Platforms: PC | PSN | XBLA (version tested)
Call Of Juarez: Gunslinger is going back to its roots. After The Cartel abortively flirted with a modern setting, Gunslinger returns to the rich pageantry and legendary figures of the Wild West, casting players as a bounty hunter who rubs shoulders with ornery cowpokes like Billy The Kid and Jesse James. Cowboys have never stopped being cool, and though we've lost sight of them under a never-ending sea of zombies and space marines, Techland's sequel is all about letting us live the ten-gallon fantasy in sepia-toned style. Accessible arcade mechanics make light work of six guns and high noon showdowns, while a cleverly-constructed narrative constantly calls our narrator's reliability (and sobriety) into question.
However, Call Of Juarez: Gunslinger also plans to challenge conventional wisdom. Instead of releasing as a stodgy full-priced boxed product (the likes of which have recently been losing money hand over fist), Techland are focusing their best ideas into a tight downloadable title on Steam, PSN and XBLA. It's the kind of forward-thinking move we've been begging for over the last few months, and if my 90 minutes of hands-on contact time is anything to go by, this tale of gunsmoke and vengeance should offer big-budget thrills for a fraction of what you'd usually expect to pay.
Six chambers of fun, for barely a fistful of Dollars.
Players slip into the leather chaps of Silas Greaves, an ornery gun-for-hire who staggers into a Kansas saloon in 1910. With barely enough time to toss back his first shot of whiskey, he's set upon by the bartender and patrons, all of whom recognise him as a key player with connections to any number of mythical outlaws. Seeing an opportunity for free drinks, Silas begins recounting some of his run-ins with a colourful cast of Western anti-heroes, all of which will eventually add up to an overarching tale of betrayal and vengeance.
Levels play out as a series of flashbacks wherein you'll face off against small armies of goons in frontier towns, dusty streets and cactus-strewn mesas. Bringing a selection of six-shooters, winchester rifles and shotguns to bear, you'll romp around using traditional engrained FPS controls, dishing out leaden justice to all and sundry. Despite the familiarity of the action, all the weapons pack a solid sense of weight and heft, with shotguns able to lift targets clean off their feet (if not practically rip them in half), while a sepia-tinged art style packs just enough flashes of vibrant colour to resemble the classic cowboy films of yesteryear. With tumbleweeds, ranches and big irons in abundance, it's easy to feel like you're in the middle of your own Spaghetti Western.
The solid shooting mechanics feel delightfully arcadey in their simple and effective implementation, and a couple of cowboy quirks help lend Gunslinger some additional Wild West flavour. Killing enemies in creative and exciting ways (such as shooting them through a pumpkin or scoring an unlikely headshot while firing from the hip) charges a concentration meter that lets you enter slow motion at regular intervals. Abusing this mode lets you pull off some impossible shots, or floor an entire screen of enemies by fanning the lever (read: firing really fast). On the flip-side, when your health is critical, incoming kill-shots slow down before impact, giving you an on-screen prompt to dodge left or right to avoid certain death. These unscripted moments are pleasingly cinematic and further strengthen the illusion of starring in your very own Sergio Leone flick.
Alongside plenty of neckerchief-clad varmints, you'll also run into plenty of notorious faces, not limited to Jesse James, Billy The Kid, Pat Garrett and Deputy Bob Ollinger. These over-designed legends (whose personalities have been painstakingly researched and portrayed through colourful art direction as well as dialogue) are sometimes on your side, giving you orders or helping you out of a jam, but frequently stand in your way in tense showdown sections. Keeping a reticule centred on your pacing opponent, you'll have to pick the perfect moment to unholster and fire, remembering that going for your gun first is a deeply dishonourable act that leads to a massive points penalty. The abundance of on-screen percentages and callouts do seem to impact immersion somewhat, but these sections are much deeper and more rewarding than your traditional limp QTE.
Persistent experience for kills, skill shots and completing objectives factors into a skill system that lets players specialise in particular styles of combat. Investing skill points in the Gunslinger skill tree, for example, allows you to dual-wield revolvers and derringers, and dish out quicker damage in concentration mode. In contrast, the Ranger tree focuses on rifles and sniping, making shots more accurate, while the Trapper skill set prioritises close range damage mitigation and shotgun buffs. These powerful passive skills can completely change the way you even approach the first couple of levels, and an uncapped New Game + mode will allow you to mix and match to find a loadout that fits.
As narrator and protagonist, Silas' penchant for bending the truth impacts on both the narrative and gameplay. As an example, you'll play through a heroic shootout against Pat Garrett (no, not VG247's editor), before Silas coyly admits that he made the whole thing up. The scene resets as you replay a short walk to a barn, followed by a unceremonious whack with a shovel from behind. Later, you'll find yourself surrounded by a horde of Apaches, only for Silas to explain that his bandit foes only fought like Apaches as the fiction becomes reality. The deviation between honesty, white lies, jokes and barefaced boasting should keep players guessing, and provide some neat changes of pace to boot.
I'm delighted to report that Techland decided to ignore a traditional competitive multiplayer suite that could have sapped resources away from the core game. Instead, Gunslinger includes a selection of Arcade Mode levels that make full use of the 'Arcade' prefix. Players blast through sections of the singleplayer campaign against hordes of scripted foes, chasing the highest score multipliers by chaining kills and taking full advantage of explosive Scenery objects. You'll unlock new weapon loadouts and stages throughout, an addictive proposition, while beating your friends' best high scores should encourage some fierce asynchronous competition.
In all honesty, I had serious trouble tearing myself away from arcade mode's solid and simple thrills. Reminiscent of both Time Crisis and Bulletstorm, but packing the unmistakeable slow-motion big iron antics of the Call Of Juarez series, this addictive extra content might account for a suspicious absence just before E3. I mean, sorry, I feel a cold coming on. Cough.
Questions still remain, of course. We don't know if the singleplayer campaign can sustain its breathless pacing and how long it will last. I can't tell you whether my newfound love for its Arcade Mode will burn bright and brief, or persist for any number of weeks. But if Gunslinger can live up to its opening hour, there's every chance that Techland's latest title will be an absolute blast, and perhaps spearhead a new downloadable revolution for AA games going forward. We'll find out on May 22nd.