Silas Greaves holds on for dear life as his horse spooks and rears at a passing motorcar.
The year is 1910, and the modern world has no more use for cowboys. At the saloon across the street, at least, the aging bounty hunter still serves a purpose. For a few free drinks, Greaves happily regales the barflies with talk of his adventuring days.
And that’s when the fun begins.
“Call of Juarez: Gunslinger” ($15; PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360) is a surprisingly entertaining first-person shooter set in the dying days of the Wild West. Developer Techland far exceeds tepid expectations in the wake of the series’ underwhelming history, crafting a fun, engrossing story backed up by capable gunplay.
The game’s action takes place in flashbacks, as Greaves’ tall tales stretch across the expanse of the American frontier. His exploits -- featuring run-ins with notorious outlaws including Jesse James and Billy the Kid -- seem too spectacular to be true, even to the most wide-eyed optimist among Greaves’ hangers-on.
The use of an unreliable narrator drives the story in usual ways. On several occasions, players relive the same events as told from different perspectives. When Greaves’ memory fails him, a barn may spring up from the earth, or a tree might fall across a chasm, creating a means to move his journey onward. It’s up to players and the saloon’s denizens to decide what mixture of truth, embellishment and outright lies makes up the heroic escapades.
These instances aside, “Gunslinger’s” action is largely linear. Each mission involves traversing a narrow path, pausing every now and then to wipe out a shooting gallery of bad guys.
When Greaves kills an enemy, he fills a portion of his concentration bar. This meter can be used to slow time and highlight foes, making it easy to line up the perfect shot.
Greaves only has a handful of guns to choose from, though he can also hurl sticks of dynamite. The meager arsenal is made more forgivable thanks to skill points that are spent upgrading weapons, unlocking attribute perks and boosting his concentration abilities.
For the most part, gunplay is sharp and responsive. When enemies duck behind cover, however, spotty hit detection plagues the action. I can’t count the number of rounds I wasted taking what appeared to be unobstructed shots, only to have my bullets bounce off an invisible barrier that hovers around the periphery of in-game objects. Being unsure whether your shot will find its mark is a major annoyance in a game that rewards precision and chained kills with extra experience points.
The episodes are also interspersed with quick-time events in which players must press a series of buttons as they flash on-screen.
Too often these situations sprung up without warning, and my attempts to pull the trigger in regular combat resulted in a failed QTE and a frustrating reload at the previous checkpoint.
The six-hour campaign keeps the action fresh by routinely mixing up settings and enemies. Just around the time in which the story starts to drag, however, players are sent to a swamp level, where the knee-deep water slows movement to a crawl. Thankfully, “Gunslinger” pulls itself out of the doldrums quickly.
Each level closes with a head-to-head showdown against a boss character.
During these duels, players use the right stick to focus their aim on the enemy while, with the left stick, keeping their hand hovering over their holstered pistol. Once the foe reaches for his weapon, Greaves’ quickness to draw determines who lives and dies. The execution is a tad unwieldy, but these duels provide each episode with a tense, satisfying conclusion.
You have to hand it to Techland for this surprisingly strong entry in the FPS genre. “Call of Juarez: Gunslinger” isn’t just better than expected, it’s easily the best game in the series - and superior to quite a few full-priced shooters.
Greaves’ journey may seem too far-fetched to believe, but it’s one wild adventure that comes highly recommended.
Final score: 8 out of 10