Mention the best Wild West games, and the one that’s likely to come up very quickly is Rockstar’s rootin’ Tootin’ cowboy-shootin’ —sorry, I mean Red Dead Redemption. Rockstar’s GTA-esque take on the Western era captured the hearts of gamers and critics alike (as Rockstar often seems to do for some bizarre reason) and it’s probably regarded as one of the best wild-west games of all time, if not one of the best games of all time.
Before Red Dead Redemption, however, there was a little franchise called Call of Juarez, developed by Techland (who would later also become known for Dying Light). The first game, which came out in 2006, was described by one critic as being like “a more refined Oblivion” – and while it didn’t do so well in the USA, it did well enough in Europe to warrant the creation of a franchise, the latest of which is Call of Juarez: Gunslinger. Released in 2013 for consoles and Steam before being re-released in 2019 for the Switch, in my humble opinion, this one is the best entry of the series.
Gameplay-wise, at its core Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is a no-nonsense Western shooter with a generous helping of style and panache. The best way to imagine it is like playing through a Western film: the levels are chaotic and filled with enemies to pop at every corner, complete with textbook Western “ptchoww!” noises as enemy bullets ricochet off things around you. The choice of weaponry for these levels is somewhat limited, in that all you really have are three different sorts of pistols (one for every range), a couple of shotguns (a big-ass double barrelled shotty and a smaller sawed-off variant), a lever rifle and some dynamite. This is just enough to cover all the classic Western weaponry bases, and despite this limitation it’s also just about enough to have all kinds of fun with as well. There’s also a perk system that lets you upgrade your weapons and fighting ability too, so you can always count on something new being added with every other level.
Besides that though, on occasion you’ll be taken into a “Standoff” minigame, where you and a famous figure from history participate in a duel. In contrast to the high action of the main gameplay, this mode is tense and requires a steady hand as you position your hand over the gun, get a good focus on your adversary, and most importantly, don’t draw your gun first or, as the game puts it, “history will remember you as a coward.” The result of this combination of rip-roaring Western shootery and high-tension duels is a game that doesn’t just feel like a game set in the West, it really does feel like a classic Western condensed into the form of a game in look, feel and gameplay, and the result is all kinds of satisfying.
Sure, you can make a good shooter and leave it there, and the end result will be a pretty darn good game already. But with Gunslinger, Techland went one step further and made the game’s story as intriguing as the gameplay is high-octane. The story follows the story of an old bounty hunter name of Silas Greaves – or rather, it follows the story of him recounting his recollections to a group of incredulous bar patrons, and it is these rum-addled memories that you’re playing through in the game’s levels. And his audience have every right to be incredulous, as Silas is a very unreliable narrator. Most of the stories you play though are highly unlikely and outlandish, including having rode with and killed various famous faces of the West, and some outright contradict recorded history, as the game sometimes indirectly points out by way of “Nuggets of Truth”. These are collectibles which are strewn about the levels, and which reveal little snippets of information about the real-life figures and events that Silas recalls.
Telling the story in this way allows for the game to do something particularly interesting with its story as well. On occasion, you’ll be playing through a level as Silas describes something that’s occurring, but Silas will then interrupt the action and say some variant of “But that isn’t actually what happened” or “But then I saw an exit!” What happens then is the level changes accordingly (ranging from bridges or paths miraculously appearing to an entire army of foes disappearing), and allowing Silas to explain what, in his recollection, really happened.
This, in my view, is actually a pretty ingenious interpretation of the unreliable narrator gimmick. It really drives home the fact that what you’re playing through is one man’s version of events, in all its unreliability and temperament, as he is recalling them. It also gives the story an element of unpredictability as well: not even the player is sure how much of Silas’s story is true, how much he genuinely believes, how much is just straight up lies, or how the story might change at the slightest provocation. Silas himself is a fascinating character as well, with his desire for revenge and his willingness to big himself up at the expense of the truth. In short, the story is atypical of its genre in that it is deep and complex, but at the same time is blended with the gameplay in all sorts of creative ways, and it works really, really well.
If Clint Eastwood and Wolfenstein had a baby, this game would be it. There’s plenty of Wild Western cowboy-shootin’ fun to be had, tense shootouts to survive, all interspersed with a story that’ll have you questioning what’s true and what isn’t at every corner. Perhaps where the critics of the first Call of Juarez called it a “more refined Oblivion”, one could similarly compare Gunslinger to a slightly less refined Wolfenstein: a real good Western shooter with a real good plot to go with it, and possibly one of my favourite shooters of all time.