Call of Juarez Xbox 360 Review - 06/07/2007

The Old West is a largely unexplored frontier of the FPS genre. But despite all the odds against them, Techland have poured their heart, soul, and love of dynamite into Call of Juarez, with spectacular and quite surprising results.

Videogame recreations of John Wayne inspired Western adventures have a history of troubled development and commercial shortcomings. Considering the awkward timing of its release, at a time of year known all too well by gamers as the summer drought, the chances of Call of Juarez’s console debut being a success conjure up unfavourable images of tumbleweed and pre-owned stickers. But if you’ve already taken Jackie Estacado’s Darklings for a trip to hell and back, and are looking for a genuinely brilliant single and multiplayer experience, then look no further than Techland’s no holds barred Wild West FPS. Call of Juarez features a triumphant combination of stetsons, six shooters and sawed off shotguns carefully weaved into an episodic story that just keeps you coming back for more. And should you decide to heed the call of The Lost Gold and invest in this rewarding shooter, you’ll get to use the best version of “bullet time” ever developed for any video game. Ever.

The exploits of Billy, an agile young lad armed with nothing but a bow and his wits, and Ray, a lawman turned preacher who seeks justice through violent means, are portrayed using an ambitious combination of gameplay concepts. Techland have avoided over complicating the game by dividing the exploration of large open environments, light and dark stealth, and duck and shoot gunfights between the two characters. This is where the developer has truly stuck gold. The trademark attributes of the Wild West, which include duels, horseback chases and close quarter standoffs, can be found in the episodes that feature Reverend Ray. The segments involving Billy are slower paced and accomplished successfully by staying out of sight for most of the time. Although it may seem as though Juarez lacks focus, the abilities of both characters, and the different gameplay challenges they throw at the player, work incredibly well.

The tension of sneaking through a camp of enemies as Billy, only to assume the role of Ray in the following episode and unleash the Lord’s fury is nothing short of genius. But this isn’t a case of retreading old ground. The environments are designed to accommodate multiple paths and keep the player and the angular heels of their Western boots moving into unknown territory. The stealth mechanic, although not quite as sophisticated as what you might find in a game endorsed by Tom Clancy, works well when complimented with the gun slinging antics that follow Billy’s missions. You would be hard pressed to find another Wild West title that made you feel as superior as when you quote a passage from the Bible, engage your slow motion reflexes and effortlessly clear a street full of sinners.

But this game is no walk in the desert, as you’ll soon discover once Ray’s missions get into full swing. Juarez doesn’t just present you with a selection of authentic weaponry and encourage you to shoot the bad guys. You’ll frequently find yourself re assessing your tactics and adapting the way you play. Even the achievements are geared towards true feats of brilliance, which means that killing 5 enemies or completing episode 2 isn’t going to earn you a cheap 50 Gamerpoints. The 360 version boasts an expanded single player, with future downloadable content likely in the works.

But there has to be more to it than slow motion gun fights and hiding in bushes. Juarez is a beautifully realised place. Genuinely stunning graphics successfully capture the mood and atmosphere of the western frontier. The sheer size of the environments, and the physics based objects that populate them, are an effective combination of the very best elements from games such as Oblivion and Half Life 2. The characters all move with incredible realism, and the next-gen hardware of the 360 has allowed for more variations in their behaviour. Techland have obviously gone to a great deal of trouble to ensure the authenticity of the game world, and that Call of Juarez is in no way a lazy port of the PC original. Their faithful recreation of the Wild West has given me some of the greatest moments of my gaming years.

I approach a [deceptively] deserted town, bible in hand and six shooters at the ready. The twang of an acoustic guitar reverberates through my surround sound as a small tumbleweed slowly roles across the screen. The camera zooms forward. A group of trigger happy cowboys gradually reveal themselves, each sporting a swagger that John Wayne himself would be proud of. The carnage that follows is indeed exciting, but the vivid detail and film like presentation of the set up to these events is what makes the encounter so memorable. There are plenty of other moments like this spread throughout the episodes of Juarez.

Climbing the environment as Billy with his whip may take some getting used to, but clearing potentially fatal drops in first person makes for a further few seconds of excitement. The simple physics engine allows for cover to be dynamically affected, so crates, carts, and fencing will only provide so much protection. The bullet time “concentration mode” becomes less of a gimmick and more of a necessity as a result. It enhances the gameplay without ever feeling cheap or tacked on. The story unravels in a way you’d expect a television series to pan out during the course of a season. This is truly gripping stuff.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the multiplayer would therefore be criminally average, but that is where Juarez offers its final surprise. The online component of the PC version has translated well onto Xbox Live. While most of the standard features are present and accounted for (in-game voice chat, custom games, ranked and player matches etc...), the charm and authenticity of the single player game has been faithfully transferred into the multiplayer arena. Techland have transformed a typical skirmish (such as Capture the Flag, or Capture the Bag, to use its actual name) into something truly exceptional by adding wide open desert spaces and chases on horseback. The simplicity of the idea is what makes it work so well.

The maps on offer are nicely varied and often draw inspiration from real life locations. The potential for more of these is offered through downloadable content, but as it stands, the multiplayer is more than just a brief distraction. The regenerating health system works just as well online as it does in the single player, with some tense team shootouts breaking out in some of the more claustrophobic locations.

Although the quality of your online experience is, as always, determined by the strength of your hosts connection, there is very little lag to speak of. The visual effects of the single player have not been noticeably toned down, and the upgraded frame rate remains steady. You know all of this has to be worth a look if playing it gives you the urge to don a Stetson and take the local saloon by storm. It’s all about style combined with substance, and Juarez offers both in spades.

- Jon Titmuss



Xbox 360 - PC