Previews

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger XBLA hands-on - Techland's old Western shooter bounces back

Blasting away the memory of the Cartel

Now here's a series that's seen better days. Better decades, even. Last year's Old-West-meets-gangland-Mexico effort The Cartel was a hangover of a game, born of a wish to stretch the original's cowboy antics into something as sophisticated as a Red Dead Redemption. Thankfully, the series' XBLA debut is a humbler, less compromised shooter - a therapeutic mid-morning fry-up, if you will, which puts the emphasis squarely on blasting pop-up varmints in stylish ways.

Where number three's story wanted to be all grand and topical, Gunslinger's premise is deft and self-deprecating. It's a collection of Old Western bar yarns featuring famous faces like Billy the Kid, passed on by living legend Silas Greaves to an audience of reverential drinkers. Greaves narrates each mission as you play, but his isn't the only version of events - listeners may interrupt, changing missions on the fly.

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One wet-behind-the-ears kid recalls reading about a gunfight with Pat Garrett, and I'm promptly plunged into a high noon duel with the esteemed frontier personage in question. The implementation here should be familiar to returning players - the camera drops to slightly behind your hip, and the idea is to edge your hand closer to your holster with one stick while tweaking your aim with the other. When the town bell rings you draw by squeezing the trigger, look on in agony as the targeting reticle snakes slowly up to your opponent's chest, and fire by squeezing the trigger once again. It's a pleasantly suspenseful reprieve from the bombastic frenzy that characterises the gun-fighting elsewhere.

Silas is having none of it, however. "Don't believe everything you read," he comments, whipping me back to the start of the sequence, which then unfolds in more plausible, anti-climatic style. Later, a posse of reinforcements vanishes into thin air after Silas takes issue with another tall tale, obliging me to fight Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on my lonesome while touring the teetering wreckage of a railway bridge.

These playful switchbacks frame an experience that's one part period style to one part cartoon excess. The game's six-shooters, rifles and shotguns are thickly outlined, thunderously satisfying lumps of Borderlandsy colour, and the train cars, barnyards and one-horse towns that comprise the levels are the stuff of storybooks, erupting all over with arcade feedback in mimicry of People Can Fly gem Bulletstorm.

As in the latter, you're encouraged to play with your food - targeting body parts makes for juicier score payouts. Greaves' ability to slow time helps with this, of course; you can also dodge bullets on the point of death by tilting the stick. The game's relaxed attitude to the laws of space and time allows for some Matrix-level knockback - at one point, I punt an old cowpoke skyward with a sawed-off shotgun blast, then circle behind his airborne carcass and blast it again in the bum.

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While environments are cramped, pushy corridors for the most part, there are optional distractions in the shape of trading cards, printed with charming little nuggets of Old West trivia. They're hardly essential, but it may please you to learn that there was once a man named Flat-nose Curry. Bits of scenery can also be shot away for a smidgeon of score and the gentle adrenaline hike that accompanies (e.g.) the sight of a pumpkin exploding.

There are three upgrade paths to spend experience points on - long range, short range and melee - encompassing a couple dozen or so unlocks in all. The more exciting examples include dual wielding, added slow mo when aiming down a rifle, and access to rare, high-falutin' firearms. It's hardly a progress ladder to rival Call of Duty's suite, and there's no multiplayer to back up the estimated 5-10 hour runthrough . But that's reasonable bang for 1,200 MP - and some reportedly fearsome New Game+ options may eke it out a little further.

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