Review: Call of Juarez Gunslinger (**** stars)

[Warning:  Spoilers. Our apologies.]

Zachery Oliver: Want to review Call of Juarez Gunslinger, or shall I?

Joshua Cauller: Go for it. Did you like it a lot?

Zach:  I did, but there are things that bug me about parts of it.

Josh:  Like what? The whole “regen” shooter aspect?

Zach:  I played through the game on Hard mode, and certain sections were just save/reload deathtraps. You know, you play, you die without knowing what happened as a million bullets hit you at the same time, try again. I don’t mind trial and error, but it got ridiculous at a few points.

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Not pictured: Save/Reload Deathtrap.

Josh: Hmm… I can see what you mean. I played through on Hard, too. Same issue. But I felt like they were largely designed to teach me how to get better at shooting/cover/using my slow-mo, etc.

Zach:  No doubt, I’m sure it’s meant to teach you how to be better. But seriously, once enemies start having psychic powers to track your position, it gets pretty hilarious. The ghost town section is especially egregious in this regard. Probably, the problem also has to do with how the game indicates you’re getting shot with screen shake and visual affects: cool looking, but unbelievably difficult to shoot through. Since when you pop out of cover, enemies immediately unload on your position with pinpoint accuracy, you can barely figure out where to shoot or even aim with all the screen overlays. This is not a game looking for realism (a bounty hunter who kills at least a thousand people single-handedly, including Western legends), so I’m not sure why this is in here.

Josh: Yeah. I really didn’t like the ghost town. It worked thematically, but not super well mechanically. I liked the Mexican Standoff at the end, though. And the big plot reveal at the end. Did you let Bill go? Or take revenge?

Zach: Redemption, of course. How could we do otherwise as a Christian website? I wonder what the revenge option contains? I would guess nothing good! I’m sure the problem stems from my inability to receive entertainment passively, but I had Ben spotted a mile away, so it wasn’t much of a reveal.

Josh: Yeah. You seem to be able to spot things infinitely better than me. I didn’t even think about him as an important part of the story up until Jack or whoever kept giving Silas a hard time.

Zach: Back to the game itself, the duels are pretty fun! I played on PC, though, and it definitely feels as if they were designed for dual analog sticks, though. Mouse and keyboard aren’t the same for hovering your hand over your gun, or the targeting cursor over your enemy.

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Josh:  I don’t know how well the PC fared with the duels by comparison. Though I definitely preferred it’s controls for the core mechanics. On a related note,  did you find any of the boss battles particularly annoying? I got sorta stuck on Plummer, the dynamite thrower.

Zach: How’d you get stuck on Plummer?

Josh: Plummer was a problem because I couldn’t seem to find a good balance of retreating behind the small amount of cover in the pit and shooting the dynamite out of the air. When I landed a shot on it right as he let go, I knew I had it. But getting that shot took a lot of practice. At least for me.

Zach:  I totally ignored the dynamite, used Concentration to take out half his life, and then ran from cover to cover as the dynamite rained down. I honestly didn’t have the accuracy to hit the dynamite on cue, so I took the (easier) route. So bosses do support multiple strategies. That’s good!

Even so, all of them were pretty fun and tested you in different ways except Curly Bill, whom I dropped through a silly exploit that just happened to me.

Josh: Was Curly Bill the dude in the cave mouth with the Gatling gun?

Zach: No, he’s the guy in the lumber yard. I sorta sat near the box of ammo and he just kept popping out like an idiot, I had to kill other guys he spawned when he yells random things, but that’s about it. I did that fight about 10 times before that running around like a madman, and it was far safer just to NOT MOVE at all. Not sure whether that’s a programming error or something, but it seems strange that this would become the optimal strategy.

Josh: Oh yeah. He was pretty easy. I liked that fight though.

Zach:  Cool in concept, but I would have hoped that it would be more exciting. That’s a pretty minor con, though. Most of the boss fights test your skill in shooting at different places and dealing with threats from multiple angles – something you’d expect from a well-designed first person shooter.

Josh: Which upgrade path did you focus on the most?

Zach: I chose my upgrade path before I had even played with the weapons much. Completely invested in the Gunslinger aesthetic with two pistols blazing, so I figured I’d go with that. As time went on, though, the pistols were only good for certain missions rather than others. I believe there were a few when I just used the Rifle, just for the superior accuracy. I hate wasting bullets, and this is a game where you don’t want to waste them.

Still, there’s nothing like having two golden quickshooters and racking up an insane combo with extra damage buffs for additional targets dispatched.

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Josh: I feel you on the upgrade path. While I maxed-out the sharpshooter ability, the dual quickshooters really rocked the party. I was super tempted to go down the gunslinger path. The trapper path? I dunno, I didn’t use shotguns enough for that. Not enough rounds in a clip. You know?

What parts of the story did you like? What didn’t you like?

Zach: As for story, I really liked the overall narrative. It fits within the Western themes of revenge/redemption pretty well, and the ludicrous nature of the stories (gasp!) actually made for compelling level design and over-the-top gunfights. It’s rare that a story’s setting actually complements the intensity and the difficulty of the game itself, but Gunslinger really does this well.

