Year of Gaming 1: Call of Juarez Gunslinger

First off, the name bugs me. The name indicates that the call is for the Juarez gunslinger, but the logo gives a different impression:256px-CallofJuarez-cover

It is in fact the 4th entry in the Call of Juarez series. You play as Silas Greaves, a n old west bounty hunter and perennial vitriolic coot yelling at kids to get off his lawn, with like, a bazillion fragmented stories to tell. As Silas tells the story in the voice over, you are playing the actions he is talking about. He tends to ruin the surprises in the voice over; you’ll be sneaking along, exploring the map, and he’ll say something like “And then I was ambushed up the ass!” Kind of ruined it for me, honestly.

Another thing that disappointed me was how the game felt. At first you get the sense of more of a sandbox environment, until you find out that it’s boringly linear. There are so-called “secrets” in each level (I’ll detail that in a minute) which, if you are able to look around (I’ll get to that, too, in a minute), are easily found. It didn’t really provide that much of a challenge, or sate my hunger for exploration, which was a shame; most of the environments were quite scenic, and would have provided a real obstacle to hunting these secrets down.

The “secrets” I mentioned give an XP boost, which is nice I guess. The other benefit to finding them is to get the “Nuggets of Truth”. These are simply short descriptions of actual historical events that Old Man Greaves is interjecting himself into (did I mention Silas Greaves has dementia? He has dementia). They’re interesting, but it breaks the immersion somewhat. Finding them is easy, but only if you’re not getting gunned down by 20 other bandits/deputies/angry pregnant saloon girls. It’s also tough to find them because the game is so linear. Once you get to a certain part of each story, the area you were just in may be cut off to you, or the story may end altogether, providing no way to go back and explore to get them. Some of the levels offered me the chance to find the secrets by putting “the boss fight” at the very end, so I could explore the entire map without triggering the event. Others were not so kind, and I found myself taken away to the next chapter or so before I really even wanted to leave.

The system plays like an arcade FPS, which is exactly what I want when I hear a name like “Call of Juarez: Gunslinger”. Unfortunately, there is a weird RPG element to it as well. You gain XP by killing the various baddies, earning more points and combos for quick, challenging kills. That doesn’t really bother me, and I like the idea of being rewarded for head shots and shooting 5 people in 4 seconds. The thing that bothers me is what you sink those skill points you earn into. You don’t get to upgrade things directly, like your health level or running speed. Instead there are three skill trees: ranged, dual-wield, or close-quarters. For ranged, you can invest in abilities that will help to snipe. For dual-wield, you increase the usefulness of using two guns at the same time. For close-quarters, you upgrade mostly shotgun attributes. While this may seem more useful than bulk upgrades for health, ammo, and Metamucil capacity, consider this: focusing on a character that only does range, or close quarters, or dual-wields will leave you fucked over about 1/2 the time. You don’t get to bring ammo or your gun of choice with you, and are only give the guns and ammo as dictated by Silas’ story. In one of the stories, you even get to run out of ammo, and you don’t get an opportunity to pick up a different gun. In another, you only get to change out weapons right before the “boss”. You’ll need each tactic, too. You won’t have the choice to snipe every bad guy because some only spawn when you trigger the next part of the story, and by then it’s too late. You can’t just shotgun everyone because you will get mowed down before you can even get close enough to take them out. And dual-wield will only work the best if you have similar types in each hand, and that is not even an option in some of the stories. Ultimately you have to spread your skill points around. They don’t come easy, though, so it’s tough deciding which perks to go with, and then you end up regreting the decision immensely when you enter the next area.

I actually started playing the game about a week ago, but hadn’t played it since until today. I was so turned off by all of the cons that I gave up after about an hour. But after picking it up again and sitting through some more of it, I started to like it. The combat system, once I got used to it, is extremely fluid. At first I expended ammo shooting everywhere BUT the enemy, and had no idea what I was doing, but now I fire off quick headshot combos. It’s essential to actually use obstacles to hide behind and shoot from any chance you get, which is extremely frustrating at first but lends to the immersion. It starts to really feel like you’re in the old west, shootin’ up the place. You don’t have a health bar either, so you go on how dizzy you get after getting shot, which keeps you focused on the fight and survival rather than on explicitly increasing your HP. Sitting down to revive for a little bit is how you regain health, but be careful, the AI can occasionally come after you. This, along with a concentration meter (think “The Matrix” bullet-time) and a special chance to miss a dead-on shot every now and then makes for a confusing and busy beginning, but it blends together to create a great experience. Having the ability to get the player to master the combat system early on is a tough trick I don’t think a lot of games do very well, and I think this game manages to it very nicely.

The game’s narrator also starts to grow on you. The story starts out as silly, because you’re fighting alongside Billy the Kid, and that of course is one of the first old west gunslingers you think of. To me, it seemed cheesy. But then again, I’m not an expert in old west history, so when I started to play more of the game and basically learn all about the real gunslingers, playing an alternate history suddenly became interesting. You’re also not out in the desert the entire time, changing between several biomes, which makes each story feel like a unique chapter. I started to give a crap about the backstory being narrated while my guns were blazing.

Ultimately, enjoying the game sneaks up on you. While at first it seems like the developers did a shit job on updating the old arcade shoot ’em up style, the immersion factor after the first story will suck you in, and the combat becomes fluid after some time taken getting used to it.

I made it about 1/4 of the way through the main game, so I predict that a casual gamer will finish it in a week or so, and a dedicated gamer within a day or two.  You can find this game on Steam as well as Amazon.

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