Call of Juarez: The Gunslinger preview - Jumping into a new saddle

After two cult (opens in new tab) hits (opens in new tab) and an attempt to bring chaotic shootouts to modern day Mexico (opens in new tab), Call of Juarez returns to the Wild West with a downloadable spin-off. Call of Juarez: The Gunslinger brings Techland's series from the "ripped from the headlines" trappings of the ill-received COJ: The Cartel to its base in a bygone era. Our first look revealed a game that seems like it'll satisfy the niche that made gamers adore the earlier titles in the series.

The idea, an Ubisoft producer told us, isn't just to bring the first-person shooter series back to its foundation, but to introduce new tales within the universe. The Gunslinger puts you in the worn boots of a mysterious storyteller who rubs shoulders with legends of the time. In the demo, we fought off packs of deputized men alongside Billy the Kid. You can expect more notorious figures, including Pat Garrett and Butch Cassidy.

The most immediate and noticeable element of The Gunslinger, aside from the return to the Wild West, is its art style. The game's cutscenes are told in a now-familiar motion comic style that many other titles tout. In action, it has a subtle hand-drawn art style that evokes popular shooters such as Borderlands. Plus, it has a revamped Concentration Mode (the slow motion feature that allows you to line up multiple quick kills) that's visually distinctive, as enemies will glow red--as opposed to the crimson-hued screen change in The Cartel or Bound in Blood's multiple bulleyes--and when shot, their blood flies out with a stylized comic book-like shape and velocity in the vein of 300.

The game has a stronger arcade feel compared to the previous titles, with a timer-based combo system that racks up your kill quantities and shows you an onscreen multiplier as you blast your way through a rogue's gallery. The better your combos, the more experience points you gain; those points, in turn, enable you to upgrade your arsenal.

Aside from XP, multiple kills build up your Sense of Death meter. When filled, this new gameplay feature lets you dodge an otherwise fatal shot. In this fresh mechanic, the camera focuses in on the would-be deadly bullet, and the onscreen action slows down long enough for you to duck out of harm's way.

The shooting action isn't completely on-rails, but the exploration looks to be about as guided as the likes of shooters such as Call of Duty. According to the producers, you can veer off the beaten path in certain stages, but it's not a free-roaming open-world shooter by any means. From what we saw in the demo, you can expect some big set pieces as well. In one section, the nameless hero discovered a barn. On the other side, there were six gunmen. While you'll have the option to flank them and take them down, the producer was in the mood to show off. He climbed a barn ladder to the second story, then jumped through the window with Concentration Mode activated. If you've played Max Payne 3, it's a moment that's very reminiscent of one of that game's early shootouts, as he took down nearly all of the varmints with impressive ease.

Although we didn't get hands-on time with Call of Juarez: The Gunslinger, it seems like the new and stylish gameplay additions--the XP system, Sense of Death, and revamped Concentration Mode--all add a new twist to Techland's formula. We're looking forward to checking it out in-depth prior to its early 2013 launch to see how it all gels.