IGN Review of Call of Juarez
The games stuck in purgatory, wandering listlessly among the many tumbleweeds of gaming history, are a particularly sad lot. Not necessarily because they're so bad but because they're oh so... forgettable. Call of Juarez is one of those already fading from memory. Solid shooting mechanics mix with poor level design while potentially interesting protagonists are bludgeoned with ho-hum enemies. Sadly some of the game's signature features, such as the slow-motion focus shooting, are hugely overused and actually drag the game down.
Call of Juarez's plot unfolds from each of two character perspectives. The first, Billy, is a worthless do-nothing that finds himself wandering back home after years of searching for the mythical treasure of Juarez. He's an entirely annoying character in spirit and nearly all of the levels designed for him involve some sort of sneaking or rock climbing expedition, which only compounds the issue. There's very little interesting about playing as a whiny character that you hope manages to die somewhere in the fiction. Instead of actively seeking to clear his name of murder charges against his mother and father-in-law, he runs. Considering how many cowboys, rustlers, bandits, and Indians he manages to slaughter along the way, it's a wonder that he didn't just stay to clear himself.
The second character, Reverend Ray, is a preacher with a dark past that has actively been seeking redemption through prayer and church. When his brother is killed, supposedly by Billy, his more violent side pushes to the front again as he begins the chase for righteous vengeance across the wild, slaughtering any wicked men in his way. The violent road eventually leads to unfortunate consequences as Revered Ray's convictions and faith are turned upside down. Ray's side of the story is more interesting and filled in by some good Charlton Heston-like voice work that compliments the rest of the (mostly) good cast.
Both characters are given skills to help differentiate their styles of play, Ray being the run and gun and Billy being the sneak about, but the techniques aren't necessarily welcome. The whip, for instance, is used by Billy to swing across chasms by latching it onto a tree branch affording him access to hard to reach places. Unfortunately the good idea is horribly executed and caused way more frustration than fun. The first ten minutes of falling to your death gives an unfortunate glimpse into the future of Billy levels as he draws plenty of jumping puzzle/platforming elements that are entirely unwelcome. The only other real use for the whip is to kill the many tragically unintelligent animals in the game, like wolves or spiders, without wasting ammo.
One of the game's more interesting features, called concentration mode, also ends up being one of the game's worst enemies. When activated, time will slow down for Ray after drawing his guns. The recharge time on Ray's ability is too fast, allowing you to simply wait and use it over and over. Having a special ability like this should actually be special rather than standard. It's too bad because it's a device that really makes you feel powerful. Eventually I stopped using focus mode with Ray altogether because it felt unfair, especially with nearly every enemy dropping health and the Reverend protected by heavy armor. It's especially sad because the basic shooter mechanics in Call of Juarez are pretty decent.
Likewise, Billy's own version of concentration mode begins whenever he draws his bow, meaning you can aim and shoot perfectly in slow motion (and kill a guy in one shot basically every time) and then quickly draw your bow again which will slow time yet again. You'll barely have to worry about enemies having the chance to shoot you while you get dead aim on every shot. There were Billy levels designed for a more sneaky approach in the darkness that suddenly became incredibly easy slaughters against heavily armed opponents using only a bow and arrow.
While the special focus ability is optional (though it's easy to feel compelled to use it for some stupid reason), the levels, unfortunately, are not. The corridor shooter sections with Reverend Ray running point aren't necessarily all bad. He's a badass, he kills people, and that's what he does whether it's with handguns, shotguns, pistols, or dynamite. As mentioned earlier, these mechanics are pretty decent so these areas are ok even if every area is ended with a quick draw gun battle that uses the same slow down techniques making the challenge much too easy. Still, running and gunning through an Old West town is fun. But corridor shooting can only get you so far these days. The best ones like Call of Duty have a lot more energy. Call of Juarez is lonely at times and never expresses the kind of desperate battles that a lone gunman, regardless of his level of ferocity, would encounter except for in the last level of the game.
If the game was only about Reverend Ray and his gun battles, it might have been better but Billy had to stick his stupid face into the mess. Many of the levels designed to show off his vulnerability in the face of great odds and armament are fairly pathetic. Sneak routines are never particularly good and only require stealth for short periods of time around a very few characters that don't even really follow a pattern.
Even worse are the levels with jumping puzzles and whip swinging. One of the worst involves Billy having to climb to the top of a mountain (with plenty of jumping and swinging along the way) only to retrieve a bird's feather. This sequence adds nothing to the rest of the game and barely even fits with the story. Better yet, after having fought through throngs of bandits and renegade Indians to make a good three quarters of the way through this linear shooter, Billy suddenly has to go hunting for rabbits. If we weren't so confused where the hell that came from, we might realize we're more upset than we actually are. This whole level, which combines with the mountain climbing, is the only one in the game that involves a sort of free-roaming environment that feels completely out of place with the rest of the experience.
Thankfully you have a horse to ride around on that runs faster than a man because the distances covered in that open area are pretty large. Sadly, the horse control is also pretty pathetic in first-person perspective. After playing games like Gun, Shadow of the Colossus, and Zelda: Twilight Princess, it's hard to get on a horse here without either laughing or groaning.
Visually Call of Juarez is decent enough though it won't win any awards. It looked pretty good when it was originally announced, but these days it's mid-range at best. Character models, faces particularly, are the best the game has to offer. Environments are blocky and offer up some strange texturing creating passable play areas.
Multiplayer also has its moments, though most of them are more cheap thrills than deep gaming. Standard deathmatch is included along with a version of it called Gold Rush that involves collecting bags of gold as well, which can be pretty fun. Team games like skirmish (team elimination) help out, but the most interesting is probably robbery where bandits try to blast their way past lawmen in order to steal some gold. The pace is pretty quick and the maps are nowhere near as good as a game like Counter-Strike, which basically offers the same style of gameplay with better results.
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