Call of Juarez
Back in 1997 Lucasarts published Outlaws, a fairly simple and modest cell shaded FPS that was largely overshadowed by the technologically mighty Quake 2 and the market trend for sci-fi themed shooting. There has been strong opinion that since its release it has remained the only good Wild West themed game, and certainly the only good western themed FPS, undefeated to this day. A fair boast, but to qualify it there really are not that many Western themed games made, which remains a bit of a mystery. You'd think the genre has everything a production team would want: violence and even better the omnipresent threat of violence, no concept of gun control, an actual plausible reason to have an abandoned mine level, breezes billowing long coats in slow motion, good guys and bad guys, treasure, exploration, really really big hats. The offerings that have been made have missed the mark - the clownish Red Dead Revolver, the deeply dull Dead Mans Hand, and the disappointing Gun - but this inexplicable drought is finally ended by The Call of Juarez.
Juarez is not your Jimmy Stewart western; this is not even your John Wayne western. No one has little stars picked out in rhinestones on their chaps. Nothing is powder pink or sky blue. Absolutely no one says 'Shucks, Howdy!' and if there is a Square-dance it is a very well concealed Easter egg indeed. This is the Sam Pekinpah western, full of the blood and dust of the Eastwood movies from Pale Rider to Unforgiven. The Walton's would be found naked and dead in the charred remains of their Little House fairly quickly in the world of Juarez.
If you like your western gritty, Juarez will deliver. One of the factors that made Outlaws more enduring than other tales of western revenge was the strength of the characterization drawn out through cut sequence and in-game development. Red Dead Revolver and Gun both lacked the sense of lawlessness and the lunatic edge that made the West so wild, but Juarez has it in spades. A gritty flush of spades, held in a dirty hand, around a wonky poker table, in a mean saloon. That smells funny.
Gameplay is either done in the spurred boots of the dangerously unstable Reverend Ray or the silent moccasins of the personable but cowardly Billy Candle, and dependant on who you are for that level will define it as either stealth or bloodletting of biblical proportions. The transition between the stealth portions and the assault portions of a game are often implemented somewhat clumsily in FPS's, and those titles which allege to let you choose your approach usually will give you an enormous poke towards one or the other. Juarez manages not only to execute both halves well, but genuinely give both advantages and disadvantages in the mind of the player - neither is simply a change of pace or a poorer cousin to the main event. Whilst Ray might be a killing machine, Billy will be able to climb ledges and move invisibly - both characters so able in their field that the player never feels like he's being cheated by being put into a situation better suited for the other.
The weapons available in Juarez do not come in a dizzying list, neither are they customizable, with alt fire playing a small to negligible role. This is due to the developer's equally gritty approach to the arsenal as to the rest of the title, following the philosophy that getting shot in the face with one gun is going to be as bad as any other. There are about seven varieties of pistol to be found, two of shotgun, and two of rifle. The very high damage dealt by them all - nearly all enemies requiring only one decent centre mass or head shot - means that in a pinch nearly anything will do. There is no Doom decorative basic pistol weapon here, but instead each gun has slight nuances of reload times, accuracy and reliability that genuinely let a player get the feel for the weapons and decide on a personal preference. Protracted gunfights with these monstrous cannons of old soon fill the screen with gun smoke and blood haze, the noise quite deafening on large speakers or headphones. The guns will even age with use - becoming less damaging and accurate until eventually exploding in your hand. Having not read up on this I spent some time ruefully smiling at the glitch that meant my pistols didn't seem to have stopped smoking after use, until the next trigger pull left me unarmed, or at least unfingered. All pistols are especially dangerous in the hands of the Reverend Ray thanks to his devastating ability to use a Reaction Draw. If the player taps either mouse button with pistols holstered, Ray will draw in bullet-time, one or two crosshairs traveling across the screen from edge to centre, giving you the chance to blaze at the bad guys fast enough for your bullets to saunter away from you at quite pedestrian speeds. This is enormously satisfying, and players will find themselves, rather than sticking to cover and edging around corner as taught to us by hours of FPS tactics, walking straight into rooms full of bad guys just to haul leather and drop five or six of them at a time. Now that's pretty damn cowboy right there. This slow-mo ability, whilst an enormous amount of fun, is perhaps overly available, as in the also otherwise excellent F.E.A.R. Ray's quick draw will be ready to use again after only about two to three seconds of reholstering your guns, which makes for a very strong temptation to dispatch every enemy that comes your way using it, robbing it of some of its enjoyment by overuse. Ray will on occasion be called to use his reflexes in one-on-one old fashioned showdowns, based on a similar principle.
