I’m a sucker for all things Old West, so I suppose that disclosure should come out before you read my Call of Juarez review any further. This fandom means I’m probably a bit more willing to suspend my disbelief at times, but it also means I’m going to hold the game accountable for things that “tarnish” my beloved Old West.
Now, with that out of the way, let me begin by saying Call of Juarez is among the top two games I’ve played so far in 2007 — faults and all. Far too often in modern videogames, developers overlook the importance of a good narrative and focus instead on flashy graphics and special effects. But Techland, thank goodness, provides all three in Call of Juarez. Quite frankly, the narrative, character development and voice acting (especially for Reverend Ray) are among the best I’ve seen/played during the past two years. And whoever said Call of Juarez has Xbox 1 graphics obviously only “played” target videos for that platform, because in my opinion, Call of Juarez is a slight step up from Oblivion.
The plot premise of the game puts players in the role of two protagonists: Billy Candle, an on-the-run wuss accused of killing his parents, and Reverend Ray, an overly devout Christian trying to kill Billy in “divine” retribution — even though he’s Billy’s uncle. This plot unfolds through 15 chapters, each of which tells the same basic story alternating through each character’s point of view, thus letting players see the story unfold through each character’s eyes.
Aside from being flat-out compelling, this plot structure lends itself to two different gameplay opportunities. Ray’s missions resemble the best action-packed first-person shooters, complete with dual-wielding and a focus mode (read: “bullet time”) that lets players line up headshots and take out multiple enemies in a single six-shooter clip. The focus mode, which is activated by pulling both triggers while the guns are holstered, drains after about seven seconds but recharges 10 seconds later, a fact that has led several reviewers to say focus mode is a gameplay crutch. Yet what those reviews fail to account for is the game’s (mostly) good AI, which can quickly drop Ray to the ground if players don’t make good use of cover and the accused “gameplay crutch.”
On the other side of the spectrum, Billy’s missions focus on platforming and stealth elements. Unfortunately, it’s Billy’s missions that really hurt ‘Call of Juarez’ in the scoring and enjoyment factor. Billy’s primary weapon for the first third of the game is a bullwhip, which he uses to swing from trees and incapacitate enemies. Problem is, swinging from trees requires players to be in exactly the right place, and the mechanics of shortening and lengthening the rope accordingly is both tedious and frustrating — and something players just have to endure for the game’s entirety. Likewise, the stealth aspects require players to place objects between Billy and his foes to avoid detection, but those foes have such eagle-like vision that it results in some incredibly (dare I say controller-throwing) moments, because the minute Billy’s spotted, the mission ends and sends players back to the last checkpoint. One particularly maddening episode requires Billy to slap horses” backsides and creep between them as they scatter so he can remain hidden from two foes in a corral. This sounds easy enough, but the foes” vision is so ridiculously accurate that it took me one and one-half hours to cover 50 in-game feet due to the number of detections and forced restarts.
Fortunately that’s just one level, but the fact that both the platforming and stealth elements are flawed makes players really look forward to Reverend Ray’s missions and cringe somewhat when they encounter a Billy mission. The developers must have recognized this to a certain degree, because all of the bonus content, from the duels to the three bonus missions to the online multiplayer modes, has players taking the role of a gunslinger, not Billy. The bonus content is really quite fun, and the multiplayer is a riot as well, presuming you’re playing with friends who just want to have fun (a common curse of playing on Xbox Live).
The only other snafu with Call of Juarez comes in the Achievements category, as several bugs keep the game from recognizing that players have earned certain milestones and awarding them the commensurate points. Fortunately, this will really only be an issue to Achievement Point whores.
It’s not every day a good Old West videogame hits store shelves, and I’ve been incredibly hopeful for Call of Juarez since the day it was announced. Although it doesn’t do everything right (especially Billy’s missions), it provides about 12 hours of campaign fun and a whole mess of replay value in the bonus content and multiplayer modes. I don’t keep many games after I’ve played them, but I can safely say Call of Juarez will stay on my shelf for many months to come. From the incredible narrative and voice acting to the very non-crutchy gunplay, Call of Juarez is a flawed gem, but a gem nonetheless.
– Jonas Allen