Platform: PC, Xbox 360. Version reviewed. Xbox 360.
I must admit that I ignored Call of Juarez when it first appeared on the PC last year. Maybe it was because we were going through a glut of first-person shooters at the time, or maybe it came down to the fact that it had been developed by Techland: producers of Chrome Specforce, one of the most tiresome Sci-Fi FPS games I had come across in years. Whatever the reason, I’ve wondered since whether I made a mistake. A lot of quite sensible people have praised Call of Juarez. It’s been described as innovative and compelling; as a better attempt at the video-game Western than either Gun or Red Dead Revolver. Ubisoft obviously saw something in the game as well, picking it up for this revamped, enhanced, Xbox 360 conversion and an enhanced DirectX 10 PC version for the US.
Graphically, the 360 version sits somewhere between the original DirectX 9 Call of Juarez and the DirectX 10 update, with reworked textures and enhanced HDR lighting and effects. Whatever the changes, the game looks great much of the time, with some of the most natural looking outdoor environments we’ve seen since The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and scenes bathed in the sort of warm lighting that wouldn’t have disgraced one of John Ford’s elegiac Western movie classics. From frontier towns to grassy highlands to spectacular desert canyons, Call of Juarez bends double to match expectations formed by a fistful of Sergio Leone movies and every Western Clint Eastwood has directed since The Outlaw Josie Wales. The character modelling is solid, and if the game struggles to create convincing interiors and dusty mines, it’s still a million miles away from the miserable, featureless work Techland churned out in Chrome Specforce. To be honest, the screens on these pages don’t do it justice: bar a slightly over-egged depth of field effect, Call of Juarez fares purty darn well for eye candy.
What’s more, those other critics were right to praise Call of Juarez for its innovation. Too many shooters recently have been keen to plough the same furrow: take the classic Doom template, add squad-mates and vehicles, throw in a few Halo-style, set-piece battles and tart it up with the best visual effects money can buy. Call of Juarez takes a schizophrenic path less well travelled. On the one hand, you play Billy – a misunderstood, half Mexican youth who can’t help getting into trouble. Framed for murder in the early stages of the game, he spends the rest of it on the run, sneaking through towns, mines and farmsteads, avoiding bad-ass banditos and rogue Apache braves. On the other hand, you also play the Reverend Ray – a gun-toting preacher straight from the Clint in Pale Rider school, dispensing lead and testament in roughly equal measure.
The fact that Ray is on Billy’s trail gives the game its most interesting dynamic. While Billy can fight with whip, pistol, rifle or bow, his relative weakness makes stealth the more sensible option. This means you spend approximately half the game hiding, sneaking, taking pot-shots from a safe distance and engaging in a little first-person platform-leaping action.