Call of Juarez Review
Written : Saturday, August 04, 2007
By: Josh Wirfs (GT: dz Bluntman)
Throughout the years, game developers have explored almost every facet of history. There's been more World War II shooters in the past year than you can count on two hands, and I can't even remember how many dragons, knights, and ninjas I've put down over the years. But one area of history that's remained largely untouched is the Old West. There's been a few games that have attempted to recreate that period. For example Gun, Red Dead Revolver...and, well, that's about it. Until now. Without much hype or anticipation, Call of Juarez snuck its way onto store shelves. And no other game has nailed the feeling of riding horseback through a desert with a six-shooter chasing down a stagecoach quite like it.
The story centers around two unique characters, Billy Candle and his uncle Reverend Ray. The game starts out with Billy returning home from an unsuccessful two year search to find the Gold of Juarez. As he's walking up the road to his home, he hears gunshots and arrives in time to see his mother and step-father shot dead. In the middle of a church service in town, Reverend Ray also hears the shots and runs to his brother's home to find Billy standing over their bodies. The story kicks off from here, with you switching between playing as Billy while he tries to escape, and Reverend Ray as he hunts Billy down. The Hunter and the Hunted mechanic works out really well, with enough twists and turns in the plot to keep you on the edge of your seat until the end.
A bunch of guys in trench coats is never a good thing
Billy and Ray play completely differently. Ray's a badass walking tank, and he's one of the more memorable characters I've played with. An outlaw-turned-preacher, Ray's a religious fanatic with a slight touch of insanity. His quickdraw mode is unique twist on the bullet-time mode you see in numerous shooters, because you pull each pistol from the side and fire them indepently with a seperate crosshair for each. So if you have six enemies in a line in front of you, you can kill three of them with each pistol before your crosshairs center again. Really cool stuff, and a refreshing twist on an overdone gameplay mechanic. That's right, Ray can whip out the Bible at any time and read a verse, causing his enemies to stop whatever they're doing and start repenting. While they're praying for forgiveness, you can swiftly dispatch them with a quick headshot, putting an abrupt end to their life of sin.
Billy's a pansy who can't take much damage or dish it out, so you have to resort to stealth to get through his missions in most cases. The stealth mechanics are fun, albeit tedious at times. Billy can also climb objects and use his whip to swing across gaps, a feature Ray lacks. Billy also gets access to the Bow, which is insanely powerful and accurate, and is made even stronger thanks to the bullet-time mode that gets activated whenever you pull back the string. The bow is also the only silent weapon in the game. There's one mission where you have to sneak through a mountain at night in a thunderstorm, and the lightning will make you visible to the enemy, so you have to stay hidden in the bushes and use your bow to dispatch the enemies in their camps quietly between the lightning strikes. This stuff was a lot of fun, and was on par with some of the stealth action I've seen in games like Splinter Cell.
Call of Juarez plays much like you'd expect from a first person shooter. While there's some features that make it shine, it's mostly your run of the mill shooter. It uses a similar method for your health to Call of Duty's, and the feel of the controls and guns bares other similarities to Call of Duty. The quickdraw, duels, and horseback combat are nice twists, and the stealth sections are an entertaining break from the shooting. There's a few cinematic scenes, such as chasing a stagecoach through a canyon while avoiding indians and bandits, that flesh out the campaign really well.
The controls are fairly solid. Nothing exceptional, but they don't have any obvious flaws. The gunfights are really fun, mostly due to the quickdraw feature when using Ray's pistols or Billy's bow. It's odd how you have to holster your guns with Ray to use the bullet-time mode, but once you get past that it's not a big deal. The only gripes I have with the controls are when you're riding a horse and jumping. Jumping doesn't feel fluid at all, and climbing around when you're playing Billy can be a chore sometimes. The horseback controls are pretty terrible; it takes way too long to turn around, and the regular running speed is too fast to get a lock on enemies without using your quickdraw.
The guns lack much variety; you have several variations of the classic six shooter you see in every Western movie ever made, a shotgun, a rifle (with and without a scope), and the bow and arrow you use through most of Billy's missions. The guns have a realistic feel to them, right down to exploding after too much use. But the quickdraw feature is only available on the pistols and the bow, which makes the other weapons only useful in certain situations. The rifle and the shotgun also don't seem to feel as solid as the other weapons, and oddly they seem to fire almost identically.
The environments can be simply stunning
Graphically, Call of Juarez shines in some areas, but falls flat in others. Even in high definition, there's a weird blurring effect when looking at something far away. It's also way too hard to see something in a dark environment, because the colors used on every texture are so dull they blend in too well. It may be realistic, but it's not fun on some levels where you're getting shot by three or four different enemies, and the only way to see them is by looking for the light from their gunshots. The graphics are amazing in some instances, mostly in the outdoor areas where you're looking down a couple hundred feet into a river winding its way through a canyon. It really does a good job of immersing you in the game. The character models are well done, however the same models are used far too frequently.
The audio is well done in most cases. The voice acting is superb for most of the characters, most notably Reverend Ray guttural growling during his religiously themed monologues. The only exception is Billy, who's voice made it all too tempting to jump off a cliff or dive onto a stick of dynamite while playing as him. The musical score isn't anything too remarkable, but it certainly isn't bad by any means. Some of the music, especially in certain gunfights, does an excellent job of setting the tone. Gunshots are spot on, and they add an authentic sound to the various weaponry.
