A new arcade gameplay focus helps the Call of Juarez series get back on its feet.
Call of Juarez is an odd franchise to play, and an even more bizarre series to review. The first two offered ambitious spaghetti western shooters that eventually became flawed cult classics. The disappointing Cartel tried and failed to enter a stylised modern FPS sub-genre, and all but put a nail in the series’ coffin accordingly.
Call of Juarez returns against the odds though, this time going back to the old west with Gunslinger. The action is altered to present a more arcade experience, but it is one that makes Gunslinger the most satisfying Call of Juarez yet.
The gunplay is simplified over previous titles. The ambitious cover system of Bound in Blood is scaled back to a more pure shooting experience, one that is mimicked by the weapons on offer. Between pistols, shotguns and a rifle here and there, the selection of guns is minimal. It plays well into the refined nature of the gunplay and, though the limited selection can become monotonous, the sound design and weighty feel of the weapons keeps things satisfying.
It’s not all about clearing rooms though, with a score system rating your gunslinging performance. There aren’t quite as many special kills as in titles like Bulletstorm or The Club, but the focus on combos gives the game a real sense of momentum and flow. Chaining kills together and timing your reloads to keep the combo going proves to be a surprisingly deep and addictive gameplay experience. Slow motion concentration powers add to the basic mechanics, and the choice of three upgrade paths as you level up adds a further layer of strategy to complement your score hunting.
The story mode is the best place to start, offering gentle tutorials where required. It follows bounty hunter Silas Greaves as he recounts his greatest tales to a group in a saloon. The frame narrative provides some clever shifts to the story as Greaves misremembers and embellishes on elements of his tale. It also allows for a veritable greatest hits of Western moments, as Silas recalls his encounters with famous outlaws and sherrifs like Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett. It isn’t always the most tightest of scripts, but it’s witty and self aware enough to raise a smile more often than not.
Peppered amongst the usual gunplay in story mode are a mixed bag of embellishments. Duels return from the older Juarez titles, and are as as tense as ever. They require that fine mix of concentration and pure reaction, arguably capturing the thrill of pistols at dawn better than any other Western-themed game.
There is also a totally separate duel challenge mode that sees you surviving multiple encounters and, as interesting an addition as it is, it gets old very quickly. On the worse end of the set piece scale are gattling gun-wielding boss encounters that equate to little more than spamming explosives their way. It’s never more enjoyable than that, and it adds to some already stagnant level designs. It doesn’t ruin the story experience, but the campaign is not totally consistent in quality as a result.
The real meat of the game is likely to be found in Gunslinger’s arcade mode. Distilling the game to its core score attack element results in a focused and thrilling gameplay experience, one that is likely to keep you chasing higher leaderboard score for months. Rather than sporting the persistent skill trees and unlocks seen in the story mode, Arcade sees you selecting different pre-set loadouts, adding yet another reason to go back to a given level. It’s a satisfying and streamlined mode, and one that plays into the mechanics’ inherent strengths.
The Wild West shenanigans are wrapped up in a pseudo-cartoon graphical style that, whilst great to look at, is not the most relevant of aesthetic choices. It adds a brightness to the usually murky graphics of the Call of Juarez series, marking a definite improvement, but it doesn’t always reflect the gritty themes of the Wild West. Still, it does look smooth and, for a cheap and cheerful Xbox Live Arcade title, there are no complaints about the visual fidelity in Call of Juarez: Gunslinger.
It’s ironic that Gunslinger manages to pack more into a £11 DLC game than the previous Juarez titles managed in a full retail package. The story isn’t the longest, but it offers a decent amount of content that is infinitely bolstered by the arcade and duel challenge modes. There’s also a new game plus option in the story mode for the truly dedicated gunslingers out there.
Overall we have a package that consistently seems more aware of its goals than any Juarez game before it. By focusing on stylish and satisfying arcade shooting, the series has spawned its best title yet, and the cheaper downloadable price tag makes the offering all the sweeter. For the asking price, Gunslinger is an easy buy for any fans of Spaghetti Westerns or arcade FPS games.
This game was reviewed on Xbox 360.
Fast-paced gunplay, Satisfying weapons, Clever narrative, Decent upgrades, Surprisingly factual collectibles, Cool duels
Cel-shaded visuals are an odd choice, Can get repetitive, Limited weapon variety, Flat level design
A more self aware take on the wild west genre, Call of Juarez strips down the shooter formula to a deceptively simple score attack that casts off the shackles of the previous games