Call of Juarez: Gunslinger Review: Blazing Saddle (Sores)

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Strap on your trusty six-shooters because we’re heading back to the Old West in Call of Juarez: Gunslinger. You’ll hunt down the most notorious outlaws in history, while mowing down hundreds of henchmen in bloody gunfights in famous locales. Sounds like a blast, right? Well, it could be if it weren’t for some clunky and frustrating game mechanics.

Platforms: PC, PS3, Xbox 360 (Version Played)
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Techland
Genre: First-Person (Six) Shooter
Release Date: May 22, 2013
ESRB Rating: Mature

callofjuarezgunslinger-boxYou play as Silas Greaves, a grizzled old bounty hunter who recounts his adventures and battles with legendary outlaws like Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and many other recognizable figures. In fact, Greaves takes on an almost Forrest Gump-like role, as he finds himself in the middle of famous events and history. The graphic novel-style cutscenes work great, but the in-game story-telling is a bit fractured. You see, Silas’ recollection can be a bit hazy at times, and when the folks listening to his tales call him on the questionable parts, the game will pause and “rewind” back to where his story is “clarified.” It’s an interesting story mechanic at first, but quickly gets bothersome because it interrupts the flow of the game.

This is not a good thing because the game is a modern FPS version of the classic “duck hunt” style arcade shooter, where enemies basically pop up into the open for you to shoot. The goal is to chain together kills to rack up multipliers and earn as many points as you can. These points also earn XP, which you can redeem for new skills, modifiers and weapons. In order to earn these big chains, it’s important to get into a rhythm and flow – but to have that interrupted by a story break that rewinds back to the beginning of a section can not only be disruptive, but also makes you wonder what the point of the section you just played (and now has no relevance to the story) was. Granted, you still keep any XP points you earned, but really – stop interrupting me, I want to keep my chain going.

Sometimes the interruptions are fun, however. Occasionally, a scripted quick-time event will pop up that can help you easily earn big points. Unfortunately, it will also automatically change your weapon back to your default revolver, which can be disconcerting if you were using the rifle or shotgun.

Each kill not only earns points but also fills your Concentration meter. Activating Concentration slows down time and highlights enemies in bright red, allowing you to easily pick them off at will while racking up your multiplier. You should try and use Concentration as much as possible, but you also need to be a bit strategic about it, since it can save your life when you’re surrounded. It’s definitely fun and rewarding to rack up the big points and multipliers, but it can get repetitious thanks to the dull and predictable AI.

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Enemy AI is pretty basic; they simply stand in the open and shoot at you. Sure, they’ll duck behind cover or run to different positions, but otherwise they’re easy targets. To make up for the dumb AI, the game will resort to tactics that feels cheap at times. For example, AI accuracy is inhumanly good. They can also see you through foliage and can hit you through the tiniest gap in your cover. In some situations you will find yourself surrounded by enemies suddenly spawning on all sides, which is both frantically exciting and frustrating, mainly because enemies are often hard to see.

The game uses a cel-shaded style reminiscent of Borderlands, and it looks great. Unfortunately, the problem with that style is that enemies blend into the background, making them difficult to spot (especially at a distance). Add the fact that they can stand unseen behind foliage and still shoot you, and the game can be aggravating at times.

If you are near death, you can enter into a Quick Time Mode where time slows down and you can see the final bullet heading your way. Duck in the right direction and your health is restored, putting you back in the fight. It’s pretty cool and makes you feel like a badass.

What doesn’t make you feel like a badass (but should) are the duels. As with the original Call of Juarez, duels are a big feature of the game, but the clunky controls suck all the fun out of them. Dueling is a three-part process: first, you have to move your gun hand into an optimal position over your revolver in order to minimize your draw time. You also have to move a cursor over your opponent to increase your “focus,” but the cursor is constantly fighting you, making quick, precise movements difficult. Second, once you hear a heartbeat, you can draw (or if you wish to be honorable, wait for your opponent to draw) by hitting the trigger button. But since this only draws your gun, your third step is to aim (which seems redundant since isn’t that what the focus cursor is for?) and then pull the trigger a second time to shoot.

It’s supposed to be a test of skill, but it’s really a test of patience. The whole system is clunky, the controls are unresponsive at times, and you will die a lot. Successful duels feel more like luck rather than skill, which is very disappointing since a good duel is integral to any Western game. It also ruins the separate Duels Mode where you face off against 15 historical figures one after another, with only five lives to carry you through to the end. Had the controls been a bit tighter and more responsive, this would have been fun, but as it stands, it’s probably not something you’ll try more than once.

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Other criticisms include how the “legendary” weapons you unlock don’t carry over; instead, you have to find them on the map every time you start a new level. Okay, you can find them fairly quickly, but why can’t we simply spawn with the same weapons we had before? You also can’t climb or jump onto what appears to be easily scalable objects (like hip height), while jumping down from small, insignificant heights can cause huge damage.

What really saves the game is Arcade Mode, a series of 10 mini-missions that you simply run through them as fast as possible, racking up as many points as you can. Things can get crazy hectic as you power your way through the enemy waves, earning huge multipliers while every enemy bullet is aimed squarely at your head. If you’re good, you can finish a mission in only a couple of minutes, but it’s thrilling, fun, and what the campaign should have been. Yes, you can (and should) play the campaign using the same aggressive style, but the constant breaks in the narrative, scripted events, and moments of “cheapness” ruin the fast-paced “gotta get those points” flow of Arcade Mode.

Kudos also goes to the audio team, with great music and even better sound effects. From the creaking of old wood to the powerful, authoritative gunshots, the game is a pure delight for audiophiles.

But the best feature of the game has nothing to do with combat. Sprinkled throughout each level are “Nuggets of Truth” collectibles that unlock old photos and interesting background information on historical figures and events. These are not only fascinating to read, but also very educational. And who said you can’t learn anything from video games?

Overall, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger has some great moments, and has the potential for a fun arcade shooter. But it’s hampered by dumb AI (that are also difficult to see), constant breaks in the game flow, and clunky dueling mechanics. Fix these and you’ll have an outstanding Western shooter; but as it stands, it’s just a gunfight at the “OK” Corral.

Review Disclosure: A review copy of Call of Juarez: Gunslinger was provided by Ubisoft for the purposes of this review.

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