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Call of Juarez: Gunslinger
Graphics: 7.3
Gameplay: 8
Sound: 7.6
Control: 7.9
Replay Value: 7.5
Rating: 7.7

If you’re looking for a mostly mindless shooter with lots of flair and plenty of panache, you have to try Call of Juarez: Gunslinger. You can’t go into it expecting stellar visuals, a gripping storyline, or brilliant AI. This is a straightforward shooter, first and foremost, and it doesn’t attempt to go beyond that admittedly generic mold. However, one has to appreciate developers who know precisely what they wish to deliver; in this case, the designers wanted to create a true-blue shooter with a strong focus on gameplay, not frills.

As I said, the graphics aren’t anything particularly special. You won’t be fighting through sprawling, meticulously detailed Old West towns, the animations aren’t exactly superb, and some of the environments are sorta bland and uninteresting. But the special effects are pretty slick and the overall presentation is stable and even appealing. It’s appealing because we’re always so focused on the action that in truth, we don’t want to be distracted by flashy backdrops. Just give us a fitting setting in which we can run roughshod over our opponents with quick trigger work.

The sound is a little better, because we’re treated to the continuous, satisfying crack of various weapons that bolster the immersion. The soundtrack is decent, too, and there’s even a bit of comedy involved. The combat effects are sharp and unapologetic, in that they make themselves clear right off the bat. “Yep, that’s a crackin’ gunshot and it hit its mark…now aren’t you happy?” Or so each successful bullet seems to say. The tongue-in-cheek narrator increases our enjoyment and reminds us that Gunslinger never takes itself seriously. That’s important; it’s supposed to be silly. And yet this retelling of an impossible tale is worth hearing.

That is in fact the premise— the hero is telling an interested group of listeners at a saloon about his rough and rowdy past, which includes run-ins with some of history’s most notorious outlaws. Silas Greaves had dealings with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as well as Billy the Kid and other unsavory individuals. It’s pretty funny when Greaves’ memory fails him and he starts tossing in other big names from the past, whether they’re accurate or not. Some of the stories he tells are quite amusing and even well-constructed, but none aspire to an especially high quality.

You’ll see the ending coming six miles away but that’s okay. The focus remains squarely on the action throughout, and that’s a good thing. If you remember those pop-up shooting galleries from the good ol’ arcade days, you know what to expect. Okay, so each foe isn’t exactly a cardboard cutout but hey, their intelligence is on par with that of cardboard. They do know how to take cover and they can be crack shots, but their strategy is erratic. This means that although you don’t really have to respect the brains of your opponents, you do have to remain vigilant. Stay behind cover, don’t waste bullets, and be patient and deadly.

The level design is great and you can take advantage of a wide variety of cover spots. If you’ve found a reliable one, you can take aim and rack up a big-time score multiplier, which is a key component of the gameplay. The cool part is that as the story progresses, the firefights become more and more insane, so you have ample opportunity to up that multiplier. You do, however, have to occasionally throw caution to the wind in order to score huge points, so it’s a definite risk. It can be worth the risk because any points earned can be spent on buying new skills, such as the ability to slow down time (my personal favorite, as always).

You can unlock new weapons along the way as well, but you’ll stumble across plenty of new guns during any given level. There’s plenty of diversity in the game’s available weaponry, and it’s great to have so many top-notch options. One minute, you might be lining up a few long-range shots with a special rifle and the next, you’re blasting through a bunch of baddies at close range with a shotgun. The control is fast and precise, and movement is smooth and never frustrating. You won’t feel shortchanged when you fall in a hail of bullets; you fell because your attention wavered or your shots were missing. You didn’t fall due to poor game construction.

A franchise trademark, the quick-draw one-on-one duels, has also returned. This is probably the best it has ever been, as it requires both timing and reflexes, without feeling clunky or difficult to master. All you need to master is your own dexterity, which is just about right for a quick-draw match, wouldn’t you say? It can be a little difficult to keep the target within the aiming reticle, but practice makes perfect. Steady now! Unfortunately, not all significant encounters are so well designed. There are a few that seem too difficult and far too annoying, especially when your options suddenly become extremely limited.

Playing multiplayer is a blast and fighting your way to the top of the leaderboard is never boring. Granted, there’s a fair amount of repetition due to the very nature of the game (shoot bad guys, then shoot more bad guys), but the pacing is good and Greaves’ stories really can keep you entertained. I wanted more depth from the character advancement system, but I should probably make allowances for the fact that this is a smaller Call of Juarez production. However, digital titles are getting deeper and more complex with every passing week, and this does feel a little bare in direct comparison to other recent downloadable games.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is an entertaining, fast-paced Western shooter that does a lot of things right. First and foremost, it returns to its roots with the classic Western theme (no idea what they were thinking with The Cartel). It also makes no bones about what it is: A rock-‘em, sock-‘em shoot-‘em-up that pulls no punches – or in this case, bullets – and is unabashedly stupid. It’s one of those great little guilty pleasures that doesn’t have a brain in its head, but its tongue-in-cheek attitude and super fun style reminds us that sometimes, it’s okay to be dumb. Hell, it can even be preferable on certain dreary, rainy days.

The Good: Cracking sound effects and a decent score. Well-designed levels. Crisp, reliable control. Fun, trigger-happy gameplay. Love the quick-draw duels. Multiplayer is a blast.

The Bad: Graphics won’t impress anyone. Story is too predictable. A few of the boss encounters are just plain frustrating.

The Ugly: “Nothing…but isn’t it a little ironic that we’re talking about a Western-themed game and we’ve got ‘The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly?’”

6/3/2013   Ben Dutka