Both Ray and Billy also have a character specific weapon each, and in Rays case it's a bible. By putting a cannon in one hand an a bible in the other, you can look really very scary indeed, with the right mouse button spewing various 'Great Vengeance and Furious Anger' type readings whilst the left button lays the sinners to waste. This can have the ability to terrify your opponents into paralysis with your hellfire and zeal, but just like Pulp Fiction, really it's just a way to sound cool whilst you're putting a cap in someone's ass.
Billy's particular weapon is a bullwhip, occasionally used to drive off wolves and tarantulas, but more often used Indianna Jones style like a grappling hook to haul oneself over otherwise impassable obstacles. Whilst Ray spends most of the levels up close and personal, Billy will range over some much larger terrain, riding horses over some of the largest single levels in an FPS, reminiscent of TES: Oblivion. These changes of pace are usually well handled, and one quite serene mission has you riding across the plains hunting rabbits with a bow and arrow. Juarez manages to keep that wide open frontier feeling that was always central to the western movie, but until now never captured in a game. These levels, with their size and abundance of foliage, are the most PC power hungry, but the most visually stunning and a surprisingly peaceful experience. On the flipside, some of the terrain can feel like an overly contrived obstacle course, as if someone has spent a great deal of time making a 3D platform game - Pitfall 2006. On the subject of graphics even the opening loading screen takes the time to quietly point out the fancy new engine under the hood. Starting up the game, however, we are quickly reminded that these new mechanics require plenty of power to drive them along - the compatibility tests recommendation of at least 128 megs of graphics card is not just tough talk, and only my system's abundance of RAM really held the frame-rates together. It's been a long time since I had to go and push all of the sliders in the Video menu all the way to the left, so if you're still pulling off the cellophane from your shiny new Alienware muscle-system, this might be the one to show off with.
Once Jaurez had time to settle and I got used to looking at a game in 800x600 again, it still looks gorgeous, the animation and scenery done not just with care but with an obvious love of the gritty end of the genre. Juarez will really reward power, adding gorgeous texture and fluidity of movement. In a particularly zen moment, I watched the mechanics of the corpse of a rattlesnake slowly slide off a rock and over a cliff. The sound is also spot on, with the team responsible having carefully walked the line between accuracy and making an impression - guns explode and bodies drop with a satisfying weight to them. The music is appropriately orchestral, evoking the sense of the epic Sergio Leone brought to The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly or Fistfull of Dollars.
In summation, The Call of Juarez is excellent, with only a few very minor glitches. Both the characters and the storylines are classic western, without falling into pastiche. The game engine is powerfully rewarding to top class hardware, but without punishing the more modest systems with overly long load times. The only serious criticisms to be leveled at Juarez, and you better hope you have faster hands than it does, is that it is a shade on the short side, which is bound to happen to any game with a quick save function and an increasingly ninja audience of gamers.
Searching for flaws one might also have to point out the occasionally pointless physics derived puzzles, such as the old chestnut of stacking boxes for weight on the end of a see-saw platform to enable you to cross it, which hasn't been an impressive physics trick in over a decade. The lack of a developed multiplayer is usually a bad sign for sales in this day and age, which was fairly inevitable given the importance of stealth, slow-motion, and well developed set pieces in the game's character. My experience of this was limited, so I shall reserve judgment. A last hiccup is the encouragement of the player to collect little faux Wanted posters of the Polish production crew wearing silly hats, which look more like the 'Bandito' option on a Brighton photo booth - a touch that is neither welcome nor in-keeping with the rest of the game's tone. These, fortunately, are rare, and the bulk of Juarez is an excellent balance of gritty realism and game play. It's been a long time but Outlaws can finally hang up its guns and retire.
- Cinematic, engaging storyline with original distinctive characters
- Excellent graphics, even in the lower settings
- Balanced game play between stealth and overt action
- Physics puzzles are well below the rest of the game's standard
- Limited online appeal
- Too short at only about 8 hours
- Comedy Mexican bad guys sounding like the worst pub impression of Speedy Gonzales you ever heard