Josh: I’m glad you liked the story. It seemed like they took a lesson from Bastion and found a tighter way to wrap it around the mechanics that identified this past generation of games. And as much as I liked Red Dead Redemption, this one’s storytelling and mechanics serve the story much better and play much tighter. I know it’s a weird comparison with this being linear and Red Dead being open-world, but I stick to my guns on that. Red Dead had slow-mo shooting too, but it was far too generous with how easy the aim was in that game. In Gunslinger, it’s really about skillful shootin’.

Zach: I haven’t played Red Dead Redemption (an obvious hole in my “gamer” credibility”), but you are right that this is incredibly tight and focused. Whether or not the game’s DLC nature contributed to this, I don’t know, but the game actually takes time to comment on the fact that you’re a dude who kills lots of other dudes to get revenge on one dude. All the embellishments in the world, story-wise, can’t hide the fact that you’re a bit of a mass murderer, and this plays into the narrative really effectively.

I’m glad the game actually requires you to, well, be a Gunslinger. This is far more immersion than it could be otherwise. The narrative rewinds and stuff are a nice touch, but sometimes you don’t know whether you should be fighting for serious, surviving, or something else before the game pulls a switcheroo and changes the rules. Neat in concept, distracting in a mechanical sense.

Josh: I don’t know if the split between playful and serious is too distracting to the mechanics. But I see quite clearly how that’s a hard line to straddle and I think Gunslinger does a phenomenal job of it. The switcheroo aspect of the story doesn’t affect the mechanics too much as I see it. The score at the end of each mission shows you that no matter what: a good combo is a good combo and you’re playing against what the level hands you.

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Zach: I just mean the stray section where you’re supposed to survive until an invisible clock says “rewind!” The steamboat mission right before Ghost Town does this, and I spent at least ten minutes trying to kill everyone before Silas Greaves swooped onto the scene to “fix” the story. Just a minor annoyance, really. On that note, Who is the shotgun designed for? Melee combat? It already felt like the pistols did a great job in those situations. Maybe I should run through the game again with that upgrade path.

Josh:  The shotgun is definitely designed for close quarters. I just don’t see it’s practicality when there’s five dudes around me and only two shells in the chamber. Curious how that run goes.

Zach: Thankfully, that’s easy to do as the game doesn’t overstay its welcome either, clocking in at around four hours or so.

Josh: Wait. Four hours? Either I broke those four hours up too much over time or I just suck at the game. Because for me, it felt more like six to ten. I’m pretty sure I just took a lot longer than you because I died more. Like seriously. I died a lot. Maybe I should have played on Normal first?

Zach: Normal felt really easy once I started playing Arcade Mode, so you made the right choice. And Arcade honestly isn’t the same, due to it being based on Normal Mode. I would prefer my virtual arcade shooting gallery with a bit more difficulty. As well, it also requires you to level up some more, which starts to grate; how do you have a level playing field for scores if certain abilities aren’t unlocked? Strange stuff.

In any event, if we didn’t emphasize it enough, the game requires skill.

Josh: In retrospect, Red Dead Redemption didn’t really offer a whole lot of room for that. Red Dead Redemption righted all that I disliked about Rockstar’s other games. Namely, they let me play however I wanted instead of forcing me to be an outlaw. I liked that about it. Also, I loved the open scenery and commitment to making a quality Western. And I liked the shooting because it was easy. Thing is, it didn’t require any skill. And as I’ve come to appreciate skill-based play, I now see that as it’s fault.

As for the mass-murderer quality in both games, I think that boils down to one thing I really like about Gunslinger’s story: you could kill “honorably” or “dishonorably.” Well, at least in duels. But that concept of fighting fair is at least a noble notion.

Zach: I suppose the game does start with a bit of “defending one’s honor”, as Silas Greaves should, by most standards, have every right to pursue the ones who did him wrong. I went for the honorable kill in every duel (meaning you need to wait until the other guy(s) to draw before doing so yourself), so you can look at it in this sense.

Josh: I think that the tall-tale nature of the game left a lot of room for ambiguity in the honor department. Especially since it seems like our dude might just be spinning stories for free whiskey. I just liked how the duels left room for you go get an honorable victory. And no, I pulled the trigger first a few times when I couldn’t quite seem to win. I liked how the game let me be cheap. But when I could start dodging bullets, my dueling got a lot more “honorable.”

Zach: Course, even dishonorably, they make it incredibly fun to shoot people because skillful shootin’ as you called it, pardner, provides extra experience points and an extra edge for the upcoming levels. So there’s equal levity and seriousness fitting for this sort of venture.

Josh: You hit the nail on the head when you say there’s equal levity and seriousness. And I think that comes across in the graphics. Especially on consoles, it’s rare that you get environments this pretty with serious HDR lighting. Like the game actually has a sun that flares and flickers through trees. But then there’s times the enemies get colorful in a way that you would only see in Spaghetti Westerns. It’s like the game is saying, “Yeah, this is really the Old West. And yes, it’s a place to fulfill your childhood dream of being a cowboy.” I love that about it.

Zach: I’m happy to see color come back into video games, all said, both in narratives and actual visual splendor. It all sorta clicks together with the dream of the Old West and a truly holistic design.

~

As for Intended Audience, like stories that start like this: “The chesty bar maid slides-up next to Silas Greaves as he spins his next tale: “Can I get you another whiskey?” She asks. “Why thank you, Darlin’. Did I ever tell you about the time I shot three guys in the eye while jumping off a moving train? Blood went flying in each direction…” He motions with his hands. “It was back when I rose with Billy the Kidd…”

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.