Ubisoft’s Call of Juarez franchise is surely the definition of ‘hit-and-miss’ when it comes to first-person shooters (FPS) on current-generation hardware. The well received initial title shocked a lot of gamers, and as such a sequel was rolled-out to critical acclaim. A third title, Call of Juarez: The Cartel took the interesting route of bringing the Old West thematic to a modern day drug squad with decidedly mixed results. Of course, given that the gameplay didn’t stand-up to the willingness to experiment with this third title, developer Techland’s ambitions have been curtailed prematurely, and it’s back to that original Old West setting for the fourth title.
While the fact that Call of Juarez is returning to familiar ground may at first feel like a step backwards, in play it looks set to be something entirely different. Developed as a title intended to launch via Xbox LIVE Arcade, PlayStation Network and PC digital distribution systems (with the Xbox 360 version being shown to Electronic Theatre for this preview) Call of Juarez: The Gunslinger takes it’s cues from Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood: the second and best selling title in the series. This means that Call of Juarez: The Gunslinger is all about the quick-draw gameplay, shooting from the hip at anything that moves as opposed to cautiously moving through waist-high cover and finding the bigger gun.
The action of Call of Juarez: The Gunslinger is narrated by the lead character, now an old man recalling his past in a bar while chatting with a young boy, a hooker and some other old men. It’s his recollection that spurs the player into action, both prior to beginning levels and during. An interesting design decision, the development of the plot through the hazy memory of an old timer is certainly a welcoming idea, but whether Techland can maximise the potential of this technique remains to be seen. They certainly intend on trying however, informing Electronic Theatre that the voice acting is a ‘significant part of game,’ with back-and-forths between player character and NPCs having an impact on the way the player interacts with the world.
In terms of gameplay, Call of Juarez: The Gunslinger’s hook comes in the form of the Concentration Mode, and thusly the score system. Scripted for tutorial sequence shown, Concentration Mode becomes available to the player whenever the associated gauge becomes full, allowing players to line-up shots for significant damage while in slow motion. It’s a familiar technique that has been used in numerous videogames, but Call of Juarez: The Gunslinger hopes to make the most out if it by adding an additional layer of depth through an in-game scoring system. Presented in all parts of the videogame (not just the Concentration Mode) players will be rewarded for making headshots, headshot slowmo, melee and stylish kills in a similar fashion to the disappointingly underappreciated Bodycount. Whether Techland can help the audience grasp the potential of such a system better than Codemasters managed remains to be seen.
Another technique clearly influenced by Bodycount is that of the enemy variety. During Electronic Theatre’s time with the videogame Techland stated that eight-to-twelve different enemy types would be present in the final build – in addition to boss characters – equipped with shotguns, dual wielding, wooden shields etc. Each enemy type will obviously require a different tactic to overpower, and thankfully the levels have been designed with this in mind. Plentiful cover is available throughout the wide levels, though given the destructible nature of the scenery you’d be well advised not to remain in one place for too long.
A number of other mechanics have also been presented in an effort to differentiate Call of Juarez: The Gunslinger from the FPS pack, such as the ‘Sense of Death’ and levelling system. Sense of Death is an interesting development that, should Techland manage to pull-off their ambitious design, could well become a staple for the genre in the same way that Codemasters’ Flashback has done in the racing genre: when the player is about to be killed by a bullet time will slow, giving you the opportunity to dodge and fire back, so long as your Concentration Mode gauge is full. Electronic Theatre would argue that having the dual-purpose gauge could confuse its potential, with players relying on it solely for one technique or the other, but any conclusions drawn at this point would be nothing more than conjecture. Given the polish seen in other areas, it’d be wise to have confidence in Techland’s ability to find the appropriate solution.
Call of Juarez: The Gunslinger is a very pretty looking title, featuring a wide variety of environments and some fantastic incidental detail – birds flying overhead, tumbleweeds, billowing grass, windmills, water wheels – all creating a believable world for the high octane gunplay. As stated above, the Xbox 360 version of Call of Juarez: The Gunslinger was being shown in it’s fullest glory, with the Trial version being selected and booted from the dashboard, suggesting that the videogame was very close to completion. Set for release in 2013, there should be plenty of time for Techland to work out the kinks and tidy-up those mechanics, and as such Call of Juarez: The Gunslinger claims a place amongst Electronic Theatre’s most keenly anticipated digital titles coming to consoles next year.