At first glance fiction of the old west, particularly the game fiction, could strike you as rather stale. The dog eyed tropes of showdowns on Main Street at high noon and dynamite laced fire fights through the old mines seem to perpetually resurrect themselves like the uninspiring zombies of a genre long past its relevance. However like the zombie genre, there can always be room for reinvention.
The Call of Juarez franchise noticed this a while back when its western setting began to wear thin and has been in a constant cycle of reinvention ever since - Most notable being ‘The Cartel’s admirable but failed attempt to translate the genre into a gritty modern context.
In this sense Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is initially somewhat of an enigma. Without switching up its genre trappings in any obvious way, it still somehow manages to feel like a breadth of fresh air. Moreover, we see that rather than dancing around the clichés, Gunslinger has actually dug in and entrenched itself in the pulpy fiction of the old west. It gets away with this by cleverly framing its story arc around the rather dubious recounting of past glories by shady outlaw figure Silas Greaves – That is to say the game doesn’t tell his story – it tells the story of his story! This sleight of hand rather brilliantly comes to define the whole tone of the piece freeing up the plot and gunplay to really revel in a special brand of heightened reality.
Most immediately noticeable is the games beautifully measured visceral feedback. The guns are weighty, the shots are loud and the impacts produce a glorious crimson spray. This is a game that really wants you to enjoy the connection of a well aimed shot, going so far as to slow-mo the dispatched enemies bodies (300-style) as they flail gracefully into the ground.
Visceral reality extends into the environment as Silas recalls traversing a diverse array of locals, made unexpectedly exotic within the confines of this North-American genre. The recounted narrative then builds on this diversity by lending a unique brand of playfulness to the level design: Details of the story can be brought into question, and in response the narrator often bends or twists the nature of the playable reality without warning. As Silas haphazardly revises the flow of his story new paths can materialise, various characters can be swapped out and entire sections of the level design can be replayed along an altered narrative. This surreal manipulation married with the superb visual design creates a crisp, graphic and slightly oversaturated world that ends up feeling genuinely unique.
The rich landscape is not for idle rambling though as the campaign bolts from the starting line and then continues to ride at break-neck pace through the remainder its ripping yarn. Even the plot, quick-fired at you through in game narration and sideshow cutscenes serves more to set the roguish tone rather than attempt to construct any kind of complex narrative progression. In this and many other ways Gunslinger proves to be a master class on the good application of brevity. Slogging and grinding are most certainly off the menu for this insulin shot of action gunplay - Most should finish satisfied but with a healthy hunger for more!
And that’s the joy of Gunslinger - everything about its design has been streamlined to suck you into the zone of it pulpy hyper-realised action core. It’s a game that can genuinely brand itself as gun-running-fun and it has done this by releasing itself of many of the overreaching expectations other games in its category of man-shoot live or die by. Expectations perhaps generated by the traditional triple-A price point that Gunslinger has deliberately dived below.
While the fiction of the old West has long since developed into well trodden territory, its popularity can always be traced back to the youthful pleasures of heroic conflict by way of cowboys and Indians. Simple stuff really – morally unburdened heroes in a savage unpredictable frontier free to carve a path of righteous violence through an ensemble of joyfully hateful villains. In returning to these roots Gunslinger has excelled in giving us an unapologetic slice of gunpowder-fuelled catharsis, once again making the old west feel new. YE-HA!