Techland loves the old west. Most Americans have stored our shared mythology away in some corner of our collective consciousness and moved on to other story tropes, but the Polish developer responsible for the Call of Juarez series still seems as passionate as ever about the genre. After a brief and arguably ill-advised foray into modern times with Call of Juarez: The Cartel, its next game subtitled Gunslinger boisterously fawns over spaghetti westerns. Maybe it took The Cartel to make us miss it, but the renewed fervor is so charming it's infectious.
Blazej Krakowiak, Techland's international brand manager, explained to Shacknews why the company is so enthusiastic about the setting. "If you look at modern westerns it's more of a dystopia, because you have this society and law and morals, and they crumble around you. It becomes the wild west," he said. "In the old west -- the thing that our fans really love, the classic stuff -- you go in where there's nothing and you build something. You build the honor code, you build morality, you build the law. Basically, America was built like that. That's why it lives in pop culture. People wanted this positive type of western more."
Gunslinger is set apart from prior Call of Juarez games by its narrative framing device. The game centers around an old bounty hunter, Silas Greaves, as he tells his life story while sitting in a saloon. Old, possibly drunk, and more than willing to embellish, Greaves' story doesn't always line up with history. For one, he makes the unbelievable claim to have personally come in contact with three of the most famous outlaws of the time: John Wesley Hardin, Billy the Kid, and Jesse James. But recognizing his unreliable nature is a large part of the game's central conceit.
"We turned to the real fabric of westerns, the legends," Krakowiak said. "[Silas is] the narrator and as we play we get to hear him narrating his own life. As a narrator he also controls the story. So if he changes something, if he changes his mind, or if someone tells him that he's probably making himself look good, he can go back and revise it a little bit, and the game changes to reflect that in front of us."
In a short hands-on demo, this was expressed through a running commentary that seemed to shift based on how I dealt with enemies. The game was still mostly linear though, as stepping outside of mission boundaries would pop up a helpful warning that I'm veering off course of the story he was trying to tell. And if the game is about one thing, it's that this is Greaves' story to tell.
"In the old west, dime novels, print press, that was all just beginning. This is something that sparked all the things that we take for granted," Krakowiak explained. "News would travel for weeks around the country. If you read a dime novel, you don't really know better. If a guy sits down and says he was there, you may assume he's full of shit, but it's his story. He gets to do whatever he wants with it. If he is the only guy who lived, he absolutely controls it."
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Though the series is going back to its roots, it is introducing some new elements. A "Sense of Death" feature gives you a chance to save yourself from a would-be fatal bullet by slowing time to dodge. It's also introducing more common modern game mechanics for the first time in the series, like unlockable skills and a scoring system.
In my time with the game, some segments fell into trial-and-error to learn enemy positions. The bandits I was fighting weren't incredibly smart, but they were well-armed and numerous, so it was common to go through a few tries to get a firefight just right. The game itself is an old-fashioned shooter with a few bells and whistles, but the shooting felt natural and well-weighted, and the environment was novel enough to pull me through. If the plot device fulfills its potential, Gunslinger could just be an enjoyable call back to a simpler time -- both as a shooter and a western.