Techland took big risks with Call of Juarez that didn’t quite pay off. Rather than recycling previous success, they’ve hit the drawing board again. I moseyed on down to the Red Dog Saloon in London to put Call of Juarez Gunslinger through its paces, playing through the first 3 levels and a couple of missions in the arcade mode, before corralling Nicolas Joye for an interview.

The most obvious change with Call of Juarez Gunslinger is that the franchise is no longer a triple A title, opting instead for release across Xbox Live Arcade, the PlayStation Store and PC. Despite the radical shift in development, the benchmark for quality is high and is incredibly apparent from the moment you load up the game.

Visually the game has undergone a massive transformation, canning the gritty realism favoured by The Cartel for a cel-shaded palette, similar to what we’d expect from Borderlands. It adds dashes of colour to the dusky western plains, splashed with the blood of those who stand in your way. After sauntering into a local saloon, the protagonist regales the patrons with a tale of revenge and daring-do, framing your actions in-game.

From a technical perspective, Gunslinger functions perfectly as a first person shooter and oozes flair and style. It’s separated from its brown and grey cousins by Sense of Death and Concentration modes; the former allows you to dodge a lethal bullet and the latter being an adrenaline burst that slows time around you. It’s all very Matrix watching bullets start to spin past in slow-motion.

The Red Hand Gang had gotten violent in their old age.

Progression is monitored by an experience system, rewarding XP for chaining kills and the method of murder. Long range kills and headshots provide a decent level experience, as does the “handshake,” Gunslinger’s way of referring to the melee kill. Spider-Man has taught us that with great power comes great responsibility and it’s just a shame you’re not too responsible, since after enough wanton murder you’ll level up, branching into one of three development paths.

The game features three skill classes. The “Ranger” focuses on long range assaults, a specialist with the rifle and dropping combatants before they even know your there; The Trapper is the complete opposite, known for his devilish command of the shotgun, excelling at close range combat; and the “Gunslinger” is a wild card who paints a room with bullet holes, thanks to his dual pistols.

What separates Gunslinger from the pack is its jokey attitude, reflected by the way the story unfolds. Our hero is quick to embellish, referring to events in a slightly different light. Your actions can influence the narrative, climbing atop the water tower in the prologue results in a unique quip pro quo between himself and a female patron. Whilst these moments are rare, they showcase some brilliant moments of dialogue.

“They made up for their lack of skill with a seemingly endless supply of ammo”

Missions culminate with a duel or boss fight. The duel system is initially simple but expands as you engage in more shoot outs. It’s about balancing the speed of the draw and maintaining the accuracy of your shot. Those who wait for the opponent’s first move are awarded an honourable victory and a chunk of experience.

The boss fight in our hands on preview was against ‘Old Man Clayton,’ a coot lucky enough to get his paws on a gatling cannon. Sense of Death couldn’t save you from a barrage of bullets, but I managed to find a place where he would shoot at a rock directly in front of him, allowing me to chip away at his health bar… simples.

The campaign takes place across a series of open arenas and decent map mobility makes it feel less about trekking from point A to B. There’s a decent variety traversing enclosed towns, wide open plains and rocky caverns.

“I know Kung Fu…”

During one mission I dropped into a lake of water and realised that our hero was actually Jesus or at least Dynamo, literally walking atop deep water. With such emphasis on quality in Call of Juarez Gunslinger, I was really disappointed by this sudden slip-up and sincerely hope it’s patched by time of release.

After clearing the campaign (at least as far as they’d let me go) I has a jaunt with the arcade mode, a series of arenas that promote chaining kills and quick progression. You can switch between the classes at will but putting the time into one class unlocks additional perks, making your crack at the leaderboards easier.

Your efforts are measured on a star scale and attaining the third star requires an almost perfect run, finding the correct path to gun down your opponents in succession. If you falter here, you’ll lose any progress and nothing is more frustrating than having Ben Talbot say goodbye to you, only for your character the plummet of the edge of the arena (Just kidding man!).

“Do you feel lucky, punk?”

The quality of download only titles continues to improve and Call of Juarez Gunslinger heralds a new direction for the franchise. Its blend of frantic first person combat, cocky attitude and sense of “fun” breathes life into a series that lost its momentum as a triple A release.

Call Of Juarez Gunslinger is scheduled for release on May 22nd for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.

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