Lean, focused, technically accomplished and narratively inventive: can Call of Juarez: Gunslinger really be from the same studio that brought us the insipid Dead Island and its equally limp sequel? Apparently so. Perhaps there’s a lesson in playing to your strengths here – linear Old West shooters good, sandbox zombie RPGs bad. Either way, it’s a very pleasant surprise, proving that there’s nothing wrong with an old-fashioned solo shooting gallery if you’re capable of pulling it off with this level of verve and confidence.
Its greatest success lies in how smartly it marries the authenticity of its setting with the artifice of the storytelling. The aesthetic is Bound In Blood meets Borderlands, with objects outlined as if illustrated in a dime-store novel. Your brightly attired enemies are the main sources of colour in the dusty brown environments, while the violence is pulpy, comic book stuff. When a bullet connects with an enemy there’s a ludicrous splatter of vivid red accompanied by a noisy slurp: Tarantino would undoubtedly approve, as he would of the rambling tales that stitch these encounters together, relayed by bounty hunter Silas Greaves over the action to an audience including a rapt youngster and his more cynical drinking buddies.
The fanciful nature of Greaves’ narration feeds wonderfully into the game. In his alcoholic haze, the gunslinger will exaggerate, forget, mislead, and have doubt cast upon his recollections, and you’ll find the action rewinding, pausing, or adjusting in response. Alternative routes will suddenly open up, enemies transform from Apaches to cowboys, and on one occasion, assistance literally drops out of the sky. One encounter against a group of bank-robbing brothers is replayed twice over: firstly, an eyewitness gives his account, before the excitable fan gives the version he’s read about, with Greaves’ personal recollection of the same incident coming last.
All this provides welcome context to what is often little more than a turkey shoot, albeit one enlivened by the series’ familiar slow-motion shootouts and punctuated all too rarely by its mano a mano duels, which have never been better. Score-attack mechanics reward you for headshots and successive kills in short order, and feed into a levelling system that encourages you to specialise in dual-wielding, ranged weapons or close-quarters combat, with a range of abilities to unlock. Progress carries over into a gleefully empowering New Game+, which further serves Greaves’ imagined legend; likewise the occasional QTEs, which feel less about tearing control away from the player, and instead enhance the sharp-shooting status of the eponymous anti-hero. As the corpses collapse from a quickfire four-button salvo, Greaves raises one pistol towards the screen to blow the smoke away, a flourish entirely in keeping with the fiction.
It may not be enough to rouse those with shooter fatigue, but this is a terrific genre piece: there’s a pleasing sense of weight and feedback in its gunplay, levels are snappy and replayable, while collectible cards offer an education in the real history of the era. In truth, however, the fiction – or Greaves’, at any rate – is more interesting than the fact. After The Cartel, few would have thought the world needed another Call of Juarez game. Gunslinger proves otherwise.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is out now on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC. PS3 version tested.