The multiplayer is, unfortunately, one area that really sets Call of Juarez back. It's hard to find a game with the settings you like, and a game can't be started unless the room reaches maximum capacity. It's not uncommon to wait a good 10-20 minutes for a game to start up when you join, as people leave and enter. Once a game starts, lag is more often than not nearly unbearable. The host has a clear advantage, and with the limited ammo and slow reload times, missing targets that skip around the map with bullets that are delayed by close to half a second becomes incredibly frustrating. Multiplayer is also limited only to Xbox Live, with no option for split-screen.
The modes are pretty much the standard shooter fare. Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, a few variations on Capture the Flag and VIP. Nothing too exciting here. There's a good variety of maps, 17 in total, but unfortunately they're all pretty much the same. It's either a desert or a town, usually with one landmark and the buildings arranged a little differently to set it apart from the other maps. That's not entirely the developer's fault though, since that's pretty much all there was in the Old West. Still, I would have preferred to see fewer maps with more detail than a large number of nearly identical maps without any life to them.
Reverend Ray: Certified American Badass
You're given the choice of four classes over Xbox Live: the Rifleman, the Gunslinger, the Miner, and the Sniper. The Gunslinger gets two quickshooters and two sticks of dynamite, which makes him excel at close range combat against multiple foes. The Rifleman comes with a pistol and a non-scoped Rifle, which is deadly at any range when in the hands of an accurate player. The Sniper is exactly what you expect, and is pretty much identical to the Rifleman with a scope on the rifle. The Miner, which is the only class that could use some balancing, gets a pistol, a sawn-off shotgun, and four sticks of dynamite. The sawn-off shotgun is capable of easily killing someone with one shot at close range, and a barrage of dynamite is almost a certain guarantee to kill anyone unfortunate enough to get caught in the blast.
The achievements are a mix of good and bad. The requirements are original, with some fun ones thrown in there like an achievement for shooting the hats off a certain number of enemies' heads. The singleplayer achievements are all well thought out, and they border the line between easy and difficult. There's nothing here that's so hard to get that it makes it no fun to work for, but there's some that will take some effort. The multiplayer achievements however are, in a word, terrible. Several of them are just not possible to get without "boosting", like killing four enemies with one stick of dynamite. There's also a couple that are bugged and can't be unlocked at all. Those issues will probably be fixed in a patch, but it's still frustrating and some of them are still just not doable if you try to do them legitimately.
Overall, Call of Juarez is a great game, and the first to genuinely nail the spirit of the Old West. The lack of a solid multiplayer option is disappointing, but the singleplayer campaign is more than enough entertainment to warrant a purchase. Had the multiplayer been a bit more fleshed out, Call of Juarez would easily be one of the premier shooters out there for the Xbox 360. But without a good multiplayer option, it won't keep your attention very long after you've beaten the campaign. The singleplayer is where this game really shines, and it's worth checking it out solely for the excellent story.
Great voice acting, authentic sound effects, and a respectable musical score make Call of Juarez an aurally please experience. Some of the voice acting is sketchy at times, but it's quality work for the most part. The gun shots and explosions make the firefights immersive and believable. It's also interesting how the audio was tied in to certain sections of the story, such as when Billy's climbing a mountain or when he's using thunder to make stealthier kills in one level.
The colors and environments are too dull, and the blurriness when looking at something far away is distracting. The character models and textures are well done, however the same ones are used far too frequently. It gets old fighting the same guys you just fought five minutes ago over and over throughout the game. The outdoor levels are done nicely though, with some vast expanses of land that looks identical to what you'd see in Arizona or Utah. Still, the graphics are no better than average, and are outdone by some games released over a year ago.
The controls are solid, but there's just too many bugs that should have been fixed before the game was shipped. Some of the gameplay mechanics control terribly, such as the horseback segments and pretty much anywhere you need to jump or climb. Several levels of the campaign take a long time to complete, not because they're challenging, but because using Billy's whip to swing around and catch ledges is just so hard to control. Overall the controls are good though when you're just running around fighting in 80% of the game.
Nearly every aspect of this game is just as you'd imagine it would be had you been around back in the late 1800's. Everything from the guns to the ranches and towns has an authentic feeling that immerses you into the game. While not particularly outstanding on their own, the graphics, audio, and gameplahy mesh together excellently to create a vibrant world that's as close to the real thing as you're likely to see for awhile. The lack of any interesting multiplayer is the only thing missing from this game.
The singleplayer achievements are original and fun, and not too difficult to make them a chore. The multiplayer achievements are terrible though, with some being nearly impossible to unlock without "boosting". Several of them are broken altogether, with no word of a patch to fix them at the time of this writing. There's glitches related to the achievements throughout, requiring you to play some missions (even the entire campaign) over again to unlock them.
With a Hollywood caliber story and a campaign that keeps you entertained throughout, Call of Juarez delivers an amazing Western experience. The characters are original, and you really want to find out what's going to happen to them and hear more about them. This is unquestionably one of the best single player games released recently, and the story alone makes it worth checking out. The inclusion of a hearty multiplayer offering would have made this game great, but sadly that didn't happen. But for what it is, Call of Juarez is an excellent shooter and a worthy addition to your collection.