Genre: First-Person Shooter
Release Date: June 12, 2007
It seems somehow appropriate that since the Italians were the ones to reinvent the Western genre with their Spaghetti westerns, that the next genre innovation should also come from Europe. This time, Polish developers Techland deliver us a highly inventive and enjoyable helping of stealth and first-person-shooter action in the form of Call of Juarez.
Call of Juarez's key innovation is to place you in the role of both the hunter and the hunted, each with very different styles of play, and to do so within the confines of a well-told plot to make the whole enterprise a highly believable and emotionally engaging drama that doesn't take a back seat to the action.
Billy Candle is a down-on-his-luck, half-Mexican vagabond and orphan. At every turn he's judged, blamed and hounded, and seemingly always on the run from someone or something. He's just returned to his hometown of Hope from an unsuccessful jaunt to find the legendary lost treasure of Juarez, and the sense of failure hangs over him like a bad smell.
Rumor has it that the Reverend Ray was once a notorious gunslinger feared across the Old West. These days, his only weapons are the words of God, which he preaches to save the souls of sinners and the damned.
Both characters become fatefully locked in a life-and-death chase after Reverend Ray spots Billy running away from his brother's murder scene. Incensed by his loss, the slightly unhinged reverend decides that guns speak louder than words, and as God's right hand, it is his duty to bring the killer to justice. So begins the epic fugitive hunt. While the plot resembles a straightforward revenge tragedy, it replays classic motifs stylishly, and there are also some neat twists in store.
Gameplay alternates between levels where you play as Billy creeping craftily behind the backs of bandits and rogues, and as Reverend Ray in hot pursuit plowing bloody swaths through the same bad guys. As the agile fugitive, Billy's style tends to lean heavily in the direction of stealth with basic platform elements. He has a whip, which is more useful at swatting wolves and crossing small gorges Indiana Jones-style than it is as a real weapon. He can pick up and use guns dropped by enemies, but his lack of body armor makes him vulnerable, especially when the numbers are stacked against him. One well-designed level which takes place at night during a thunderstorm provides a HUD indication of when you are concealed in the shadows and hidden from sight, but to complicate things a little, when lightning strikes, it lights you up like a Christmas show for all to see. Later in the game, Billy gets to use a bow and arrow with devastating effect because as he draws the arrow, time slows down to a crawl allowing you to focus and aim with deadly precision.
Reverend Ray, on the other hand, is a walking tank clad in what must be a piece of cast iron salvaged from a steam engine. He handily wields two guns and also possesses a special concentration ability, allowing him to slow down time and really create carnage. However, it's the small differences that stop Call of Juarez from merely regurgitating the stock bullet-time feature common to so many other first-person shooters. As you draw your guns you get two targeting reticles — one for each gun —which arc toward each other from opposite sides of the screen. Each gun is fired by the left and right mouse buttons, and the overall effect demands skill and dexterity where most bullet-time engines feel like style over substance hacks. Reverend Ray even brings fresh meaning to the phrase "bible bashing," as you can equip the holy book in one hand, reciting verses to baffle and confuse your enemies who stand there dumbfounded and slack-jawed just long enough for you to exercise the Reverend's special brand of lead-based salvation.
The back-and-forth gameplay creates a great cycle of tension and release, preventing what might otherwise become a monotonous exercise in simply shooting your way from A to B. It's also highly satisfying dispensing deadly justice on the same outlaws that you were just forced to avoid. It must be said, however, that the trigger-happy Reverend Ray's levels are a lot more fun to play than Billy's, which tend to suffer from small design faults that suck the fun out of the platform sections, and an AI that doesn't particularly respond realistically to stealth. Worst of all is trying to use the poorly implemented whip for jumping across gaps, which feels less action hero and more awkward than trying to open bag of chips without thumbs.
It's clear from the locations recreated in Call of Juarez that the creators love their subject matter. You get to revisit all the classics of the Old West, including saloons and brothels, abandoned mine shafts, and remote ranches, as well as taking part in stagecoach pursuits and railroad heists. The developers are always conscious to avoid repetitive gameplay, switching up the pace and nature of play between stealth and action and even including horse and mine car riding, rabbit hunting and mountain climbing. Perhaps the most novel of all is the gun showdown mini-game, where you have to face off against a lone gunslinger using your mouse to mimic the action of drawing a gun from its holster.
On a relatively powerful machine (Core 2 Duo 3.6GHz, 2GB RAM, 8800GTX), Call of Juarez boasts almost faultless visuals which make you feel like you should be on a photo assignment instead of an action game. The environments are fully 3D rendered and look a whole lot like the expansive eye candy vistas found in Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. The wide variety of terrains and locations are alive with small details such as the dust swirls, abundant swaying vegetation and distant dancing heat waves that bring the heat of a Texas midday right into your room. The NPCs' faces are wonderfully ugly, their meticulously crafted leathery features reflecting the rigors of life out West. The game engine's ability to focus and sharpen specific points of scenery helps to lend depth and scope to the panorama which can extend for miles toward the horizon.
The soundtrack fits like a tailor-made pair of jeans with a perfect blend of cello, violin and guitar to invoke the melancholy of a hot and dusty high noon, while action scenes are fitted with an adrenaline pounding melody. There are also plenty of immersive sound effects that add to the first-person experience, from the dull honky-tonk piano heard outside the saloon, or the dry crunch of your footsteps on parched prairie grass, to the whiny drone of flies as they buzz lazily around a pile of horse manure.
Call of Juarez's voice acting deserves special praise for being largely pitch-perfect and expertly lending humanity to the computer characters. The rogues are downright dirty with a thick drawl and they convincingly spit out colorful Western phrases. Actor Marc Alaimo's performance as Reverend Ray is particularly inspired. With charisma practically dripping from every word, he plays a range of emotions ranging between regretful penitence and blind fury, oftentimes in the same sentence.
The game never gets particularly challenging at normal difficulty and somewhere between 10 and 15 hours will see you to the end of the game. You can try again on hard, although its replay value is somewhat limited because of the linear nature of the game. Once you do exhaust your single-player fun, you can try your hand at owning friends and strangers online. Call of Juarez features three gameplay modes which are essentially variations on the tried-and-tested online modes — Deathmatch, Skirmish and Robbery (capture the flag). A fourth new mode called Gold Rush lets you run around the map collecting gold and killing anyone who gets in your way. At the time of writing, there were anywhere between 10 and 50 moderately populated servers, depending on the time of day and connecting to a host was largely trouble-free. Online gameplay gives you the option to choose your side and your character, which determines which weapons you go in with, including dynamite, sniper rifle, double-barreled shotgun and classic six shooters. From there, it's a straight forward fast paced frag-fest, just like it should be. The solid gameplay engine and variety of maps mean it's not hard to see Call of Juarez becoming an online staple once more players sign up.
There's enough that works well in Call of Juarez for the PC to distract you from the relatively minor quirks, such as the overly linear game structure. Although it never really feels very restrictive, from start to finish you're basically on one track with very little ability to veer away and do your own thing, and there's hardly any interaction with NPCs outside of the game script. However, the overall effect is a tour de force labor of love from developers who clearly cared, and knew what they were doing, and it's not hard to fully appreciate the end result.
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