Players strap-on their virtual revolvers and step back into America's "Wild West" in Call of Juarez, a first-person shooter with a gritty cowboy theme. The single-player storyline follows a pair of gunslingers, bound to one another by family ties but at odds due to a gruesome misunderstanding. The righteous Reverend Ray has come out of retirement to hunt down his own nephew, Billy, for murdering his family. Innocent but framed for the crime, Billy must seek the true killers while avoiding his uncle's mighty vengeance.
Stages in which players take the role Reverend Ray feature rollicking gunfights, quick-draw showdowns, and other classic Western action. Billy's story features more adventure-styled gameplay, with exploration, horseback riding, stealth scenes, and environmental puzzles. Both characters have opportunity to interact in famous scenes from Old West legend, including a shootout with the notorious Billy the kid. Call of Juarez is built on a version of Techland's own Chrome game engine, designed to create large open spaces full of realistic Old West detail.
Their aim for this game, Call of Juarez, was apparently to create 'the most realistic adaptation of the genre' that 'draws on the major themes of the American Wild West'. Having only very few similar predecessors doesn't really leave much competition, but to Techland's credit they've created a game that's going to take some time to best - not least in the visual department. It's hard not to compare it to Oblivion in some places, with its swaying grass and trees and beautiful reflections on the surfaces of water, but Call of Juarez just looks better; the trees sway that little bit more naturally and the ripples in the water look that little bit less artificial. One major difference is that people look like real people, as opposed to graphically spectacular potatoes with a permanently inane grin. Beautiful backdrops spread across the far reaches of each level, adding a huge sense of scale and depth. Over the course of the game, you're transported to a myriad of different locales, from lush prairies to dust-stricken plains and even an ambushed train. Each location has the authentic hue that has become so familiar to Western fans, something which is sure to please purists of the genre, and it often really does feel like you're taking part in all the good bits in those movies from the seventies and eighties. The whole atmosphere that's been created is really quite stunning, culminating in a beautiful, beautiful game.
The structure is based around the extremely sturdy Chrome engine, but there are a number of major variations on the usual FPS formula that flesh out the playing experience and keep the gameplay from becoming stale. The story, which is genuinely interesting and successfully continues to be from start to finish, is told through the eyes of two playable characters, Billy and Ray. The first a young and impulsive stable hand and the latter a murderer-come-reverend. Through unfortunate timing and misconception, Billy sees himself fleeing the misguided vengeance of Reverend Ray for the death of his brother and stepfather, and it is this 'cat and mouse' concept that allows for differences in the game mechanics.
As Billy, traversing levels mainly involves a mixture of stealth, horseriding and some surprisingly well-designed platforming sections. The stealth sections take a bit of getting used to, as enemies seem to act in a completely different and much more incompetent manner to the rest of the game; they seem almost rooted to the spot at times, with their vision skills strangely fluctuating between someone who's had telescopes surgically implanted into their head to someone who's decided it'd be a great idea to watch a plank of wood rather than pay any attention to you at all. Standing behind a wooden post that's obviously much too thin to hide behind in any sane way often renders you strangely undetectable, whereas quietly sneaking past someone standing on the other side of town can make his nostrils flare with rage as he thunders towards you and blasts your head off. However, this isn't a game-ruining problem as it only rears its head on the odd occasion with the rest of the sneaky sections being perfectly reasonable and even threatening to be quite enjoyable at times.
Even so, as these sections only make up part of Billy's levels, there's so much more to experience that you soon forget any dislike you had towards them. For instance, stealing a horse and galloping across plains whilst being pursued by armed men on horseback is a thrilling ride, with the horse riding itself feeling much more natural and flowing than that found in, say, Oblivion, continuing that comparison from before. There's also those platforming sections mentioned earlier, something not often particularly enjoyable in first-person perspectives, but here Techland have excelled themselves. Firstly, looking down enables you to see the rest of your body rather than thin air, and although it can look hilarious at times such as jumping or moving while crouched, it does help greatly when positioning yourself in preparation for a big leap. Not content with just jumping though, Billy can latch onto overhanging tree branches and swing to places that are too far to jump to with his handy Indiana Jones-esque whip, and the impressive physics engine allows for some, albeit fairly simple, Half-Life 2 type puzzles to work out every now and then. He can also grab hold of surface edges and pull himself up, something else which also works extremely well.
Playing as Ray allows for the more traditional aspects of FPS games to present themselves, with a much larger focus on armed combat and confrontation than Billy's less action-packed ventures. As you're chasing the trail of the other playable character, you sometimes find yourself traversing the same locations that you've just been through, but via a different path and with the ability to blast the hell out of anyone that happens to get in your way. Having returned to his killer-instinct past lifestyle for the time being, Ray can dual-wield, with the left and right mouse buttons controlling the guns in his respective hands. Adding to this Halo 2 style of gunplay, guns dropped by enemies can be swapped for your current ones, something which becomes very handy as weapons have a habit of breaking. The AI is very adaptive during shootouts, with bandits making exemplary use of cover and having the aim of a seasoned sharpshooter. There's also the option of using bullet-time when situations get out of hand or when you need to kill lots of people at once, which can lead to impressive eye candy and self-awarded kudos. Throwing a TNT barrel at a load of highwaymen, then shooting it in slow motion before it reaches the ground and blowing up the whole lot of them is one such occasion that springs to mind.
To top everything off, the game's audio is superb. The beautifully orchestrated music changes drastically from level to level, spanning from easygoing guitar melodies to frantic string and brass passages which complement the onscreen action perfectly. The voice acting is excellent, although maybe a tad forced in a couple of places, and a neat little touch sees each character provide a monologue during the loading screen of each of their levels. The sound effects are as realistic as you'd want them to be, and all add to the substantial atmosphere that has been created.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of minor issues that mar this goldmine of a game. Due to the intense graphical requirements, some slowdown occurs when there's a lot of foliage being displayed at once, and this can lead to a few conversations having large gaps between people speaking as the computer struggles to keep everything running. Obviously the more powerful your graphics card, the less trouble you'll have with this, and in that fashion it's not really the developer's fault at all. Also, you lose an annoyingly exaggerated amount of health just by falling small distances, leading to many unconvincing deaths, but it's something you get used to over time.
It would be cruel to end on a down point for such a great game, as it really does deserve all the success it achieves. It provides a compelling single-player story, as well as a fairly simple yet superbly executed multiplayer mode - containing the standard single and team Deathmatch modes along with Capture the Flag in the form of bank and train robberies - to add a fair amount of longevity, and successfully explores new and interesting territory to vary the traditional tried-and-tested mechanics of most other FPS games. Techland have come up with not only an outstanding addition to the criminally thin range of Western FPS titles in a genre flooded with sci-fi and World War adaptations, but have also paved the way for many others to hopefully take a page out of their book and keep gamers satisfied for a long while yet.
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