With first-person shooters rapidly running out of new ideas, perhaps it's time to look at the underused settings for inspiration. Everyone has nuked an alien in the face or blown up a WWII bunker, but not many have travelled across a dusty landscape with two six-shooters in hand. The Wild West is a much underused setting, and the focus of techland's Call of Juarez. A gap in the market is clearly there, waiting for the right game to come along and claim it for its own, like Call of Duty did for the WWII era. Call of Juarez is certainly an ambitious effort, but in the end is let down by trying to do too much.
Somewhat uniquely, you get to play as two rather different characters. Billy, a young man accused of murdering his mother and stepfather, and Reverend Ray, a one time rebel and now reformed man of God. When Ray finds Billy's parents murdered (his brother and sister in-law), and sees Billy fleeing the scene, he goes after him, becoming the bloodthirsty man he used to be. He still believes he's doing the work of God, but this time with a bible in one hand and a revolver in the other.
As far as openings go, Call of Juarez's isn't great. It sets up the story well, introducing the two main characters and the plot, but it's incredibly tedious to play through. Billy's opening section is the main offender, with some punishing stealth that puts a downer on the game before it's really begun. Sneaking around is hard enough at night, but during the day, in a busy town where a few shots will send you to your grave, it's a nightmare.
Reverend Ray doesn't suffer from the same tedious introduction, with his 'all guns blazing' approach being much more like you'd expect from a western game. With Ray being able to wield two guns at time (or a bible that temporarily confuses enemies), it's solid action, and the guns certainly seem to pack a punch. Your weapons can be drawn in such a way to activate a slow-motion targeting mode, where you can get the upper hand over your enemies. It doesn't feel as well implemented as the pioneering Max Payne, but it's a handy tool to have at your disposal; as is the rapid fire mode, which lets you reel off a series of fast shots.
When you get into the game Billy's sections aren't nearly as tiresome, but they're far from perfect. He's able to use a whip to attach to various objects, creating a rope swing of sorts, and he can climb ledges that Ray simply isn't able to, but Ray's all-action gameplay is a lot more enjoyable. Played entirely from a first-person perspective, stealth isn't easy. It's all too easy to wander into view of an enemy, and on a number of missions this means instant failure or, at best, a severe depletion of health.
The old Reverend isn't without his problems though, with horse riding segments being the biggest sore point. You're asked to ride and control a horse and aim and fire a gun at the same time. This would have worked well enough if the horse hadn't been so awkward to control, but it feels very stiff and this causes huge problems in smaller areas. I'd take horseback sections over stealth every time, but neither would have been preferable.
Gameplay issues aside, Call of Juarez captures the feel of the Wild West exceedingly well, and the best missions with the Reverend are very entertaining; the game as a whole just isn't compelling enough though. There are other issues too, like the excruciatingly long load times, game breaking auto saves (saving moments before auto failure of a level) and insane system requirements that make the game run pretty appallingly on all but the most powerful of PCs.
To be fair, Call of Juarez is an impressive looking game, complete with all the latest graphical effects. The large open environments are bathed in some glorious lighting, and the long grass looks superb. There's even a nifty depth of field effect that makes certain objects look out of focus when you're zooming in on a target, but this can look a little odd at times, with the focus effect switching on and off a little abruptly. Voice work and audio has been handled well, although there are a few too many lengthy monologues for my liking, and seem designed to disguise the lengthy loading.
Techland have also included a number of multiplayer game modes for play online or over a LAN. You get four classes to choose from (gunslinger, sniper, rifleman, and miner) and there are a number of maps to play in. There's nothing terrible about the online mode, in fact there are a few decent game modes on top of the staple FPS modes, but the maps aren't anything special - a few are just downright dull. It's safe to say that fans of the single-player game will get some enjoyment out of the online modes, but Call of Juarez is unlikely to gain much of an online community.
Despite its problems, Call of Juarez provides plenty to enjoy. Ray's action focussed levels are great fun and highlight how great the game could have been with a clearer focus. In the end, though, the mix of gameplay styles doesn't really work, with the stealth sections never reaching the quality required of a great game. If you've got the hardware you'll experience a quite stunning game, but one that doesn't fulfil its potential.