Review: Call of Juarez

call_of_juarez.JPGPlatform: Xbox 360
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Techland
Release Date: 6/07/07
Genre: First-Person shooter
Players: 1 – 16
Just in case you thought the Old West had dried up as a game setting, Ubisoft’s Xbox 360 shooter Call of Juarez brings the genre back nicely with a solid entry that’s as violent and unpredictable as you’d expect. The game’s two playable characters offer up two uniquely different play styles along with specific weapons and abilities for each, which is a nice twist, although it takes some getting used to if you’re expecting a straight up run and gun game. Nevertheless, the game works plenty of genre conventions for all they’re worth throughout, which should appeal to those older gamers who appreciate the appeal of the six-gun-slinging antihero. Polish developer Techland gets some gorgeous, nicely sized vistas out of the 360 and for the most part, gameplay is pretty solid throughout. Some tricky jumping sections can be a bit of a hassle, but there’s definitely enough quality in the finished product to warrant a recommendation.

The two characters you’ll play, Billy Candle and Reverend Ray couldn’t be more polar opposites. Billy is a young buck who’s agile, good with a whip, bows and has the ability to sneak about and scale some fences. Ray, on the other hand, is a former outlaw turned white-haired firebrand preacher, but his violent past rolls up one day, forcing him to take up his old iron friends. His skills are primarily shooting anything that moves, punching anything else, putting out fires and kicking down doors. It’s Billy whom he’s chasing after the boy is seen running from his parent’s burning homestead. Ray thinks Billy killed his mother and step dad and like any good uncle (yup, the two are related), he decides to take matters into his own hands. Of course, Billy is very innocent, having made the unfortunate mistake of coming to visit his folks on a very, very bad day and getting caught up in the consequences.

You’ll initially start out as Billy through the game’s tutorial that takes you through his basic movements as the story’s first act unfolds. In the course of this first area, Billy learns sneaking skills, gets his first gun, shoots some bottles, then later an attacking wolf before heading into a small town where he loses his gun and has to secure another before escaping. After that, it’s some tricky whip lessons and a chase before you hop into the bible-belting boots of Reverend Ray. Ray’s portions play dynamically different than Billy’s, which as mentioned above, can take a little getting used to. Ray gets to dual wield pistols or carry a single rifle, blasting hot lead into bad men on a more regular basis that Billy does, so his sections will probably be the most appreciated initially by those that don’t quite appreciate subtlety. The game mixes in a few twists as both men get closer to the truth and you’ll certainly see just what the Call of Juarez means as the game heads down its bloody, well trod path. If you’re a sucker for a well-worn tale well told, you’ll really get into this one as soon as the opening sequence grabs you by the throat.

One nifty element to the shooting is that you’ll need to keep an eye on your guns, or more precisely, their condition over time. In addition to reloading constantly, the cheaper guns tend to overheat and explode after a certain amount of shooting. So when you see one or both pistol icons glowing red and/or that telltale smoke coming from your weapon, well, you’d better be near a dead man or a chest containing a replacement, that’s all I’ll say. This adds a nice bit of unpredictability to the game, particularly in some of the longer firefights when enemies are up on rooftops or far enough away that you’ll need to scour the surrounding area for hidden weapons to replace your busted popgun before moving on. Ray also carries a bible, and equipping it in either hand then pressing the appropriate trigger will have him growl out bible quotes that stop enemies in their tracks for a few seconds. Naturally, this allows the good Reverend enough time to christen them with a few well-placed shots to the head and body.

Speaking of well-placed shots, Ray has the talent to concentrate and draw his pistols, thus slowing down time while you use two onscreen targets to place your shots where you want to. Preferably, when those targets glow red as they line up with your enemies’ vitals… happiness is a warm gun, indeed. Then, you squeeze off a shot or three, time goes back to normal and your bullets find their mark. If you lined up correctly, expect a nicely bloody ballet as the bodies hit the floor. There’s a variation on this happy trigger action for boss fights that owes a bit to Rockstar’s Red Dead Revolver, but it works excellently nonetheless. Billy’s bow concentration works in pretty much the same way, so you’ll get to occasionally stick an arrow between the eyeballs of some sarsaparilla-sucking sap looking to ventilate you himself. Hell, the game is set in the Old West and mines most of its storyline from classic westerns, so it’s totally fine that you’re not hit over the head with ridiculously innovative game mechanics and a storyline that goes out of its way to present the past in a too modern light. It’s like putting laser guns in a World War II game – wile it might make for a ‘cooler’ game, it makes a boatload more sense to keep things as close to a particular genre as possible.

