Platforms: PC | PSN | XBLA
Techland appear to have realised the obvious a little too late. It took them a fairly mediocre game - The Cartel - to twig that a modern Central American setting for a rather frivolous shooter might not have been the way forward...something that Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel might do well to note. Cue a return, then, to the series' safer stomping ground in the Wild West: a time and a place where truth and fiction collide, where legends have been made, myths unfurled, where good men are never angels, and bad men seldom simple devils.
It's that hazy Romantic view of frontier life which comes through first and foremost as Techland unveil the latest game to use the Call of Juarez name - an arcade marketplace FPS that bears the subtitle "Gunslinger". The chapter-based game is draped around a narrative skeleton that involves the mysterious Bounty Hunter, a man of renown and many a fascinating anecdote, who finds himself back in his hometown's saloon, telling tales of his (mis)adventures to those who care to maybe buy him a fifth of something sharp and strong.
The scene setting is all conducted via comic book stills, with the occasional animated element or two, the cigarette smoke curling up from the Bounty Hunter's lips in this instance. It's immediately reminiscent of Deadlight, but even in these early stages, as nostalgic backdrops fade into saloon scenes of the present, it's clear that Techland has pulled out all of the stops to make them look strikingly distinct, and frankly superior. The connotations of larger than life characters, myths and legends that come with the visual style only serves to enhance the tale that w by proxy are being told. The era is one heavy with historical embellishment anyway; that the Bounty Hunter himself has his own perspective muddles the reliability of his narration in an intriguing way.
The chapter we were privy to begins at the start of his story: an encounter involving Billy the Kid, holed up in a farmstead at Stinking Springs, surrounded by the sheriff Pat Garrett and his sworn-in deputies. It's the first in what we're told will be a number of guest appearances from the Wild West's most notorious characters, and the Bounty Hunter himself is there to help the Kid make his escape. The level begins with our nameless protagonist sneaking into the grounds, taking out the sheriff's men as he finds them. With each kill, points are earned; headshots and efficient murder yielding greater rewards, and steadily building up the CM bar in the top left hand corner of the screen. Concentration Mode - the series staple that introduced an element of bullet time to the action - makes its return, allowing for the swift dispatching of fleeing foes.
But there are new elements too. As well as proving useful in offence, Concentration Mode is also rather handy defensively. Draw near to your demise and an accurate shot might trigger your Sense of Death, a QTE that has you flicking an analogue stick to dodge the bullet hurtling towards your face. Cap your aggressor while still in slo-mo and you'll be reward with a hefty addition to your points tally. Secrets and collectibles are uncovered along the way, each of them providing something of an historical morsel, be it a biography or a background blurb. Many of the characters that will appear are, after all, well-known figures from dime novels and barroom whisperings, and one can imagine that a wider context will only suit to serve a deeper sense of understanding for, and appreciation of, Techland's situating of this game.
The stand-off, for example, between the Kid and Garrett is a widely reported scene, and through the Bounty Hunter's presence, we're able to witness it for ourselves, through the eyes of his imagining. Other characters in the saloon will occasionally interject, perhaps asking for clarification on a story milestone. A mother reacts with slight indignation as the Bounty Hunter compares his own youthful recklessness to that which he can see in the eyes of her son.
The fight is brutal, Garrett's men sent packing to the tune of twanging guitar strings as bright bursts of crimson signal their deaths. Should the player get shot, bullets will puncture the 'screen' with holes, however the wounds will fade and heal given a few seconds of respite. As well as contributing to your points tally, each kill will earn you XP that can then be used to purchase weapon upgrades, with the likes of dual-wielding, long range sharpshooting, and increases in fire rate and reload efficiency on the table.
The Bounty Hunter sneaks in around the back, puncturing more of the sheriff's men in the process, before heading into the farmhouse and up the stairs. Billy the Kid is meeting his would-be killers with strong rifle fire from the first floor windows and tosses you a rifle for some shooting gallery fun. It's not long, however, before Charlie Bowdre is shot (at a window, rather than feeding his cattle as the history books tell us) and you're forced to hightail it out of there, after Sensing Your Death following a sneaky infiltration. A teasing encounter with Garrett, just before a potential duel, fades to black.
The game certainly has its arcade elements, and Techland concede that leaderboards are practically a certainty. They're remaining tight-lipped on further multiplayer features and specific game modes, but they certainly haven't ruled anything out. Price points are under wraps as is the possibility for future DLC, but the team are aiming for a Q1 2013 release across PSN, XBLA, and on PC too. It's a shift - from retail to digital - that has allowed them to focus in on the aspects that are important to them: the action, the storytelling, the persistent scoring, and crafting a singleplayer marketplace experience that hits AAA heights without having to shoehorn in undesirable elements.
Frankly, we rather think that taking the series back to what it does best is a very smart move indeed. One to watch.