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Call of Juarez: Gunslinger review: Back in the saddle

Ryan Franklin

It's pretty rare for a game series to get as many chances as Call of Juarez has. After a middling debut, the series drummed up lots of critical goodwill with Bound in Blood, and then absolutely threw it all away with the awful The Cartel. Now, Techland has ventured back to the Wild West with Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, and the developer's got something to prove.

Perhaps seeking to distance itself from The Cartel, Gunslinger is a different beast in almost every way, and it works. The most immediately obvious difference is the art style. Instead of the mostly realistic style of past Juarez games, Gunslinger opts for a more stylized and bombastic look. It's as if the developers threw anime, Mad Max, and The Good the Bad and the Ugly and Borderlands into a blender. That might sound weird, but it's a refreshing and enjoyable change.

Gunslinger also has very little in common with its predecessors when it comes to story. The only real connection is a collectible with a short biography of Ray McCall, one of the protagonists from the first two games. This time around, Gunslinger puts players into the dusty spurs of bounty hunter Silas Greaves.

Gallery: Call of Juarez: Gunslinger (4/22/13) | 7 Photos

The story unfolds in flashback as Silas relates his adventures to a group of eager saloon patrons. This lets Gunslinger pull off some neat tricks with the narrative. For example, obstacles like boulders or even entire log cabins can humorously rocket into the sky when Silas says he noticed a way out, or entire sequences may rewind when he remembers that wasn't the way things actually happened. At one point, I thought I'd been cheaply killed by a falling minecart I had no chance to avoid, even the load checkpoint screen came up – only to have Silas remark that he knew it would've been stupid to have taken that route.

It's this fluid nature of Silas's tall tales that allow him to face off against Western legends like Jesse James and Pat Garrett. Since Silas is the one spinning the story, he's allowed to make some historically inaccurate exaggerations, or to tell the "truth" that the history books ignore. For example, did you know that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid didn't really die in a shootout in Bolivia, but instead were felled in a Mexican standoff with Silas Greaves? It's a little silly at times, but also a nice change of pace from the gritty and bleak historical revisionism that the Western genre has seen across all media in recent decades.

Of course, with a name like Gunslinger, what you really want to know about it is the gunplay. Unlike Bound in Blood, which had an annoyingly unspecific method of targeting and a clumsy cover system, Gunslinger lets you go to work with an assortment of pistols, rifles, and shotguns. You can even choose between targeting modes for double pistols, letting you independently control each weapon or fire both at once while aiming down the sights. It's fast, accurate, and satisfying.

In both campaign and arcade mode, the game uses a fast-paced combo and points system similar to The Club or Bulletstorm. There aren't nearly as many possible combos in Gunslinger, but the system still makes every enemy encounter a thrill. Striving to keep your combo up and aiming for headshots, moving targets and eyeblinks – killing an enemy right after targeting them – really made me engage with each firefight and kept my attention. It might seem like a meaningless distinction, but when the points were taken away during mission replays, I only absentmindedly took down enemies when there was no high score to beat.

The points from these combos and trick shots can be used to purchase upgrades from one of three skill trees, each focusing on pistols, rifles, or shotguns. Skills range from simple damage reductions to more advanced abilities, like automatically reloading akimbo pistols when entering the slow-mo Concentration Mode. In the campaign, you can accrue enough points to acquire almost all the skills and become a real powerhouse. What's great is that Gunslinger is able to maintain a nice balance between Silas progressively becoming more powerful and still providing players with a challenge. That challenge manifests in the form of tougher enemies – shotgunners covered in iron plates, for example – and more of them. Steady character progression keeps things from becoming overwhelming, making sure you have the means to take them down – and feel like a golden god of gunslinging in the process.

Skills work a little differently in the arcade mode. Basically a shooting gallery that reuses locations from the story, arcade mode has you choose from three loadouts, again focusing on the three different weapon types. Each class only has a few related perks – as opposed to the entire array of choices in campaign – which adds to the challenge. The best part about this system is that it encourages you to experiment with the different loadouts, something I really enjoyed after sticking to one style in the campaign. Where I stuck mostly with double pistols in the campaign, arcade mode let me try out a combo of shotguns and dynamite. Instead of going wild with pistols on everyone I could see, I had to get up close to individual targets while keeping others at bay with a dose of TNT.

Unfortunately, shooting through camps full of outlaws is made more than a little frustrating by the prevalence of the damage indicator. If you're at all familiar with FPS games from the last decade, you'll probably recognize the way the screen darkens as you take more damage. Gunslinger takes it a little too far, making it practically impossible to see your enemies when you've taken too many hits. Suffice it to say it's supremely annoying to be hamstrung even further when you're already in a bad way.

Also disappointing is Gunslinger's Duel Challenge mode. As in previous Juarez games, this mode offers a chance to experience the iconic high-noon showdown's from every piece of Western fiction ever written. It's a fun idea, but it unfortunately falls flat, especially compared to the duels seen in Bound in Blood. In Bound in Blood, you kept your gun hand close to your holster, sidestepping around your opponent to keep them in view. When a bell rang you'd push towards the holster then quickly aim and fire.

In Gunslinger, the system has been almost completely overhauled – and not for the better. This time, you keep a rotating circle over your opponent to increase your focus, while moving your hand above the holster to increase hand speed before your opponent draws and you can fire. The new design is unintuitive and frustrating. Even after figuring out all the unspoken subtleties, like putting the reticle in just the right place so you don't get killed without a chance to draw, or keeping bullets from inexplicably going wide when you have 100 percent focus, the payoff just isn't enjoyable enough to be worth it.

Call of Juarez has had its ups and downs, and Gunslinger isn't without its flaws, but it still pushes the series back in the right direction. Despite the frustration of the damage indicator, the worsened duel mode and a story that sort of loses its way near the end, Gunslinger is still an enjoyable experience. It's exciting and challenging, whether you're mowing down banditos in slow-mo with an engraved six-shooter or racking up 80 kill combos in arcade mode. If The Cartel made you hang up your hat, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger should give you a new reason to saddle up.

This review is based on a steam download of Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, provided by Ubisoft. Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is also available on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network.

Ryan Franklin is a writer in Central New York, who has also written for Sidequesting and the OCC Overview. Ryan maintains an impressive action figure collection, and loves video games almost as much as he loves his mom. Follow him on Twitter @TheDarkWayne.

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