It’s a credit to how many top-level games are published–or a curse of the media’s myopia in deciding which are worth covering–that Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is just a few places out of being in my top games of 2013. This under-the-radar title was perhaps tainted by its association with the Juarez name (a problematic and spotty series), but it’s an original entry that plays like Bastion meets Bulletstorm, and if you’re a fan of the Wild West and revisionist history, you can’t go wrong with this one. It’s not because there aren’t flaws in Gunslinger: the graphics were instantly dated, the maps were often recycled, as was the arsenal, which was limited to only a fistful of weapons (and realistically, only a shotgun, rifle, and pistol at that). There’s not much in the way of music, and there’s no multiplayer, beyond Leaderboard jockeying.
But these limitations can be viewed another way: as an opportunity to focus on the single-player, arcade experience. After all, Donkey Kong‘s not very visually appealing, and the levels quickly begin to grow repetitious, but there’s something special about grinding out an extra multiplier, dodging (or killing) just one more foe. Moreover, Gunslinger doesn’t purport to be authentic: the entire game is a flashback, narrated by the lead character, Silas Greaves, and constantly questioned by the people he’s telling the story to. (One introduction begins “A long time ago, on a mountain far, far away.”) You might start in the middle of a shootout, only to find yourself rewinding to earlier that day; a daring bank heist by the Dalton brothers plays out in three different ways, as Silas keeps switching his story: “Sorry, but that’s not the way it happened.” Indians appear out of nowhere, only to disappear moments later: “Sorry, I was just making sure you were still paying attention.” Even the gunplay is tongue-in-cheek, as Silas has a bullet-time “concentration” mode that allows him to dispatch multiple foes with alacrity, as well as a death sense that lets him occasionally dodge the bullet that would kill him.
That’s not to say the gameplay itself isn’t deadly serious, and it’s this very solid core of Gunslinger that propelled it toward the top of my charts. Despite all your fancy powers, shootouts come down to finding reliable cover (i.e., something sturdier that wooden planks that can be shot out) and flanking enemies–especially snipers and bosses; moreover, the Duel mechanic is brilliant, for it forces you to juggle both analog sticks, finding a balance between the speed with which you can move your shaking hand to the gun at your hip and the focus which you can place on your opponent’s head. Beyond that, you need hare-trigger reflexes to outdraw your opponent, especially if you’re honorably waiting for him to make the first move. (There are even variants within the Story and Duel modes that introduce multiple opponents, cheaters, and a challenging Mexican Standoff.) Additionally, because there’s a nifty XP system in place (in both the Story and Arcade modes), you’ll find yourself trying to milk the most out of each encounter, going for long-distance head shots, piercing rifle attacks (that dispatch multiple foes at once), environmental explosions (to keep your combo going), and a bevvy of other tactics that include dynamite as a distraction and on-the-fly weapon swapping (to avoid reload times). And although each encounter plays out in a similar fashion–and this is true of most FPS experiences, there being only so many ways to shoot things, after all–Gunslinger at least adequately mixes up the scenes, from sawmills to speeding trains, bustling outposts, ruined steamboats, and, in one instance, a literal ghost town. (Yes, the game takes poetic license in expressing the costs of Silas’s Western quest for vengeance.)
TL;DR: Gunslinger might recycle environments, but even the sometimes repetitive combat within them more than makes up for it, with an entertaining, yarn-spinning, half-serious arcade FPS that balances over-the-top narrative with fast-paced combat and meticulous duels. There’s no time to question some of the worse elements of the game, not when you’re blissfully kept busy, gleefully gunning down everything that moves.