The art of storytelling is something which the games industry has struggled with since its inception, but of late we do seem to be getting quite a bevy of narrative led games showing us all how it’s meant to be done and experimenting with new techniques. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is going to reach the heights of Uncharted 2 or BioShock Infinite, but at its core it’s still relating a story to you in a nice and playful fashion.
As Silas Greaves walks into a bar in the old West, he’s quickly corralled by a handful of strangers into retelling some of his stories from his long career as a bounty hunter. You won’t have heard of Silas, he’s a fictional creation, but throughout his story you’ll be bumping into real outlaws and lawkeepers such as Billy the Kid, John Wesley Hardin, Pat Garrett, Bob Ollinger (and his 10 gauge shotgun) and the rest of a list as long as your arm.
One of the neat tricks with this game is that it’s all narrated as you play, but Silas is clearly quite far from being a reliable narrator, setting himself in events which are already clouded by time and folklore. He has his particular version of events, but these aren’t necessarily to be trusted, and at times the small audience to whom he’s telling his tales to will jump in with their own ideas.
You might be battling against Apache Indians on a ridge, as the kid remembers what he read in a dime novel, but Greaves cuts in to correct the story and pull it back to his own version of events. The game winds back, and you’ll instead be fighting against “Old Man” Clanton’s gang, The Cowboys. You might be put into seemingly impossible situations, before Silas’ narrative gives you a helping hand with a healthy dose of deus ex machina.
It’s quite a fun twist, and makes for a nice change from more serious plot lines in other games, which is echoed by the art style and arcade game trappings. I found the game surprisingly vivid and vibrant, and though it will have healthy doses of muddy browns, it still manages to feel quite colourful. A lot of the time that will be the red of blood spurting out of enemies, but there’s also plenty of greenery in the vegetation, the crystal blue skies, and your enemies are more than happy to don colourful clothing. This is all amidst a light sprinkling of cel shading effects, adding barely noticeable black borders to many objects, for a more stylised look.
The gunslinging itself is pretty much as you would expect. You can wade into battle with an assortment of revolvers, rifles and shotguns, building up your Concentration Mode levels until you can slow time, and rattle off a bunch of deadly shots in quick succession.
You will obviously get hit by bullets, and these tie back into the art style, tearing holes in your field of view as your screen turns red. As with practically every shooter these days, that just means you want to go and hunker down behind a bit of cover for a while. There is another new addition, however, where fatal bullets coming right for your noggin will trigger your Sense of Death, making time momentarily slow so you can twitch your analogue stick out of the way in a bit of a Bullet Time homage.
During combat, as you hit enemies, you’ll have Action RPG style points popping up on screen as you pop heads. You might get 150 points for a headshot, or a bonus 100 points for a long range kill, and it all mounts up and multiplies as you chain successful shots. Get more points and you’ll level up, letting you pick skills from three paths, to augment the style of play which you’ve gone for. These will let you better your skills when dual-wielding pistols, rifle shooting, or assist you when you get up close and personal with a shotgun. It’s a nice little bit of cross-pollination of ideas from Techland’s other major franchise, Dead Island.
The points tally isn’t just for levelling up though, and at the end of each level you’ll be given a detailed run down of how you did, with the time it took you, headshots, multipliers, and so forth. This neatly ties into the Arcade Mode, which gives you a series of challenges, taking short routes through the main single player levels, packing them with enemies, and setting you the task of completing them as best you can against the clock.
The arcade level I got to play wasn’t too tricky to finish, and it was very compelling to try it a few times, improving with each go, but getting a two or three star rating at the end of it all was still way beyond me. This could be quite addictive…
Yet, the arcade mode really only manages to highlight a single facet of the game, the corridor-style shooting. The first three levels of the single player show a lot more variety, and thanks to the narration kept things fresh and varied. I was ambushed and I was the ambusher, I was besieged defending a stage coach and I attacked a defended hill, I ran through caverns and leapt across rooftops.
The levels kept me on my toes, but most will end up landing you in a rather familiar situation. A duel, the staple of any good Wild West game, with a tense and twitchy few moments as two opponents size each other up waiting for the moment to draw. The left stick controls your left hand’s placement, hovering over the gun holstered by your leg for a quicker draw, whilst you try to track your enemy with the right stick building up your focus level and going for a more accurate shot.
You can always draw first, and go for a dishonourable kill, but the real fun is in waiting for the flick of a hand, drawing, and shooting your enemy perfectly. Something which is, as with everything else, tracked and scored for the leaderboards.
As a digital release, this game looks like it’s going to hit a lot of the right notes. It has everything you would expect from a Wild West shooter, but it marries that with some more arcade based mechanics and a lovely style of storytelling we don’t often see. A playfulness which has even leaked into the loading screen hints and tips.
Not many people know this, but apparently, “Smashing Start before the level has loaded was considered dishonorable behaviour in the old West.”
Call of Juarez is set to reach PSN, XBLA and PC on the 22nd of May, at a price of £11.99 or 1200 MS points, depending on the store. You could even pre-order the PC version on this link, if you’re so inclined!