You take on a western, you’re taking on the one true American mythos. A man with a personal code. The freedom of an open range. A struggle to prove oneself against the world. Throw in some horses, and you’ve got a formula that keys directly into our nation’s primal instincts in ways a space marine never will.
And that mythos is full of celebrated legends born out of second-hand hyperbole, half-truths, and outright lies.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger (releasing “soon” on PC, Xbox Live, and PlayStation Network) knows this well. The two-hour preview build I recently played calls those contradictions out and points a big finger at them in interesting ways, but otherwise, its instincts are off. In a lot of ways, it’s better at demonstrating how a setting like the Wild West can pay off big in a video game and why it falters so much more often.
The latest in a historically mediocre franchise, Gunslinger centers on Silas Greaves and his name-dropping career as a bounty hunter in the old west. His is a tale of revenge told in flashback from a Kansas saloon, where dime-novel exaggeration and Silas’ faulty memory (along with his poor storytelling skills) clash in ways that routinely walk the gameplay back a few steps. Trees spring up from the ground when Silas remembers they existed. Suddenly vital details drop out of the sky. An ambush by Apache warriors rewinds when Silas corrects himself — they were outlaws who attacked using Apache-style tactics.
It’s like playing cowboys inside the Matrix. The legend vs. reality highlights ring true, but Gunslinger shows way too much of its hand way too early, reversing your very first showdown boss duel against Pat Garrett — the man who supposedly back-shot Billy the Kid — because it never actually happened. So did I waste my time doing it at all? Why am I penalized for dishonorably drawing first in a non-existent fantasy gunfight?
Call that revisionist history/gameplay a fun device that wears thin well inside of two hours. Mainly, it made me think how better westerns ground their legends with something less gimmicky: good characterizations.
Ray and Thomas McCall, lead gunfighters of Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood, definitely clean up their corner of the Old West, but they also habitually make bad choices that seem right at the time. In Red Dead Redemption, protagonist John Marston regards his “glory days” as one big mistake where he did more harm than good. Supposedly ruthless killers become, at closer range, fallible men just trying to do their best in a violent land. Sometimes, that’s enough to hang a legend on. And that’s a tale worth telling.
Gunslinger, on the other hand, lets famous names do all its heavy lifting. Silas trades lead with headliners like the Dalton gang, Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch, the Clantons of OK Corral fame, and naturally, Billy the Kid … but so far, Gunslinger doesn’t actually do anything with them. It feels more like stunt casting. Worse, Silas bumbles through their stories instead of concentrating on his own. Compare that to Red Dead Redemption which, despite a sprawling storyline, doesn’t feature a single celebrity cameo. It builds its own characters instead. And despite a huge story and numerous side quests, the focus never strays far from Marston’s quest to right his past misdeeds and rescue his family.
No lie, Gunslinger makes use of some very real — and very colorful — history, and it’s plain that somebody’s having fun with it. But the game rushes to debunk that western mythos without ever establishing it first.
A closed-off design with iffy mechanics doesn’t help. Gunslinger is a corridor shooter set in the great outdoors, and that feels as odd as it sounds. A few areas are a bit more open, but the game twists itself into peculiar shapes in order to funnel you straight at the door. Likewise, environmental effects like a massive flock of birds passing overhead make for one impressive skybox until you quickly realize they’re on endless-loop repeat. You’re not supposed to hang around. Push stick forward. Shoot men. Exit.
That’s not what a good western does.
A good western takes time to breathe. It establishes the hero, their mission — bring the bad men to justice, drive cattle to Montana, protect one’s home and family, get the gold — and most importantly, their ethos. That personal code of honor, maintained in lonely, unwatched places and used against lawless men, always separated westerns from all other genres. Done right, it’s perfect material for a video game.
An open-world design like Red Dead Redemption, where you explore the frontier at will and chose your own code to live by, holds advantages a Call of Juarez can’t easily match. Gunslinger still should’ve tried a bit harder. Its quick-draw duels capture the quiet tension and hair-trigger spasm of a real gunfight far better than Red Dead does, even improving on previous Juarez entries, and Silas seems like a fun character. Unfortunately, Gunslinger just can’t put it all together. It lacks any illusion of freedom. It doesn’t believe anything. Silas does have a mission to accomplish, but in the five missions I played, he chases just about everyone except the object of his revenge.
It’s a shame that Call of Juarez: Gunslinger comes across as a lesser effort, particularly since some of the writing has bounce. You just need more than six-shooters and saddlebags to make a western. You need the spirit of independence. Without it, you have a horse opera that’s missing its soul … and that’s something you can leave behind on the dusty trail.
GamesBeat 2014 — VentureBeat’s sixth annual event on disruption in the video game market — is coming up on Sept 15-16 in San Francisco. Purchase your ticket now to save $200!