favourite of mine) but at the end of the day, when you've shot your six hundredth outlaw, there's something a little samey about it. Level design is linear and restrictive – stray off the main street in any town and you'll find yourself in the exact same blacksmith's shop over and over again – and all you tend to do is shoot, and shoot, and shoot. There's a couple of pretty cool (although far from unique) bullet-time features, and a few painful stealth sequences that never really amount to much before descending once again into random bullet-fests. Naturally, there's a kind of high-noon duelling mini-game, but for the vast majority of the game you'll be crouching behind a barrel, popping out to blaze away at all-comers, before moving on to the inevitable next firefight.
Graphically, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger feels a little lazy, but that might be in large part to its console origins. Visuals are portrayed in a bold style that can't really be described as particularly realistic or really stylised. It's somewhere in between. Corners certainly appear to have been cut here and there – the aforementioned cloned blacksmiths for one, and the cardboard cut-out saloons and banks that seem to fill every town in the game as well.
If Call of Juarez: Gunslinger was a freshly-smelted ingot of gold in a South Dakota bank, I would lead a small posse of desperate outlaws to liberate it, then realise that it wasn't quite as shiny as I expected it to be, and would donate it to the poor. Which is a horrible way of saying that it's not the best cowboy game in the world, or even the series. However, the clever way of tying the narrative to the gameplay gave me a couple of approving smiles. Just not perhaps enough to make an average game into a great game.