The 'Western' is a strange genre. It has played host to some of the best games in history and yet, much like its cinematic counterpart, it could never claim to be a prolific genre for any medium. However when it comes to the Wild West, few periods can rival the legends seen by post Civil War America and it is here that the latest instalment in the Call of Juarez series finds itself sitting very comfortably.
This particular tale begins in Abilene, Kansas,1910 where aged bounty hunter Silas Greaves has just ridden into town. Upon arriving at the local saloon, Silas begins to tell tales of his life as a legendary bounty hunter to the townsfolk. However it soon becomes apparent that Silas is more than prone to exaggeration, as some of his tales are remembered differently by the saloon’s patrons.
What makes this such a fantastic game mechanic is that you play these tall tales as both he and some of townsfolk remembers them. For example, one mission is remembered differently by two other members of the saloon and the player gets to experience all three versions as the chapter progresses. Other missions see changes occur as you play based on Silas (or others) confusing fact with fiction. It's a very interesting way for the narrative to unfold and ultimately serves as Gunslinger's greatest strength, allowing at least some forgiveness for its weaknesses.
The Call of Juarez franchise has seen a rocky patch in recent years with its failed attempt to modernise in 2011's Call of Juarez: The Cartel. In an attempt to salvage the franchise and repair the damage done by The Cartel, developer Techland has taken Call of Juarez back to its roots, not only putting the player back in the Wild West but also keeping its themes pertinent to this era. Call of Juarez: The Gunslinger is very much the story of one man, albeit a story told from several perspectives, and it makes for a much more low key, personal tale.
One big difference here is that The Gunslinger is the first title in the series to be downloadable only. It is clear that this has been considered throughout the development process as it plays somewhat different to its predecessors. It simply feels more like an arcade game. The story is not so deep that it can't be put down and dipped into whenever you feel the need and the overall structure is way more linear. But this should in no way be seen as a negative. If anything this new structure is a welcome one and allows the franchise to operate in a new and interesting way.
Becoming a download only title was not this franchise’s only major change however. One of the biggest differences straight from the off is The Gunslinger’s new cell-shaded look. Much like Borderlands, the aesthetics are those of a animated and stylised Wild West filled with interesting, atmospheric and diverse areas. Despite some lack of palette diversion occasionally making enemies tough to see, Call of Juarez's new look is another positive change for the franchise and is again in keeping with the game’s new take on the post Civil War America.
However, despite looking slightly similar, Call of Juarez could not differ further from titles like Borderlands when it comes to structure. With each chapter bookended by comic-book art style cut scenes, The Gunslinger's approach is a very linear one. Although this may seem a little outdated at first, the fact that you are playing a story being narrated suspends disbelief just enough to stave off boredom.
However, it is unfortunately the gameplay that holds most of The Gunslinger's flaws. Several glitches and technical issues give the game a lack of polish. The combat, although fun, does get a little repetitive by the end of the seven hour campaign. The AI can also be a little erratic and lacking in common sense on some occasions but the ever present sense of urgency tends to pull focus away from this as the game progresses.
Another element of the gameplay is the return of the franchise's well known Dual system. This is possibly The Gunslinger's biggest stumbling block and unfortunately seems to serve more to frustrate than anything else. The system has once again been reworked from the previous titles and now seems more unpredictable than ever. On several occasions I utilised the same button inputs but was met with wildly different results and the in-game tutorial offers little in the way of help. It simply feels like this part of the game was rushed, which is a real shame as it would of served as a nice way to break up the action, but instead it only succeeds in discouraging the player.
Despite all this, it would be amiss at this point not to mention the stellar voice work on show here. The brash and somewhat 'popcorn movie' feel that surrounds Silas and his tale could have come off as lacking in substance, but instead it finds a great balance between fun and serious that can be hard to capture. This is in no small part due to the performances by the entire cast and for this the game should be commended.
As well as multiple endings, Call of Juarez also offers several additional modes after completion. Although there is no multiplayer, the Arcade mode allows you to play timed, point based stages and compare your times with friends on the leaderboards. This is by far the stand out mode and will keep you coming back over and over to try and 3-Star every stage. Unfortunately the other unlockable mode is based on the game’s duelling system and is therefore an almost completely pointless addition to the package.
When it comes to value for money however, I never felt short changed by Call of Juarez: The Gunslinger. At £10-£12 (dependant on Playstation Plus) the campaign, optional collectables, extra content and replay-ability puts the 100% at around ten hours, but this feels right for the tale being spun here.
When all is said and done, Call if Juarez: The Gunslinger is a fun, engaging and at least in part, original title. With a seven hour campaign and limited but present replay value it's not the longest game or the best value for money available on your format of choice, but it does offer a refreshing distraction to some of the stereotypes plaguing the FPS genre nowadays. If you have a spare few hours and are looking to visit the Wild West, then maybe Silas Greaves' tale is the story you have been looking for.
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