FBT gets into the rootinest, tootinest, ragingest game seen in those parts for nigh on a season oldtimer, then goes watch Young Guns.
Call of Juarez has had the weirdest franchise narrative. The first featured two playable characters in a converging western storyline where one tried to solve murders that the other was hunting him for. The prequel Bound in Blood explained the backstory with backstabbing in every cut-scene. Cartel leapt into the present day and centred on three protagonists in an incoherent co-op storyline where they all double-crossed each other. Will Gunslinger finally explain what Juarez keeps calling about?
Sometime in the early 1900s, an ornery old coot ambles into the Bull's Head Saloon and a young man excitedly recognises him as Silas Greaves, the infamous bounty hunter from his Dime novels. The bar patrons take a knee as Silas relives his legendary career, almost at an end – one more bounty and he’s done.
We open on Silas’ involvement with none other than Billy the Kid. Silas reveals he was one of Billy’s Regulators, helped them escape Pat Garett and won a quick-draw with Bob Ollinger. Thing is, if you’re a student of western lore (or a fan of Young Guns), you know Silas’ stories don’t smell right; the locations, folks and events happened, but not the way Silas tells it, and not with him the hero. One of Billy’s most famous killings was Ollinger (With his own shogun). Silas also recalls how he became a bounty hunter; as a younger man, he and his two brothers were lynched for their money. He survived, the brothers didn’t. Silas swore vengeance and as he hunted the robbers, he fell into bounty hunting and became the legend, driven by hate as the men continued to elude him.
Visually, Gunslinger is close to Darkness II – hyper saturated and hard edged, to reflect Dwight’s dime novels, and the kills have a comic-book look. But it doesn’t forget it’s western cinema influences. The levels recall the romantic imagery of the old west although there’s no involvement the way Gun or Red Dead attempted, it’s practically a rail shooter and you have one mission goal – reach your bounty through a slew of bandits, outlaws, rustlers, robbers, fugitives … I can’t think of any other words to describe bad guys in westerns.
The cowboys we hunt use the terrain well, hidden in bushes or behind rocks and while there’s only three variations, who look like a ZZ Top cover band, they not pushovers – Some prefer running straight towards your muzzle like the psychos of Borderlands (another game whose aesthetic it shares), and letting them get too close is dangerous; they’re dangerous at a distance too but there’s a bullettime where Silas moves faster and enemies are highlighted. That doesn’t make it easier, just a lot more frantic. It might actually be one of the better examples of bullettime, you have an edge not a get out of jail button press. There’s also super-bullettime called Sense of Death. When near death, and assuming it’s not a hail of bullets or dynamite that’s about to take Silas down, everything will slow to the speed of a bullet and you’ll see the kill shot come flying at you. You have a second to move Silas and it’ll either skim past or hit him in the face, and there’s also nice standoff moments where hitting the right keys will make Silas quick-draw his way out. In some of the more brutal fights it all happens at once and coupled with the general frenzy of the fights and the bloody messes you make of the cowboys, it’s all pretty intense. Gameplay wise, Gunslinger is up there; the fights aren't for the greenhorns, it's brutal and unforgiving, even after leveling up - although level ups don't mean the cowpokes become cowboys, they're constantly a Nightmare mode. Once you level up you have three skill trees dedicated to pistol, shotgun and rifle – He can only carry two at a time though, you’d think a grizzled bounty hunter could manage a third. It's great fun though, Silas kicks ass. You can see why the bar patrons are enjoying his tales. At least the believable ones.
As Silas continues his story, the patrons become suspicious of his escapades. They point out inconsistencies, question the claims Silas makes and the sheer luck that the bounty hunter seems to keep having; and the game doesn’t seem to believe him either.
When questioned, Silas’ mastery of storytelling comes to the fore. When the patrons rubbish his doubtful tales, he corrects them for assuming elements of his story; when one scoffs that a bounty of his is still alive, he retorts with ‘I didn’t say he died did I?’ – well, no but … and then they reappear alive, having strangely survived - brilliantly, the game reworks itself to match his story; He mentions being surrounded by Apaches and we’re in the middle of shooting dozens of them when we hear someone point out they were never even in that area and Silas says he meant they fought like Apaches – suddenly they all respawn as ZZ Top. In another he claims to have gotten out of a dead end after finding a body with dynamite – but there isn't one ... and then a body drops from the sky in front of him. Once, we battled through an explosive-laden mine, carefully lining up shots to hit cowboys not dynamite but eventually it all goes off and we’re running through tunnels and just as it seems Silas has talked himself into a corner he says, ‘but I realised the futility of that plan’ and the game spins all the way back to the beginning and we replay a more believable route. Everyone tuts, but Silas just carries on, as his story gets closer to his final, personal bounty.
