Call of Juarez has no right to be as good as it is. It's set in the Old West, for starters - rarely does the setting lend itself to quality software. Then, like Halo 2, the game is divided between two characters, which was rubbish in Halo 2 and should have been rubbish here. Thirdly, it's made in the middle of Poland by the developers of a bunch of no-mark PC games. So... why is it good?
Reverence. Juarez doesn't cloak its western archetypes in parody as Gun did, nor does it simplify and water down the traditions of the genre like Red Dead Revolver. It lifts the characters from Pale Rider and Unforgiven, and borrows its climax from The Wild Bunch. It draws from the great Spaghetti Westerns - ironically, like Call of Juarez itself, films that were made in Europe on shoestring budgets trying to capture the scale, history and brutality of the American West. This isn't The Lone Ranger, it's A Fistful of Dollars: its towns are run by bastards, its saloons are full of whores and alcoholics, criminals are driven by desperation and greed, and the least bad of a bad bunch is the only hero anyone has left.
There are two kinds of people in this world, pardner: those who creep around in the shadows and those who walk in, guns a-blazing. Reverend Ray is a reformed murderer and villain, Billy Candle is his nephew accused of murdering Ray's brother, his stepfather. The rest is a trail of blood leading to the city of Juarez. As Billy, you'll sneak and climb through levels, but as Ray you'll blast through with dual revolvers, rifles and shotguns. Both handle very differently - Ray is a tank, armed to the teeth and deadly with any weapon in his hands; Billy is quicker and his levels always restrict ammunition so shooting your way out can only ever be Plan B.
GOOD, BAD, UGLY
Unfortunately, Billy's levels are never as satisfying as Ray's are. He's not as interesting a character and though supposedly the good guy, he's not nearly as likeable as Ray. He doesn't handle so well, either - sneaking in first-person is always hard thanks to reduced spatial awareness and his bow and arrow is, well, crap. Much of Billy's levels are spent running away while being shot in the arse or platforming across mountaintops with help from his lasso, neither of which is a particularly enjoyable pursuit. Stealth in particular is especially weak - sneaking into areas where being spotted even once results in an auto-restart ups the frustration. Juarez forces you to play by its rules, and the absence of any kind of freedom in Billy's levels soon grates.
It's a linear path you follow on the road to Juarez, but you'll gladly play as Billy to get to the next stage starring Ray. Revenge is a dish best served with lead-shot, and after half an hour of squatting behind a bush as the boy Candle, vengeance has never been sweeter. Ray feels heavy and moves slowly, loaded down with armour and ammo, blazing through bandits while spewing Old Testament chapter and verse. Ray feels invincible, especially with his bullet-time quick-draw that makes him more than a match for gangs of bastards. Kill them, Ray. Kill them all. They deserve it.
Juarez distinguishes itself in those moments - moments drawn from classic and not-so-classic westerns. One minute you'll walk into town and face off against a small army, the next you'll head to the mines using carts for cover and blast enemies with dynamite. You'll journey through hostile Injun country and foil a great train robbery with a pair of silver revolvers and blammo-tastic gatling gun. You'll take to horseback and run down a stagecoach, and you'll burn a shady saloon to the ground; fire and brimstone for the house of sin. It gets away with its duff stealth bits thanks to moments of such variety while playing as The Rev, that you'll never do the same thing twice.
Call of Juarez isn't trying to be the next big thing in the FPS or stealth genre; it's a game made by a bunch of Western fans who wanted to be a part of all those moments from the movies they loved. This plays like someone enjoyed making it almost as much as we enjoyed playing it.
When it's bad, it's not too bad. When it's good, it rules. A great Western with a few niggles.
- A good story, well told
- Fantastic fun as Ray
- Not much fun as Billy