Review: It ain't Duty calling, but it might be worth picking up the phone.
Call of Juarez is the second Western-based game to hit the Xbox 360, following the crazy-fun launch title Gun. While Gun was essentially Grand Theft Auto Meets The Old West, Call of Juarez combines good old fashioned twitch shooting with a healthy dose of Tomb Raider-like platforming and a dash of Splinter Cell stealth. So how does Polish developer Techland do with this recipe for Western action?
Not bad at all, though you get the sense that they were trying to mix in too many ingredients and ended up spoiling what could have been a very tasty broth. (Yeah, I know, I need serious help with my metaphors but anyway?)
The game starts off with a bang ? literally. The very first thing you do is enter a compound and start mowing down dozens of bad guys with a mounted Gatling gun. Nice! The game then fades to black and you are transported two weeks into the past where the story starts.
You begin playing as 19 year-old Billy Candle, an ambitious Mexican-American youngster who's been stepped on for most of his life. He left his southern Texas hometown of Hope in 1880 to search for the legendary gold of Juarez and to prove once and for all that he isn't a loser. Unfortunately, after two years of fruitless searching he is forced to come home broke and empty-handed.
Meanwhile, Billy's uncle, the creepy Reverend Ray, is giving a sermon when someone bursts into the church with the horrifying news of gunshots at his brother's home. Ray runs over to find the dead bodies of his brother (Billy's stepfather) and Billy's mother ? with Billy standing over them. Ray calls out accusingly to Billy, who runs in a panic. The rest of the game is spent alternating between Ray and Billy, hunter and prey, as Ray mistakenly believes Billy is the killer and attempts to exact revenge, while poor Billy tries to unravel the mystery of who killed his parents and clear his name.
Alternating between the two characters adds an interesting variety to the game, similar to Halo 2. The health system is similar to Halo as well, where you can heal yourself simply by staying out of the line of fire for a few moments.
Unlike Halo 2, however, the characters you play are quite different from each other. Reverend Ray is your typical shooter hero, able to take and dish out a lot of damage. He can dual-wield any combination of authentic Western revolvers or sawed-off shotguns, and can also use rifles and dynamite sticks. Oh, and he can also kick serious butt with the Bible. Really. By equipping the Bible, you can read passages that will momentarily stun enemies, giving you a chance to plug ?em in the head. Some may call it blasphemous but most will call it pretty damn fun.
Ray's most powerful ability is Concentration Mode. By holstering your revolvers and then suddenly pulling them out, you will enter a bullet-time mode where time slows down. Your two revolvers' aiming reticules will slowly move from the sides of the screen to meet in the middle, at which time Concentration Mode will end. In the meantime, you can aim and shoot as much as time allows, which enables you to do things like take out several enemies at once ? very handy when you're outnumbered, which happens constantly throughout the game.
Ray is also able to participate in the good old fashioned duel. When challenged to a duel (usually by the bosses), a timer will count down. Once the timer hits zero, you can draw your revolver by rapidly pulling down on the right stick and then pushing it up; however, doing this too quickly will cause your aiming reticule to jump around uncontrollably. The key is to be fast but smooth, which will let you aim with greater accuracy. In the meantime, your opponent will be shooting you but you can dodge his shots by leaning to the side. It's a very cool system that adds a hint of realism and enough of a challenge to keep things interesting.
Billy, on the other hand, is the complete opposite of Ray. He can't take much damage and requires a much longer time to heal; instead, his strengths lie in stealth and athleticism. Unlike Ray, Billy can hide in the shadows and in bushes, and climb up onto rocks and over fences. He can also perform silent kills with a bow and arrow. His most useful item is the bull whip, which like Indiana Jones can be used both as a weapon and a handy tool to snag tree branches, swing across gaps or climb up or down otherwise unreachable heights. He can also use a bow for silent kills.
Not surprisingly, with each character having dramatically different attributes, their respective levels play out quite differently. Ray is all about killing everything in sight and his missions are pure shooter joy as you face multiple enemies that intelligently seek cover, run to get a better angle, and will even try to flank you or flush you out with dynamite. One time an Apache warrior was actually stalking me around a large boulder, waiting patiently in the tall grass and silently moving around the boulder as I was trying to find him. It was eerily realistic.
The fun action can get pretty fast and furious at times, and while Ray is quite powerful (especially when he uses Concentration Mode) you have to watch your guns' status. In a nice realistic twist, the more you use your guns, the more they begin to deteriorate or ?rust?, causing them to lose accuracy and damage; eventually, they will explode in your hand if you use them too much. This means you will not only have to be on the lookout for ammo, but must also scavenge guns from fallen enemies to stay in the fight. This also introduces you to the game's variety of guns, each of which have different attributes like faster reload times, increased ammo capacity, improved damage and so on. Unfortunately, there's no way to tell what each weapon's attributes are, so you are left to figure it out for yourself via trial and error.
