Genre: First-Person Shooter
Release Date: June 5, 2007
Call of Juarez is one of those games that you honestly want to see succeed in what it tries to do. After all, in the world of video games, the Wild West is still very much fertile territory. The single game that made people sit up and take notice about the genre in recent years past was Neversoft and Activision's GUN, and that can be had in bargain bins across the country now.
If you haven't already, you might want to go out and pick that up. Hate to say it, but it's actually a much better time than Juarez for the Xbox 360.
Whoa, look at that. I slammed the poor game in the second paragraph. Yet I can't being myself to feel much in the way of pity; rarely does a game that shows so much promise crash and burn so hard.
Here's the scoop: In a novel gaming twist, you play two sides to the same story in tandem, with very different styles of progression. Unlike previous games where this mechanic is used, such as Sonic Adventure, the two stories are very much linked instead of just crossing paths every once in a while. The first role you play is Billy, a drifter who's come home to a town that hates his guts, and who is accidentally framed for a murder he didn't commit. He's now on the run from the law, arrogant townsfolk, and the other person you play as — Reverend Ray. Finally fed up with the heathens who populate his territory, Ray pretty much goes on a violent, religiously righteous rampage that sees him taking down a whole lot of gunslingers in his quest to deliver unto Billy to final divine justice. As Billy, the hunted, you run for your life, scraping what you can along the way, surviving however possible. As Ray, the hunter, you put a bullet in anything that even thinks of getting in your way. (Also, you quote Scripture when you have Ray's Bible as the active "weapon." It's pretty cool, for some reason.)
All of this seems like a recipe for success, really. The story's decent, and the two-person, double-perspective hook works well. It's got a slew of classic wild-west movie moments — saloon shootouts, stagecoaches, horseback riding, making your way through desert and brush, prostitution (hey, GUN did it too), the works. When the game has its moments, it really has its moments. Shooting down all in your path with Reverend Ray can be exhilarating, and it's possible for sweat to form on your brow when an angry mob's on Billy's tail and you're quickly trying to figure out how to cross an obstacle quickly before you're shot in the back of the head.
However, all the great moments in the world don't mean squat if they're not fun to play through. Call of Juarez's main flaw is that the controls are just short of serviceable. In the first few minutes of the game, you're treated to a hackneyed stealth mechanic that works only when it wants to. You're never aware of the enemy's field of vision, or if that too-tiny bush through which you've currently clipped Billy's player model is going to completely obscure said model from the people you're trying to sneak past. (Just so you know, their field of vision is always farther and wider than you think.)
Ever climb a cliff in first-person? Ever enjoyed the process in any game that wasn't called Metroid Prime? Call of Juarez takes first-person platforming and makes it worse than it normally is. Jump heights are never what you calculate them to be, and the main character actually uses his unseen hands to climb cliffs. The cliff-climbing mechanism is sometimes triggered by moving close to said cliff, or by moving close to said cliff and then jumping. You then have to wait for the little jolt in your vision that tells you that Billy decided to pull himself up. If not, you try again — that is, if you haven't been shot by your pursuers yet.
Reverend Ray may actually have it even worse. During shootout sequences, Ray has access to a strange derivative of bullet-time that forces you to sit for roughly 15 seconds while it "seeks out" enemies. If they're found, you have exactly one second to shoot them for a slim chance of an instant kill before the sights leave their targets.
When he doesn't have any bullets? You get to run up to enemies and play Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots against stiff enemy models with the trigger buttons, and no recoil or feedback whatsoever. Fight Night this isn't.
All of this adds up to something akin to a cake sprinkled with cyanide. Not only is it deceptively bitter, but, wow, it doesn't take much to actually kill you. Two hours of this game had given me a headache like nothing else.
Speaking of headaches, as the final poison icing on the cake, the game possesses what I none-too-kindly call "Dead Rising Text." As you Xbox 360 gamers in the audience may remember, Dead Rising contained many words of text that were useful to read in the course of gameplay, as well as in between gameplay segments. Now, if you had a high-definition screen (the larger, the better), all would be well. The Xbox 360 was intended for HD gaming after all, wasn't it? However, if you were trying to play the game on a standard television, then shame on you. So what if you tried your best with S-Video? So what if you couldn't spring for an extra computer monitor or a plasma screen? If you don't play in HD, you don't get to read Dead Rising's text — at least, not without sitting super-close to the screen and destroying your eyes in the process.
I told you that story to tell you this one: Call of Juarez feels the same way about HD gaming that Dead Rising does. Cut scenes between stages possess paragraphs of atmospherical text that is sometimes spoken out loud. Loading screens contain helpful tips that tell you how to almost make sense of the game's nigh-idiotic controls. Let's not forget all of that lovely text that prompts what to do next, amidst multicolored landscapes.
Don't have an HD rig? Then you get to see all of that great, important text in 2-point font as you continue to stumble around the uneven prairies of the Old West.
That's about it, then, isn't it? Stick a fork in this game; it's done.
I sometimes forget how lucky I am to be a games journalist and a games retailer on top of it. Between the two professions, I get to play just about any game I'm interested in for free. Call of Juarez for the Xbox 360 was a game that I'd actually considered buying based on its premise alone. That would have been $60 down the drain that could have better gone toward food and bills. Being able to research these games before committing to buy them (either via press perks, rental shops, roaming around review sites or thumbing through magazines) is something that many of us take for granted in this day and age. After playing this title, though, I've developed a new appreciation of our current options for gamer awareness.
That's probably not what Ubisoft was going for by releasing this title, though. Oh, well.
More articles about Call of Juarez