The lights are on
The notorious outlaw Pat Garret stands twenty paces in front of me. As my eye focuses in on his wide frame, my hand moves ever-so-slightly closer to the six-shooter strapped to my leg. My heartbeat is audible; time seems to slow down. My enemy draws his pistol in the blink of an eye. Being an honorable gunfighter, I let him draw first -- but I'm quicker than he is... more focused. Before he even has the chance to bring his gun level, I have pulled my own and a white-hot slug has caught the villain right between the eyes. I holster my sidearm with a flourish and move on in search of my next quarry.
This is but one of many moments that sets Call of Juarez: Gunslinger apart from all of the other corridor-shooters on the market.
Gunslinger, a $15 downloadable game available for PS3, 360, and PC, is the fourth entry in the Call of Juarez series. Whereas the previous game, Call of Juarez: The Cartel, had shifted the franchise's setting to a modern-day Mexico embroiled in a drug-war, Gunslinger smartly returns to Call of Juarez's Old-West roots. Developed by Techland (Dead Island, Dead Island: Riptide), and published by Ubisoft, the game was built using Chrome Engine 5.
While it's not the most visually stunning game, the Chrome Engine (which was previously used in both Dead Island games, as well as The Cartel) does a more than serviceable job in Gunslinger. Environments are rich with detail, such as flocks of birds flying in the background or tumbleweeds ambling hither and thither. Brightly colored enemy models not only help to make targets stand out against the generally muted green and brown backgrounds, but they also work well with the game's cel-shaded art style. The sound design is also above average: ambient noises add an extra layer of depth to the environment, and each weapon has its own satisfying pop.
Though the story is never truly engrossing, it isn't particularly bad either. The protagonist, Silas Greeves, is a grizzled old bounty hunter in search of his brothers' murderers. Campaign missions play out as a series of recollections Greeves divulges to the patrons of a bar in Abilene, Texas in 1910. The voice-over work is done particularly well, and helps to add a bit of credence to the otherwise drab revenge tale. A handful of big-name cowboys make their appearance throughout the game, from Billy the Kid to Butch Cassidy and Sundance, and the narrative plays off of the old "tall-tale" paradigm. Collectible "Nuggets of Truth" are scattered about the levels, each offering an insight into the actual history of the events that play out onscreen.
Gameplay is varied enough throughout the campaign (which clocked in at a little under six hours) to keep things fresh. Players can switch between playstyles frequently, opting for one of three tactics: the ranged-weapon specialist, the close-quarters brawler, or the dual-wielding skirmisher. As players kill enemies experience is earned and can then be used to purchase upgrades from among three skill-trees, each designed to enhance one type of fighting style. Killing enemies in quick succession or shooting random objects scattered about the environment, such as bottles or pumpkins, raises an XP multiplier and skillful kills, such as headshots or killing a running enemy, are awarded with higher XP totals. The game's controls are tight with a standard Call of Duty-esque button layout (I played on PC using an Xbox 360 Controller), which works well with the time-sensitive combo meter. Series staple bullet time also makes an appearance, and is incredibly useful when the game throws several enemies at you in quick succession.
Quick-time events occur frequently to keep gunplay from getting monotonous. Say what you will about QTEs, but I found their implementation in this title to be executed well and I thought they added to the overall experience. End-of-level encounters are varied as well; sometimes you'll be pitted against a boss -- essentially one of the normal types of enemies, but with a larger HP bar -- and sometimes you'll be faced with a real Old West style high-noon gunfight.
Gunfights are tricky affairs, requiring the player to multi-task in order to be successful. The player must keep an aiming reticle over the enemy in order to increase accuracy when it comes time to shoot, while at the same time they must keep their own hand held steadily over their gun to achieve as quick a draw-time as possible - all while keeping an eye on your opponent to watch for when he draws his gun (if you're like the original Han, you can shoot first if you want to, but it'll be considered a dishonorable victory and you'll be awarded fewer experience points).
Separate game modes allow you to race through single-player levels with predefined loadouts in order to achieve the highest score, or to replay gunfights in an increasingly difficult ladder of enemies. The game features online leaderboards for each of these modes, so friends and strangers alike can compete for the highest scores.
All in all, Gunslinger succeeds as a shooter. Though on the surface it may appear as nothing more than a standard corridor-based FPS (complete with exploding barrels), it has plenty of character and several smart design decisions to make it stand out from the crowd. With a substantial amount of content (including a New Game Plus mode), the price is certainly right. So far, it would seem 2013 is shaping up to be the year of the above-average 15 dollar shooter. Let's hope this trend continues, not only throughout the rest of this year, but perhaps even into the next console generation.
*This review was originally published at AWESOMEoutof10.com
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