Call of Juarez: Gunslinger – Xbox 360
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Techland
Release Date: May 22, 2013
Genre: Action, FPS
Reviewed by Arend Hart

Review Score: 5 of 5

Holy cow! Or, maybe I should say “Holy cowboy!”

Gamers might remember Ubisoft’s Call of Juarez as the spaghetti-western themed franchise that had a very short two release period of popularity, before being completely usurped in 2010 by Rockstar’s epic adventure, Red Dead Redemption. There was no question that both franchises had just as many differences as they had similarities, but given the subject matter it was nearly impossible to not compare the two titles against one another. Few would argue that even though the Call of Juarez titles were great fun, that Red Dead Redemption outshined them in just about every way possible.

Polish developer, Techland attempted to move away from the Red Dead Redemption comparisons, and in 2012 took the franchise to a modern-day setting with Call of Juarez: The Cartel. Focusing on the Mexican drug trade, The Cartel instantly became a target for human rights groups citing the title for racial stereotyping and insensitivity towards Latin Americans – it also did not help matters that the gameplay was a veritable train wreck. Many gamers (myself included) figured this change in focus to be the end of the line for the Call of Juarez series, especially given the fact that Techland had a new franchise to put its energy into – their immensely popular MMO/FPS zombie epic Dead Island. But that was not the case, as Techland and Ubisoft have just released Call of Juarez: Gunslinger via the Xbox Live Arcade.

Before I go any further, let’s set the record straight; do not let Gunslinger’s “Arcade” designation and the $15 price point fool you – this is no watered-down cash in on the Call of Juarez namesake. Gunslinger returns the franchise to its Wild West roots, with a fully-featured story-driven experience that takes a slightly different approach to the series’ traditional gameplay, and in turn comes out at the most entertaining and enjoyable Call of Juarez titles to ever hit the consoles.

Call of Juarez veterans need not fret; Gunslinger is exactly what fans have come to expect from the Call of Juarez franchise. The game retains the first person shooter (FPS) perspective and control – in fact I would venture to say that the control has actually been improved with this release, as Gunslinger felt every bit as fast and fluid and smooth as we have come to expect from big-budget blockbusters like Halo. Granted, my prior Call of Juarez experiences have all been on the PS3 (which is not the optimum FPS console), but Gunslinger just felt “right.”

Where Gunslinger blazes new territory is in the new high-energy gameplay – which has been amped up significantly from the earlier releases. Some will call it twitch-based shooting, while others would say “run-and-gun” – regardless of what you call it, Gunslinger is non-stop action from start to finish. There is barely enough time to explore each level for hidden treasures scattered about between the waves of enemy gunfire.

Gamers will have to make their way through dozens of enemies to progress through each of the story’s levels. But don’t let this discourage you – Techland has struck the perfect balance of difficulty and skill, making seemingly overwhelming situations to be both manageable and rewarding. Points are awards (similar to the Borderlands series) which can be traded for augmented skills and powers.

The story is told through the bar room tall tales of the famed Bounty Hunter Silas Greaves. Greaves is spurned by the patrons of the bar to retell his stories (many of which the patrons have read about in dime store novels over the years) of chance encounters with famous Wild West characters like Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Pat Garrett, and many more. Greaves has a knack for telling a good tale and so the gamer is suddenly playing out the scene as it is narrated. The way Techland pulls this all off is absolutely amazing and really has to be seen to be understood. Gamers who have played the fantastic Kinect game GunStringer (from which I only have to assume Gunslinger was influenced) will understand how the narrator can simultaneously direct the action, and react to the action, that is happening onscreen. It is a cool effect that really lends an air of complete immersion in the gameplay.

For instance, I know I am not going to get the script exactly right here, but in one early scene Greaves says something to the effect of “after finally taking down those desperadoes, Billy told me to head to the barn.” This obviously indicated that the next objective was to run to the barn. At this point, I was dilly-dallying around looking for hidden objects when Greaves sternly said “you know, it was getting to be time I headed to the barn like Billy suggested.” Noticing this change in demeanor, I decided to see how far I could take it. I held out a little longer and Greaves suddenly shouted “I really needed to get to that damn barn, like Billy told me to!” Another one that had me laugh was when I shot a chicken and Greaves dryly remarked “I was thinking a little fried chicken might be nice.”

I really can’t say that I spent all my time checking the game for the various contextual phrases it delivered throughout the story, but these examples are proof that the developers were willing to go above and beyond when it came to the scripting, and it was little gems like these that really made the experience special. The fact that the voice acting is some of the best there is in gaming this side of the PS3’s Uncharted series, only makes the audio presentation that much more impressive.

The visuals have gone through a major overhaul compared to the previous titles. Adapting a cell-shaded, motion comic appearance similar to what we find in the Borderlands franchise – only better – Gunslinger plays out like a live action comic. The colors, shading, and textures are more authentic to hand-drawn comics than in Borderlands, which results a much more realistic ambiance, and the still frame cutscenes really help tie in the overall visual package.

The story takes gamers through eight episodic scenes, each delivering roughly 45 minutes of gameplay. The entire storyline can be completed in about 4 hours straight through, but between collecting hidden items in the levels and enjoying the points-based Arcade mode and the one-on-one Duel mode – Gunslinger packs quite a bang for a mere fifteen bucks.

Techland might have released a dud with last year’s Call of Juarez: The Cartel, but they have more than made up for it with Gunslinger. The game’s emphasis on high intensity action is just the kick that the franchise needed to get it going again, and Gunslinger’s overall presentation package makes it easily the most enjoyable Call of Juarez experience to date.