There have been a few decent attempts at bringing the Western movie to video game form. Rockstar's Red Dead Revolver and Neversoft's GUN both entertained, but lacked that little something to make them truly great titles. The latest contender is Techland's Call of Juarez. The tale of a young man on the run after supposedly killing his mother and stepfather, and a reverend who takes it upon himself to bring the man to justice, Call of Juarez has every chance of being the Western game we've always wanted.
Billy grew up in the town of Hope, only to run away after years of beatings from his stepfather became too much to take. Two years later Billy returns, without much going on in his life and looking forward to seeing his mother. On that very day the town's reverend (a one-time violent gunslinger, before he found God) is told of gunshots at his brother's home. At the scene his brother and sister-in-law are dead, and Billy is fleeing the scene. Assuming that Billy killed his parents in a fit of rage, the reverend returns to his brutal ways, becoming the deadly gunslinger required to bring down a killer.
Rather than focus on one side of the story, you'll be able to play as Billy or the reverend, experiencing very different gameplay depending on who you play as. The five-levels available in the preview build we received showcased the differences in gameplay, and highlighted a number of gameplay mechanics over those seen in a traditional FPS.
Billy is young and athletic, and while perfectly capable of using a gun, he prefers to use a whip. The early levels see you taking a stealth approach, with your enemies having the clear upper hand in terms of firepower, but are no match to Billy's skill with the whip. One whip to the head of an enemy takes them down, and areas that seem unreachable can be reached by using the whip as a rope.
The reverend is all about being the quickest draw, taking down enemies with pure firepower. Classic weapons, such as the Colt six-shooter can be dual wielded, and a 'Concentration' mode allows you to take down enemies in bullet-time. While nothing new to the genre, each gun has its own aiming reticule, so you can in theory take down two enemies at once, if you're quick enough to do so before the time runs out. One 'Boss' enemy needed to be taken down in a 'Quick Draw' scenario, with your gun needing to be drawn and fired before he could get a shot at you. With a heavy dose of realism, the guy went down after only one shot to the head.
If you happen to run out of ammo, your fists come in handy, and though not an ultra complicated close-combat system, the basic left and right punches and uppercut combos can be performed with the left and right mouse buttons. Enemies without guns sadly seem incapable of sane thought, though, letting you throw punches and retreat, while never putting up a fight. If they've got a gun they'll shoot and kill you very easily, but if later levels include more fisticuff-only action, hopefully the AI will be improved to make it more of a challenge.
The early levels place a strong emphasis on fire, asking you to use oil lamps to set alight various buildings and carts. The game engine apparently accurately models how fire propagates, and while I'm no expert, the way it spread from one object to another, with items burning at different rates, was quite impressive. In somewhat of a laborious task, you often have to put out a fire you've started, in order to safely move through to the next area of the level. This requires numerous buckets of water, and although a nice touch, could do with being slightly less realistic in the final build.
A Western game wouldn't be a Western game if there weren't horses, and Call of Juarez doesn't disappoint. At the moment horse control feels rather like driving a car with a keyboard, but the big chase level seen in this preview build was certainly entertaining. Being the skilled shooter that you are, you can ride and shoot accurately without much difficulty, other than that caused by trying to steer the horse and aim your guns at the same time.
Featuring support for Shader Model 3, Call of Juarez is a nice looking game. The size of the environment is impressive and detail in the towns is very good indeed. Characters have a slightly plastic look to them, in a similar style to that seen in the Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, but facial detail is excellent. There's also a liberal amount of blood splatter, and plenty of lively language to accompany the Wild West setting.
Voice acting heard so far has been excellent, and each level is introduced by an often lengthy monologue from one of the two main characters. While the lines are delivered very well, enemies can be heard saying the same lines over and over, and the lengthy back-story that's delivered very professionally hides some rather excessive load times - something I hope is drastically improved as development comes to a close.
One area of concern is the stealth, and just how much you're going to be forced to stay hidden during the game. The lack of any on-screen indicator of your visibility made the lengthy stealth section as Billy rather a chore to play through, and more sections like this could bog down the generally action-packed gameplay. Unless some serious engine optimisation takes place between now and release, you'll also need a beast of a PC to get the most from the game visually. My trusty GF 6800 Ultra sadly didn't seem to cut it, particularly when moving through foliage that could give Oblivion a run for its money. Details can of course be lowered, but excessive fiddling makes for a drastically inferior looking game.
Five levels isn't much, but it was enough to get a great first impression of Call of Juarez. The differing gameplay of the two main characters seems very interesting, and the story is set up well for an epic adventure. Online multiplayer is also promised, with team play, and maps based on famous movies. While by no means a mainstream FPS, without an alien or WWII soldier in sight, PC gamers might have a surprise gem on their hands in Call of Juarez. With a release set for September, hopefully the final few months of development can see the game fulfil its potential.