Naturally for a western-based game, you will occasionally get to ride a horse. Unfortunately, your horse can be a bit frustrating to control. You move and steer with the left stick and can look around independently with the right; this is handy when riding and shooting but often your view and your horse's direction get mixed up. Since there are a lot of deadly cliffs to fall off of, this can be a very bad thing. The intuitive horse control mechanics of Gun are much better. The horse animation could be better too, as the head moves like it's made of plastic and stuck on top of a broomstick, making for some unintentionally funny moments when you jig the horse from side to side.
As fun as Ray's missions are, Billy's missions do a great job of bringing the action to a grinding halt. Billy focuses on stealth and platforming, a stark and jarring contrast to Ray's fun shooter action. The stealth portions are challenging but the whole stealth system feels half-baked; once you've been detected you can't hide in the bushes or shadows anymore because the AI will know exactly where you are and shoot with frightening accuracy (in fact, there seem to be some clipping issues because you will often get hit even though you are completely behind a rock or wall). More often than not it's easier to simply use the good old fashioned pop-and-shoot method to deal with enemies rather than sneak around them.
Even worse are the platforming missions. One in particular, where you have to climb a mountain to retrieve an eagle's feather, does a great job of slamming the brakes on the game's momentum as you go from exciting furious gun battles to climbing and jumping on rocks. Wow, that sounds thrilling, doesn't it? When will developers learn that shooter fans want to shoot
, not hop around like a Mario wannabe? What makes things worse is that Billy's jumps are imprecise, making it difficult to accurately judge landings. This is especially frustrating in the underground mine level, where you have to traverse an Indiana Jones-like booby-trapped tomb by jumping onto tiny stone tiles.
And therein lies the big problem with the game: is it a shooter? A platformer? A stealth game? It feels like Techland was trying to do too much, ending up as a jack of all trades, master of none. It's an ambitious effort to be sure but if there's a sequel, they should focus on one style of gameplay (preferably the shooter action) rather than trying to mash together different genres. As it stands, the game plays unevenly with the boring platforming mixed in with the fun shooting.
Much like the gameplay, the graphics are a bit of a mixed bag too. The character models and animation are quite impressive, and blood sprays with Hollywood-style flair, which looks especially cool in Concentration Mode. The maps are huge, though most maps funnel you along narrow linear pathways. From a distance, the maps look very cool, filled with shrubbery, trees, boulders and crystal clear water ? basically what you would imagine the old west would look like. The lighting and shadow effects are also quite impressive. Upon closer examination, however, things change. Hiding in a bush, for example, looks exactly like you're sitting in a clear plastic inflatable ball with flat leaf prints all over it. The foliage also doesn't move when you touch it; instead, you simply clip through it. It's ugly, and while it doesn't affect gameplay, it does pull you out of the experience and remind you that you're just playing a game.
The dark mine level was also difficult to play because it was too
dark and the floors and walls used the exact same texture. This meant it was difficult to see ledges and holes so you were often grinding your teeth because you either couldn't tell where you had to go next or because you fell to your death through a hole you couldn't see.
Another annoyance is the eye-squintingly tiny subtitles and onscreen instructions. Even those with 50? HDTVs will probably need a good pair of binoculars to read the ridiculously miniscule text on the screen, which often provides important information you need to complete missions.
On the plus side, the voice acting is top notch with special kudos to Marc Alaimo, who did an excellent job as the creepy religious zealot and bloodthirsty gunslinger Ray.
The single player campaign spans 15 levels split between Ray and Billy. Most levels are pretty substantial, taking about an hour to complete. When you complete the campaign, you unlock nine duel challenges (where you can duel up to three people at once) and three bonus missions. The interesting thing is that the bonus missions ? where you play a small town sheriff fighting off bandits ? are surprisingly substantial and are actually a lot more fun than the core game. The shooting action builds to a nice tense climax and makes you wish the campaign was more like this.
Multiplayer supports up to 16 players over Xbox Live in seven gametypes: Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Gold (CTF but with a bag of gold instead of a flag), Robbery (one-flag CTF), Gold Rush (collect gold bars for points, the one with the most points at the end wins),Wanted (one person is wanted and is the only one who can score points for kills; if someone kills him, that person then becomes the wanted man) and Famous Events (recreations of six historical gunfights). There are 17 nice-sized maps but most of them ? especially those located in towns ? look exactly alike so it feels like you're playing the same map over and over.
You play as Lawmen or Outlaws, each of which have four different classes: Rifleman, who uses a non-scoped rifle and a revolver; Gunslinger, who uses a pair of quick draw revolvers that reload instantly; Sniper, who uses a scoped rifle; and Miner, who is armed with a sawed-off shotgun and an armload of dynamite.
Multiplayer is fun ? what else can you expect from online deathmatches in the old west? The different classes and nice variety of gametypes keeps things interesting, though the maps could benefit from a little less quantity and more differentiating variety.