“When a man’s got money in his pocket, he begins to appreciate peace”
Why should my first person shooter have a story? Can’t I simply start the game without being spoon-fed exposition? I won’t listen to it anyway because I’m too hyped to begin the game.
Even from its humble beginnings, the first person perspective game had minimal plot to start with. Games that tried out these three-dimensional environments, such as Incentive Software’s ‘Driller’ focused primarily on puzzle solving and exploration. The game only had simple objectives, and lore about the game was entirely optional reading.
Later titles such as Id Software’s infamous ‘DooM’ and ‘Wolfenstein’ had a similar format; bare bones story that accompanied the bloody action. Future reboots would take advantage of available technology, evolving to flesh out a fuller game, complete with characters and dialogue.
Nowadays titles like Bioshock and even Call of Duty wrench away control from the player to tell its tale. Surrounding NPCs and even the protagonist will spout dialogue throughout the journey, usually culminating in long drawn out cut scenes.
Developed by Techland and published by Ubisoft, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is perhaps the most story-driven action game I’ve played since a JRPG. The game begins in the year 1910 in Abilene, Kansas with an aged bounty hunter named Silas Greaves. He regales a group of eager listeners with his stories in a saloon. The stories themselves being about various bounties he claims to have collected over the years.
It’s through these stories that the player finally enters the game. As world is literally drawn around you, you are given some exposition that sets the scene. The path you embark on is fairly linear, though certainly not enough that you’ll feel trapped. All the while Silas and his listeners will chime in with questions and opinions surrounding the event. This leads into Silas having to clarify certain elements and downplay some hyperbole on more than one occasion.
It’s amusing how Silas recollects escape routes and pathways that were previously hidden. This habit continues enough for his credibility to slip, causing him to become a somewhat unreliable narrator. He may woo them with tales of how he personally hunted and killed the Dalton Gang. Or insisted that Butch Cassidy returned to the USA and never hid out in Bolivia. But after a while suspicion hangs heavy in the air as his audience start to lose their once blinding starstruck impression of the bounty hunter.
The path itself is fairly linear but it does offer occasional secrets. These little secrets offer tantalising factoids about the old west, such as persons of interest and certain aspects of American society during the 1800’s. Reading up on L. Frank Baum’s perspective on Native Americans was quite a disturbing eye opener. In fact every one of the bounties Silas searches for has their own concise factual biography.
Playing the game
With a cel-shaded drawn appearance, the beauty of Call of Juarez: Gunslinger cannot be overstated. Birdsong fills the air in the more rural locales and it’s not long before bullets do the same. You simply walk towards the main objective with a couple of guns attached to your belt. As you traverse the landscape looking for the target Silas has described, you’ll occasionally stop as he describes more of his raison d’être. Or encounter a group of enemies sitting between you and your eventual destination.
One memorable encounter included teaming up with Billy the Kid at a farm, helping him to defend a farmhouse before leaving and subsequently being arrested for aiding a known felon. This mission in and of itself involves you making a path through the farmyard, eventually getting into the farmhouse itself and holding out until you’ve essentially cleared the area of enemies. With a choice of various handguns and rifles, the game has plenty of choice in what fighting style you prefer. Feel like sniping with a slow yet powerful Ranger pistol? Or perhaps you prefer the up close and personal raw power of a double-barreled shotgun. Whatever outfit you choose the gunfights are incredibly fun. Landing consecutive kill shots racks up combos that earn you points at the end of each chapter.
More kills means filling your quick reaction meter, where hitting the Q key gives you the upper hand. The colours fade out and you’ve a few seconds to pick them off all enemies highlighted in red. The near death meter fills over time, where occasionally the camera will zoom onto an enemy firing and you can either dodge left or right to evade the incoming shot. While these functions seem a little surreal in a historical themed game, it actually flows fairly well into the pace of the game and becomes quite useful when approaching larger gangs.
As I mentioned before, Silas ‘adjusts’ his story when questioned about it, unravelling the progress you’ve made so far. This means that getting to a certain point will cause you to stop while the narration kicks in and then suddenly you’re somewhere else altogether. Sometimes you’ll just plod onwards in a silent world while the narration takes precedence.
When you finally encounter the bounty, a health meter will display above the action and it’s your job to whittle down their health. Standard fare I hear you say but it doesn’t end there. Once you’ve seemingly defeated the boss and all the minions they’ve thrown at you in the meantime, the game switches to a duel.
All you’ve learned about shooting in the open is narrowed down to a succinct moment between you and your quarry. A timer starts and your target shifts left and right in front of your vision. It’s your job to keep your targeting reticle over them, while at the same time keeping your hand steady above your gun. Keeping the target in your sights fills a percentage meter. The longer you keep him centered, the higher your focus will rise, enable a more accurate shot. Keeping your wavering hand closer to your gun runs up the speed percentage; the higher the number, the faster you can draw.
As soon as you hear a clock tower strike its bell, it’s up to you to whip the mouse down to draw your gun and then aim before he’s able to get a shot off. Sometimes you’ll even have to dodge either left or right to avoid a bullet from a naturally faster target. Even at medium difficulty the duelling mechanic is fairly challenging. At its peak difficulty, there is no percentage gauge indicating your speed and focus. The duel will be marked down as dishonourable if you shoot before the bell.
With a lot of first person shooters catering to multiplayer crowds, it’s good to see some focusing on the single player experience. There is a solid length to this game’s story, with plenty of varied environments and characters that populate it. From a rain-swept logging yard to the hustle and bustle of a small town there’s plenty of atmospheric detail applied in each chapter. You’ll certainly get a sense of peril defusing explosives on a railroad bridge and a rush of excitement as you escape a town’s jail.
Each of the weapons used has a proper sense of impact. Throwing bundles of TNT actually feels like you’re throwing a deadly explosive, as they easily kill multiple enemies in one shot. Hardly any enemies seem to survive the full brunt of a shotgun’s blast either when used in close quarters.
A skill tree unlocks numerous skills in three different categories of gun slinging, sniping or up close and personal. Extra arcade modes give you a fixed number of targets within a small area. Plus you’re able to replay any of the duels you’ve cleared in the main story. Or hone your skills should you choose to go around again on a higher difficulty.
Enshrined by gorgeous visuals and a soundtrack that would make Ennio Morricone tremble, the game is a pleasure to play. The music keeps perfect pace with the game; slowing when the surrounding area is nearly silent while hammering up the pace when the action kicks in. The story has enough chapters without drawing on too long, ending with a satisfying punch when you go against your final quarry.
5 out of 5