It’s a sad trend these days; we have countless World War II shooters yet the Wild West is mostly left untapped. Think for a second; how many great old-west shooters can you name? You could probably count them on one hand and that is the biggest crime of all. Outside of the extremely excellent GUN (granted it was a simple port) the Xbox 360 has been without a great old-west shooter; that is until now. Developer Techland and publisher Ubi-Soft have delivered a solid, albeit predictable shooter featuring horseback riding, gunslinging, and solid multi-player to Microsoft’s machine.
Call of Juarez follows the story of two main characters, young Billy Candle and the righteous Reverend Ray. The game starts you off as Billy as you return from journey to find the lost gold of Juarez, yes the same treasure the Aztecs paid Cortez to free Montezuma. As you return to your hometown ironically entitled Hope you will get a short tutorial on movement, stealth, and of course gunslinging. From here you head into town where a quick run-in with a prostitute which turns into a brawl at the brothel is just the beginning for young Billy Candle.
What happens next is the backdrop for the entire plot as well as the introduction for the other playable character Reverend Ray. It’s no secret that from the time you set your first step in the town of Hope everyone has it out for Billy Candle. After escaping the brothel beatdown Billy heads for the farm of his mother and stepfather. Upon arrival we discover that-well they’re dead. This is where you take over control of Reverend Ray, a gunslinger turned holy-man, in progress of his morning sermon. Midway through he is interrupted by a local to inform him that gunshots were heard at his brother’s farm. He arrives just in time to see young Billy Candle fleeing the scene.
This causes Reverend Ray to trade in his cross for a six-shooter and thus begins the inevitable game of cat-and-mouse that ensues through the remainder of the game. You will spend each episode swapping back and forth between young Billy and the Reverend as you unravel the mystery. Along the way you will be treated to just about every western cliché in the to-do manual, but trust me it is worth every second just for the hilarious dialogue and truly engrossing story.
The mechanic of using the two characters and following their separate stories makes for an interesting game mechanic that developer Techland has actually pulled off. Each character has their own unique styles while sharing some of the obvious choices. For instance Billy uses stealth and agility in most of his levels, plus he is a crackshot with a bow and arrow. During these levels you will do more than your fair share of hiding in bushes and platforming.
You will also carry a whip that you can use to swing from branches and trees to cross certain obstacles. Unfortunately this mechanic is actually the less exciting of the two. Hiding usually consists of moving from bush to bush and using a rudimentary shadow meter to make sure you are not seen, because if you are you will more than likely be gunned down as Billy can’t take too many direct hits before falling to his death. Thankfully Billy is quite handy with the bow; by pulling the left trigger he can even activate a sort of slow-mo action that allows for precision shots. There is just something satisfying about slowing down time long enough to watch an arrow pierce an enemy square in the face, yes this game is rated M for Mature.
On the other side of the spectrum we have Reverend Ray. His levels are actually much different as they focus more on action than stealth and platforming. Unlike Billy, Ray can handle some serious amounts of damage; it will take much more to take down this tree-trunk of a man in a firefight. Ray also has a couple of really cool moves that make playing through his levels much more enjoyable. Ray can activate a slow-mo effect as well by holstering his weapons and then drawing them, which sends two reticules across the screen. Time your shots right and you can literally deliver five quick headshots before it wears off. While it is a strange mechanic requiring you to holster your weapons to perform it, it does work extremely well.
The second thing Ray does, and this has to be a first, is wield the Bible as a weapon. Ray can carry a six-shooter in one hand and the book of God in the other. Tapping the fire buttons causes Ray to spurt out prophetic verses from the good book to freeze his enemies, during this time Ray has a free shot at his target. While this mechanic may seem ridiculous in a large firefight, it is truly unique and actually works on most levels.
While each character plays different in a lot of areas they are also the same. Both will be able to travel via horseback at some point in the game. This idea works well enough, but try shooting from the saddle and you will likely be more than frustrated. Of course you can just trample your enemy by tapping the bumper button, but sniping them while roaring past at full speed is so much more satisfying. There are also a series of box puzzles from time to time that pose more of a hindrance than anything. The physics system is fickle and oftentimes you will be dropping boxes everywhere but where you want them to go. There is also a duel mode which will occur from time to time throughout the game, granted it is extremely limited.
In addition to all of this Techland has also included an extremely robust, albeit standard multi-player feature. You have a standard deathmatch and team deathmatch modes but probably the most unique mode is called capture the bag. This mode is a take on the popular capture the flag, but instead of traveling on foot you are on a horse. The maps in this mode are absolutely astonishing in size creating a new experience that has yet to be achieved on Xbox Live. For the most part the online portion plays like an old-west Call of Duty. There are four different classes to choose from including sniper, rifleman, gunslinger, and miner.
The only real difference in each class is their weapon layout, for instance the miner carries a sawed off shotgun, a small pistol, and a nice collection of dynamite whereas a rifleman will have a standard rifle and a pair of six-shooters. There are 17 different maps that range from excellent to simply bland and there is even an objective based game style that includes things such as one team defending a train from being robbed by the other team. While it isn’t the most original online mode ever created it really rounds out this already outstanding package.
As far as graphics are concerned CoJ has moments of technical brilliance that screenshots simply cannot capture. The lighting and texture work is amazing up close and once you see the depth of field effect when hiding in a bush you will be amazed. Granted making the old west look good is sort of a double edged sword as most terrain consists of dirt and minimal vegetation, but the developers have done an incredible job with everything else it is easy to overlook it’s few shortcomings. Animations are also worth noting as no two enemies will die the same way; their bodies will fall depending on where you shoot them, oh and try aiming for an enemy’s hat at some point. The physics and character models truly are a marvel.
The rest of the presentation is pretty standard. Menus are manageable yet a bit on the bland side and the extras are a nice touch. You can replay any mission once you have completed it in the story and you can collect several wanted posters throughout the game. The achievements are nice although we still have yet to discover a lot of them due to their secrecy. The music is pretty standard stuff and the voice acting, while cheesy, is downright hilarious in some parts and worth the price of admission all on its own.
Anyone looking for the next great western-themed game will no doubt adore Call of Juarez. The switch between characters adds depth and variety and the addition of multi-player gives the game legs outside of finishing the single-player adventure. Even with the few technical issues this is one of the most pleasant surprises I have played this year. I recommend everyone give this game a shot as it certainly deserves to attract a fan base and warrant a sequel. Quit complaining there aren’t enough old-west shooters and go out and pick up this hidden gem before the dust settles in.