And that’s pretty much how it happened. Maybe. Not really.
AAA games are screwing around too much. There, I said it. While I’m far more inclined to like AAA games versus this new avant-garde “It’s either Indie or it’s shit” movement, lately the price versus enjoyment ratio is starting to get a little bit skewed. Ever since Call of Duty made it acceptable to have a 4 hour game retail for $89.95 relying primarily on multiplayer to carry it, other studios seem to think that this allows them to follow the same model. CoD’s MP is shit in my humble opinion, but apparently I’m in a minority since people play it incessantly. For the majority of games though their multiplayer modes are horrible, and end up as ghost towns shortly after release. Why AAA devs think they can keep this up is beyond me. Yes, development costs have increased. But to be honest I don’t really want to watch 90 cutscenes or something (thanks Max Panye 3) with great voice acting if you’re not going to let me play a goddamn game. A few outfits have tried their hand at episodic content, releasing cheaper games with a few hours of gameplay with a narrow focus. Some do this successfully – like Telltale Games and their masterpiece Walking Dead season. Others are laughably pathetic at it. Oh Valve, you do like to dig your own grave sometimes.
Call of Juarez – Gunslinger is one such attempt by Techland with Ubisoft publishing it, except it’s not really episodic. It’s a quick game available on Steam for $20, focusing entirely on single player with about 4 hours of gameplay. Short, sharp, to the point. It’s a bit of an experiment to see how people react to shorter games with lower price points. To me it seems like an attempt to bring the mobile game idea of “something to play real quick” to the consoles and PC. Is it a good buy for $20? How do I put this: hell yes.
Gunslinger is set in Kansas 1910, not long before the launch of the Titanic, when the Wild West was winding down, and a few years before World War 1 would grip the globe. You play as Silas Greaves, a bounty hunter who drops himself into a tavern to tell a load of stories about chasing down his targets, crossing paths and swapping lead with some of the most well known names from the Wild West. Alternatively, he makes up a load of nonsense to impress a bunch of people who are willing to buy him drinks. Or maybe there’s a reason he’s there. The story unfolds primarily though Silas’ sometimes rambling, sometimes sharply focused, often exaggerated and colourful storytelling. Silas is well voice acted, as are the other characters who are sitting there listening to him. They occasionally interject to question whether Silas is telling the truth, or to tell their own version of the story (which Silas often claims is complete bullshit).
This makes up for one of the more interesting gameplay mechanics I’ve seen. As Silas and the others tell the story or interject, the game changes. Silas might ramble on about shooting hundreds of men, only to have someone call him out on it and for him to revise his story. This prompts the game to back up and rewind a bit, turning back the clock and changing the environment a bit. The more common situation is when you’re stuck with apparently no way to advance, with enemies all around. Silas will often say something to the effect of “And then I saw this path, I swear I didn’t see it before!” and the game rips out a big rock or drops down a ladder or something to keep things progressing. It sounds cheesy, but it accomplishes two things. Firstly, it’s remarkably entertaining. Any sort of screw up or instance of deus ex machina, which is passed off as totally legit by the Call of Duties, actually makes a bit of sense and is damn funny with its delivery. Secondly, it covers up the arena-style mechanics which are inherent to games today. In CoD you shoot guys to reach the next trigger, and there’s nothing to disguise that. At least Gunslinger has the decency to go “This is very silly, so let’s at least acknowledge it.” This rambling storyteller mechanic leads to replaying some sections with different plot perspectives, keeping things interesting.
At its core though Gunslinger is a first person shooter with a strong story. The majority of your time is spent engaged in stereotypical wild west gun battles, firing away with pistols, rifles, shotguns, and dynamite. The gunplay is excellent and there are enough variations of pistols to fit most playstyles, as well as the rifles and shotguns. Shooting people in various and skillful ways earns you experience, allowing you to perform cinematic feats like rapidly reloading your six shooter or rifles, or dipping into Concentration (effectively bullet time) for longer. You can also dodge certain death in a quicktime-like event where Silas dodges an otherwise fatal shot, if you pick the right direction to move. It’s like being involved in a spaghetti western, complete with squinty eyes and high noon showdowns.
Speaking of which, you’ll take part in a number of these duels. The goal is to shoot the other guy before he shoots you, obviously. To accomplish this you’ll need to keep your crosshair over the target, as well as keeping your hand near your gun, and then picking the right time to shoot. Shoot too early and it’s considered a dishonourable kill and worth less experience. Otherwise you need to wait until they draw first, then take your shot. It’s a great mechanic and quite tense. At the end of the game, and in the other gameplay modes, you can get involved in a Mexican Standoff between you and two others, having to watch your targets carefully to figure out who’s going to shoot you first. As an aside there are arcade and duel modes for some quicker, less story focused action.
CONCLUSION: Gunslinger is well worth the $20. Every second of the 4 hours is pure gold. The voice actors are fantastic. The storyline is fun, if a little stereotypical. You’ll probably see the twist at the end coming, but it’s still a nice touch. Really, I don’t have many criticisms. $20 seems a little steep to me (I’d suggest $15) but otherwise it’s a great game.