While Billy eventually gets more interesting weapons such as the aforementioned bow and whip, many of his objectives revolve around stealthily infiltrating or escaping areas often lousy with better-armed men than he. It’s definitely a nice twist from the straight up gunplay in Ray’s portions, although after some of the more hectic gunfights with Ray, your adrenaline might drop way off the map when you need to spend ten minutes or so sneaking around not shooting anything. Still, there are times in Billy’s story where a few quiet minutes of creeping around like an arthritic ninja suddenly turn to a ‘Holy Crap!’ moments of fear followed by some deft controller handling as you run for your virtual life away from too much lead in your diet. Unfortunately, using the whip to grab branches and swing across gaps is less exciting than it should be thanks to a surprising lack of momentum and having to guess when to jump. Granted, Billy can grab ledges to pull himself up, but until you figure out he can do this when completing a swing/jump move, you’ll fall to your death a few times too many.

The game makes up for moments like these with some absolutely great horseback riding sections for both characters. Just like real life, shooting from a moving horse is like hitting the broad side of a barn with a dead housefly and a rubber band. Still, once you learn to taper your speeding steed to a manageable trot or find enough space to stop and shoot, these sections become a lot more enjoyable. Speaking of enjoyable, if you’re a longtime western fan and not someone who goes into this game expecting Halo on horses, you’ll get a good laugh at the excellent, often outrageously hilarious dialog that approaches Deadwood territory. Granted, the game isn’t as cerebral as the late, lamented HBO series, but expect a few ear-burning cuss words and decidedly non-PC commentary throughout the 10 or so hour single-player campaign. If you’re easily offended, some kid who shouldn’t be playing M-rated games of hate sitting through the occasional stretch of intentionally long-winded exposition, you’ll want to go play something easier on the ears.

Techland has done a bang-up job graphically here, letting the 360 flex its muscles through some gorgeous environments that manage to be pretty huge and lush, even Oblivion-quality in spots. While some indoor areas can be a wee bit dark and some dull textures and clipping issues annoy here and there, the game really pulls you into its world right from the start. I loved the great outdoors with the waving foliage and virtual lakes good-looking enough to drink from, the rustic look to the towns as well as most of the character models, which have decent lip-synching and great death animations. Interestingly enough, despite all the bloodshed, the developer added a bit of morality to the game by not allowing you to shoot innocents at all, which is a fine way to keep the bullets flying where they should. Sometimes, the unarmed will make a frightened comment if you approach them with a drawn weapon and if you try to pull the trigger, you’ll hear your character say “No” or something similar. Menus are clean and easy to read, except if you’re running the game on a TV under 35 inches, in which case you’ll be busting out the reading glasses when you need to check your objectives. Sound design is great, with a top rate score, the aforementioned adult dialog and some stellar sound effects that really sell each gunfight.

Xbox Live multiplayer is fun, albeit mostly an Old West remixing of common FPS modes with some cool skins and seven game types. I loved the horseback-based Capture the Bag maps where sweeping vistas and blasting black-hatted baddies goes hand in hand, for the most part smoothly, but with a few technical blips here and there. The other modes are fun riffs of everything from Team Fortress to a bit of Counter-Strike and there are usually more than enough hardy souls playing online to keep things hopping should you decide to host or join a match. The main game has a bunch of achievements and unlockables that require a certain skill level and/or patience to acquire, which means replay value for those of you out there that are entertained the first time through. I had a good enough time with the game to play through twice and yup, I plan to again at some point (as soon as I get through the huge stack of games in my inbox… damn you 2007, the Year of Too Many Great Games).

Overall, Call of Juarez will really appeal to folks who love their westerns more than those who want every FPS to fit the mega-hit mold. Still, if you can quote lines from The Wild Bunch, Shane or The War Wagon and have a soft spot for the Duke and Clint Eastwood in your leathery heart, you’ll have an absolute blast playing as Billy and Reverend Ray. Recommended, but definitely NOT for the kids at all.

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