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Call of Juarez: Gunslinger plays with history, myth and memory

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger puts you in the boots of Silas Greaves, a bounty hunter in the Old West, and you quickly discover that he's a rather unreliable narrator — but in the best way.

"Back in the Wild West, telling the story was part of growing the legend," said Blazej Krakowiak, international brand manager for developer Techland, after we played a 15-minute mission from the studio's upcoming downloadable shooter on the PAX East 2013 show floor.

Gunslinger is told in flashback, with a past-his-prime Greaves relating tall tales of his bounty-hunting exploits to a small audience in a saloon. The story concerns Greaves' quest to take down Roscoe "Rustling Bob" Bryant, a member of the John Kinney Gang, as well as Greaves' run-ins — sometimes as adversaries, others as allies — with Wild West legends like Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett and Wild Bill Hickok.

In the mission we played, we gradually made our way up through a ravine to the railroad tracks above, where the gang we'd been tracking — the Wild Bunch — had blown up a freight train, leaving cars dangling precariously off twisted tracks and rocky outcroppings. We took down a couple of gang members waiting on the side of the tracks, and that's when we first saw Gunslinger's scoring system in action.

One key difference between this game and the previous entries in the Call of Juarez series is that since it's a smaller downloadable title, Techland wanted to put more of a focus on arcadey action. So you'll get experience points for killing your enemies, and the more skill and creativity you show off — such as by pulling off headshots or killing people in quick succession — the more points you'll earn. You can spend those points to upgrade Greaves' skills along a few different tracks: Maybe you want to emphasize long-distance riflery, or focus on using six-shooters at close range.

As we walked through the train, the action was periodically interrupted by members of Greaves' audience asking about the story he was telling. Here, Greaves' embellishments came into view. A listener who was familiar with the canon version of the story, so to speak, asked if the Pinkerton cavalry came in at that point to chase off the gang. Greaves' view of the world initially included Pinkerton agents on horseback, but as he told audience that he instead had to go it alone, the riders disappeared.

"It's very important for us to mix the myth with the actual truth," Krakowiak explained. "The whole spin-the-tale [style of storytelling] is the nature of the West." Those who are interested in the actual recorded history can search Gunslinger's levels for collectibles to learn about the way events really went down.

As a segment of the game in which you walk along a train, the mission we played was linear. But Krakowiak assured us that Gunslinger also offers missions with a more open layout — even some with branching paths — and plenty of environmental variety. The train mission did include brief action sequences to break up the overall goal of moving through the cars. At one moment, we had to jump off a car that was about to become detached from the train and fall into the ravine; at another, we came upon a mounted Gatling gun and used it to mow down some gang members.

The mission ended with a duel against a gang member, and this is a unique part of Gunslinger. Before you draw your revolver, you have to keep your drifting reticle trained on your opponent. Then you pull the right trigger to pull our your gun, and hit it again to fire. But if you fire before letting your opponent draw first, the kill will be counted as "dishonorable" — and you'll lose the experience points you've accrued.

Asked why Techland brought Call of Juarez back to the Old West with Gunslinger, Krakowiak said the number-one reason was that the fan base wanted it. It's unclear if fans will also take to the scoring system here, or if it will drive the gameplay meaningfully. But the historical setting, and how Techland is playing with the legends of the Wild West, may be enough to draw people back to the franchise.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger will be available this spring on Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and Windows PC.