Call of Juarez Review
If you like Western-themed action games where the final goal is a city made of gold, well, you've now got some choices for which game you'd like to buy. Of course, this is really more sarcasm pointed at the fact that we've now got two games released in the last few years with this exact theme. Neversoft's GUN, released a couple years back, told of a kid who just lost his supposed father and who must take on an old enemy while the search for a lost city of gold is going on. Now, European developer Techland has delivered Call of Juarez, where you play as two separate characters who get caught up in the legend of a lost city of gold which is rumored to be in Juarez, Mexico.
Fortunately, the similarities do end there. While GUN was intended to sort of be a Grand Theft Auto-lite in the Wild West, this game instead follows a more linear route, plays from a first-person view, and has a good combination of stealth action as well as two-fisted gunplay. In Juarez, you'll start out playing as a young half-white, half-Mexican named Billy Candle, returning to his home town after years away. He gets into plenty of trouble right from the start, though, as old enemies and authority figures immediately entangle him in a big mess. Then when his mother and stepfather are found murdered and he's the one caught standing there next to their bodies and immediately runs, the old Reverend Ray- the brother of the stepfather - decides to try and hunt him down.
But even more chaos ensues as the town's inhabitants decide to kill the sheriff and take matters into their own hands. Outlaws start going berserk, and Ray decides it's time for some old-school justice. So between hunting down Billy and taking out the lawless folk in this little town, Ray has had to quickly come up with a way to live with killing people while still doing the work of God. And, in fact, in-game you can even put away one of your guns and pull out a bible, hitting the trigger for a verse as the other hand dishes out the lead. It's a bit surreal to see this kind of thing in a video game and will probably wind up being a little offensive to the more sensitive in the Christian community, but I applaud Techland for having the guts to put together something that's as risky as this. While they didn't quite go for a feel of the HBO show Deadwood, the Bible verses and religious references that are mixed in with daily conversation is actually pretty interesting.
While you play as both Billy and Ray in alternating chapters, it gets weird because you're playing as the guy on the run in one chapter and then as the guy chasing the other one in the next. In that sense, it's tough to really get to identify with one character over another, especially once you find out what's really been going on. Billy's chapters play out like a stealth action game, where you've often got to figure out a way to get from one area to the next without getting killed. He has a whip which he can use Indiana Jones-style to climb up things or get across gaps, and can use a bow to silently take out enemies. He can hide in dark areas or inside bushes, and if he really needs to he can kill his enemies as well. This style of play leads to some frustrating situations where you need just the right angle for Billy to use his whip to cross a gap correctly, and until you find it, you might find yourself getting shot in the back. At least the checkpoints the game uses are laid out pretty close to each other so even if you die, you won't have to backtrack more than around a minute usually.
The Reverend, however, is quite a bit older and he's not nearly as quick and dextrous as Billy. While he can jump and clamber on crates and boxes, he can't scale a six-foot wall like Billy can and God certainly doesn't have any need for a whip-cracking reverend swinging around and jumping over perilous gaps. What Ray does have is the ability to do a quickdraw which slows down time and allows him to take out enemies in slow motion. What happens here is that you'll get two crosshairs that appear on each side of the screen, passing over enemies as the crosshairs meet in the middle. So if there's a nice horizontal line of enemies waiting to get chewed up by your six-shooters, you'll get the opportunity to take them all down at once. But remember, in the old west, we didn't have ammo clips or fifteen rounds. These revolvers take a while to reload. Some have a quick-load mechanism which is nice to have, but they also seem to jam and misfire more often. Once one of your guns fails, you'll have to toss it aside and pick up a new one to replace it.
Ray also will have to participate in duels, which serve as something similar to boss battles. When the countdown reaches zero, you have to flick down and then up on the right analog stick to pull out your revolver. Do it smoothly and your crosshair will firmly aim right at your opponent, but if your stick movements were shaky, you can expect your crosshair to be all over the place. You can lean to either side but can't actually move during a duel, so you've basically got to flick the stick correctly if you want to live. The first duel I did wound up in me having to do it at least 15 times before I won, so it's definitely a steep learning curve.
I liked the way that Juarez splits up the game and plot into two characters' views of the whole thing, but the problem is that Billy's levels encompass a lot of what's wrong with FPS developers trying to "spice up" their game. The idea for most FPS developers was originally to break up a lot of action with the odd sequence where you've got to make a couple of tough jumps or sneak past an invincible/powerful enemy, but the games that do this right usually also give you the "I just want to shoot stuff" option. Call of Juarez does not do it this way, and due to its chapter structure, once you're in Billy's shoes, you're going to be in them for a while. This means one first-person jumping puzzle or long stealth sequence after another, and while I was able to actually enjoy these somewhat, by the time I got a few hours into the game they started to get more and more annoying. The chapter system basically screws up the pacing, and it would have been really nice to instead have both characters be able to do all of the game's activities. While both characters do get to do sequences of horse riding, where aiming is tough and trampling your foes is pretty fun, they're few and far between.
If there's one thing that Juarez does right, it's in the world design. The environments are large and detailed, and while the actual playable areas in some of these levels are small, the developers still went through the trouble of making large valleys and distant hills and trees that look good. The character models look alright but sometimes they move in a way that can best be described as robotic, which might be fine for a sci-fi shooter but definitely looks out of place in a western. The voice acting and music are great, though, and Ray's definitely the star of the show here.
Once you're done with the single player mode you'll be pleased to find a good mix of secondary modes for online and offline play. If you're on your own, you can call up many of the game's duels and a few other missions. Online, there is a class-based mode where you can choose to be a gunslinger, sniper, miner, or rifleman, and can participate in the normal deathmatch or team deathmatch modes as well as VIP, Capture the Flag, and more. It's not going to revolutionize play over Xbox Live and won't be dethroning Halo 2 any time soon, but so far the online play in Call of Juarez is solid, fairly well balanced, and pretty fun.
Overall, this game's excellent graphics and interesting characters make it a solid contender. Considering there have been so few western action games over the last dozen years or so, anyone who's a fan of this style owes it to themselves to at least give Call of Juarez a shot. The stealth and acrobatic sequences where you play as Billy can get frustrating quickly, but the shooting scenes as Reverend Ray often make up for them. Throw in online play and a few extra things to do once your ten hours of single player is finished, and this one becomes a pretty good choice for FPS fans.