Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, an eight hour, first person arcade shooter romp through the legends and outlaws of the Wild West, blends history and mythology and memory (or lack thereof) in a way that would get even the most die-hard Western fan interested. In fact, this Call of Juarez title could have dropped the franchise name completely, and still been just as successful.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger follows the whiskey-fueled tale of Silas Greaves, who much like the various Assassins in the Assassin’s Creed franchise (also an Ubisoft staple), is a figure that – according to the game’s purposely disjointed narrative – changed the course of history but then disappeared as nothing more than a footnote. Here though, the main difference is that Greave’s narration is purposely unreliable; in one stage, Greaves’ death by falling minecart reminds him that he did not, in fact, travel through a mine at all during his travels and that this was just an embellishment on his part. This causes the game to literally rewind to the bit before Greaves entered the mine shaft, and is a really enjoyable gimmick that pops up again and again in the narrative. This really helps the player establish a more nuanced connection with Greaves than is normally the case in first person shooter campaigns.
The rhetoric device of the gravely-voiced narration takes a page out of Supergiant Games’ hit Bastion, but it never emulates its use. Rather, the narration and the skewed version of events serve to highlight Greaves as a character who shapes the events around him and brushes shoulders with famous outlaws such as Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and Wild Bill Hickok. While recalling his encounters, Greaves is telling his tall tales to a bartender, a skeptic, a wide-eyed kid who’s read too many dime novels, and several other onlookers, who represent various viewpoints of Greaves’ story. The game occasionally cuts back to this setting in the form of cut-scenes, but these tend to be brief enough to not distract from the rapid-fire pacing of the main narrative.
Perhaps Call of Juarez: Gunslinger’s greatest achievement is the speed in which the narrative unfolds. In only eight short hours, Silas Greaves encounters just about every major outlaw there was, and due to the stellar shooting mechanics (which allow the player to switch seamlessly between rifles, shotguns, six-shooters and explosives), the narrative moves at breakneck speeds. This works to its benefit, and ties in the narration well: because Greaves is de-mystifying (but definitely mythologizing) the Wild West, ruffians of all sorts with weapons of all kinds will try to dispatch you, and due to the game’s downloadable length, this never seems to get old. In arcade-fashion, weapon types are individually upgradeable, adding just enough depth and RPG elements to change things up, but not enough to bog the game down.
The only place that the game slows down, to its detriment, is during boss battles. A recent example of comparison would be the lackluster Deus Ex: Human Revolution bosses, who were not only insanely difficult, but were also frustrating to fight. Unfortunately, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger takes a similar route, and the boss battle experiences tend to be more frustrating, unnecessarily slowing down the narrative in the meantime. It’s jarring when Wild Bill Hickok takes a large amount of bullets to the head, completely breaking the immersion.
From an audio-visual perspective, the game both looks and sounds gorgeous. The production values are really high, and the stylized graphics only serve to show the best and dustiest parts of the Wild West, with the protagonist’s look purposely reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s ‘The Man with No Name’ from the Dollars Trilogy of films.
Interestingly enough, Silas Greaves himself is voiced by John Cygan, who is best known as the voice of Solidus Snake in Metal Gear Solid 2 , but also has done extensive voicework in previous Call of Juarez titles. Given that Greave’s narration is the primary expository thrust of the game, Cygan’s stellar performance makes all the difference, as a lesser voice actor may not have been able to carry the weight of the game’s blending of history and myth.
One way that Call of Juarez: Gunslinger tends to de-mythologize the purposely unreliable account of Silas Greaves is through ‘Nuggets of Truth,’ which are collectible items scattered throughout the levels that give the true, historical account of the tales that Greaves is currently spinning. Unfortunately, these truth-filled documents are often hidden well out of the way of the normal trajectory of the level, and are often difficult to find, resorting to much time spent on the Internet to find the real historical truth that should have been more easily discoverable in game, as to not break its otherwise excellent pacing.
While other games set in the Wild West, most notably Rockstar’s Red Read Redemption, more accurately display the grandeur and scope of the period, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger purposely avoids this comparison by focusing on the more outlandish and the more spaghetti western aspects of the period. By directly engaging with the mythology of the period through a wonderful and unreliable narrator and protagonist, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger marks an exciting new direction for the franchise. Hopefully, future Call of Juarez titles stick more closely to this winning formula, although with a different protagonist and set of rules, and hopefully Ubisoft and developer Techland can bring this franchise back to the prominent status that it deserves.
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