Silas also plays with gaming conventions. Several times he’s trapped until he does an action; kills everyone, stops something happening etc., and then says ‘then I noticed a ladder that had escaped my attention’ or ‘I noticed an escape route’ and the game quickly places them there. There's sly nods to gaming clichés, such as pointing out how is he carrying dynamite and not getting blown to smithereens when shot - Or constantly surviving getting shot? He also has some cracking death lines, dryly saying things like “I just needed to jump to the cliff *I jump only to fall off* assuming I don’t fall off.” Alright smartarse. I wondered if they were actually scripted fails they’re so well done. You can also find ‘nuggets’ which unlock the real stories behind Silas’ tales. You’re not going to read them, but they carry hefty XP so it’s worth tracking them down. All of this self-awareness though, even with Silas’ unreliable narrator act isn’t quite enough to hold it all together; there’s a serious threat under Silas’ genial nature, like he’s giving them all this hokum to disarm the patrons, play up the harmless old soak routine. You imagine one of his rapt audience is his final bounty but we never see them other than in brief dime novel stills and not being involved in those scenes drains the tension. The episodic, arcade nature doesn't help either; Silas and his wily ways does, but the story doesn't follow through. Had it been a mystery where each chapter gave you the opportunity to reveal something about their identity or clues to narrow down the suspects and we cut back to a tension-filled Saloon where we could question or call them out like some Western edition of Cluedo it could have married it all up but you’re just not invested in Silas' final reckoning.
Gunslinger even manages to do the good old red in’juns about right. One mission has him tracking ‘Grey Wolf’ an Apache whose tribe is causing trouble. After an epic battle, a cornered Grey Wolf points out Silas’ revenge is consuming him, which causes Silas to pause and Grey Wolf escapes; Stricken by his words, Silas gives up saying he realised it was an unfair bounty considering what the Apaches have been through. Take note, Gun. We catch a glimpse of Grey Wolf passing behind a tree – from which a real wolf emerges. Nice touch.
By now Silas has tangled with every famous outlaw in western history; and what an annoying tangle it is. Once you’ve reached a gunslinger of note, the game goes into a stand-off. Using the mouse, you focus your concentration - which inexplicably wanders; if I was facing John Wesley Hardin who killed 40+ men including one for snoring, I’d keep my eye on him. You then have to use two keys to constantly keep Silas’ hand above the gun ready to draw. It becomes the gamer equivalent of pat your head and rub your tummy. Why am fighting Silas’ compulsion to put his hands in his pockets? You can’t watch the percentage of gun grabbing at the same time as keep your eye on your opponent; one will drift. Then once they shot you have to dodge left or right to avoid their shots and keep the gaze on target and you have fire once to pull your gun then again to fire – if he’s not been distracted by something. It’s rage-inducing. You can cheat, pulling before they do but that gets you a Dishonourable kill and zero XP. But it’s worth it, stand-offs are annoying enough to sacrifice XP. Later stand-offs get harder until even cheating won’t do it. It really is something that your heart sinks at the sight of a shoot-out in a western.
Eventually, Silas’ revenge sends him spiralling into increasingly outlandish stories and the game takes on a beautifully surreal edge – at one point he excuses himself and the game repeats the same sequence as we hear the patrons pick apart his legend until he returns; to confront none other than both Butch and Sundance. The man he wants is supposedly part of their posse. We face off and … enter a double stand-off. Not only am I trying to juggle concentration and gun-hand and anticipate a draw but I have to flick between the two of them to work out which will shoot first; that’s another set of keys. To recap, two keys to gauge where the hand should go, two more keys to switch between opponents, and move the mouse to keep him focused. Silas may be the fastest hand in the west but even he doesn’t have three of them. And I have to re-concentrate each time I switch while the gun-hand makes like Thing and takes off and when one does fire I have dodge and fire back AND flick to the other opponent and dodge his bullets while - Or not. That’s four keys, two places to look (three if you can’t touch type) in two QT sequences plus some surgical mouse-movement and timed clicking. And, the story just made clear they were now enemies and he only needed one of them alive. Just let them have the quick-draw and interrogate the other! I just get so angry with it, so annoyed I crash out and never go back. Rage Quit.
So I never found out if Silas was telling the truth, if he got his vengeance, if any of it was true. And that’s really annoying. Silas was great company and I’m really aggravated I didn’t get to see how his story ended because of idiotic over-complicated controls. I don’t know if it’s easier on a console and I don’t care; all the imagination and subversion in this story, the bullettime, quick-shots and Sense of Death and they couldn’t save one for the quick-draw or come up with something else? At the very least, Gunslinger could have worked like Gat Out of Hell or Blood Dragon, a subversive companion to the main series, but it’s an Add without an On and the quickdraw ruins an otherwise brilliant game that could have stood on it's own. Why can't PC Gamers have a good western? I loved this game until it went all button-mash.
A narrative thread throughout the JoC games has been betrayal, and this time I feel betrayed. I’m ignoring Juarez’s Call.
2013 | Developer Techland | Publisher Ubisoft
platforms; win | PS3 | X360