Call of Juarez: how a sub-par shooter achieved artistic excellence

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Have you played Call of Juarez yet? It’s a genuine question. It’s been available in Europe for quite some time now, is easily imported, and is even more easily pirated (but, for reasons that will soon be discussed, this is a game that deserves your money).

With the vague “Q2 2007” US release date quickly approaching (sorta), and the recent announcement that a 360 port is currently in development, you may be interested to know some things about the game. Namely, that Call of Juarez is not only the best western video game ever made, but also shows how game mechanics can be efficiently used as story mechanics, and vice versa.

Granted, the gameplay itself is kind of wonky, but it’s a perfectly serviceable action game that successfully marries gameplay and story with an efficiency usually reserved for “artsy fartsy” games like Ico or Shadow of the Colossus.

Don’t believe me? Hit the jump to see what I’m talking about. 

The Bad 


Most of the people I’ve recommended CoJ to have come out disappointed, no doubt thanks to my hyperbolic glee for any FPS that includes six-shooters and horses. So before I get into what makes Call of Juarez so special, it’s worth pointing out what makes it a less than stellar title. I’ll be harsher than I otherwise would be, considering literally nobody I’ve recommended this game to has shared my enthusiasm for it.

-The controls are wonky

For a game that requires a fair amount of climbing and jumping, it’s hard to understand why they didn’t streamline the process a bit more. Trying to jump on boxes causes their Havok physics to go crazy, often times making them spastically rotate over and over to compensate for your character’s added weight. Climbing up ladders or kicking open doors are similarly difficult enterprises, considering you can frequently fall off ladders, and you have to be right next to a door to kick it open.

-The actual gameplay itself isn’t anything new

You’re either shooting people or sneaking past them. Sometimes, you’re on a horse. The actual gameplay mechanics are nothing new. 

The gun sound effects aren’t loud enough

This may sound silly, but it’s definitely annoying during the game. Guns should sound powerful and booming and badass, not like noisemakers. 

-The voice acting is, at times, horrendous

Most of the supporting characters are okay, and the dude who plays Reverend Ray does so adequately, but whoever they hired to play Billy Candle sounds like Jimmy Fallon with a Texan accent straight out of Hee-Haw. Everytime he speaks, whatever dramatic tension the story has previously built up is almost destroyed. The way the gameplay itself develops the characters does make up for this, however, as will soon be pointed out.

-The melee system is awful

On three separate occasions, you are forced to get into fistfights with other characters. God only knows why the devlelopers actually wanted you to notice how awkward, inefficient, and slapdash their fistfighting system is. Not to mention that the final boss battle in the game, a moment that should be dramatic and satisfying and awesome, consists only of a crappy fistfight in a small room. It’s soon after redeemed by a half-cutscene/half-gameplay moment of complete and total badassity, but still.

-The levels are way too linear 

The game is set in the Wild West, a world of limitless possibility and wide-open ranges. It’s all the more depressing, then, that the levels are typically a straight-and-narrow affair where you blast or crawl your way from one end of a map to another, with little-to-no opportunity to create your own path. Many people who haven’t yet played the game have likened it to Gun, and though CoJ is infinitely more fun than Neversoft’s wild west abortion, the comparison doesn’t hold weight.

-The sneaking missions aren’t very fun when you don’t get to kill people

As is the case with every sneaking mission ever implemented, CoJ‘s two or three nonviolent stealth sections are basically a trial and error affair. You’re given a good three to five seconds to hide behind something if a baddie spots you, but this developer-implemented leeway doesn’t make the few nonviolent stealth missions any less tedious.

-Certain gameplay elements are implemented way too late, or not frequently enough 

Billy Candle doesn’t get to use his bow and arrow on human beings until the last two minutes of the game, which is a shame: the silent weapon would have been extremely useful for fighting Apaches during the middle third of the game. Additionally, the otherwise-cool fire system (starting a fire causes any flammable materials around it to realistically catch and spread the flame) becomes useless when most of the levels are either in the desert, or in towns where the buildings are made of adobe. The only things you ever get to set on fire are large, broken wooden carriages with one or two bad guys inside. Boring.

The Good

Now that that’s over with, we can talk about what makes the game unusually good. It may seem weird to list almost ten things the game does incorrectly and then follow it up with only a few bullet points it does well, but these are big, big bullet points. 

The Aesthetics


A game’s visual style can go a long way in improving experience. No matter how we all love to say that we don’t care about graphics, and that it’s the gameplay that counts, and so on and so forth, it never hurts a game to look pretty.

This is especially the case with western games: a game like Red Dead Revolver is generally appreciated by the gaming community, even though the entire game basically boils down to repetitive shooting level after repetitive shooting level. What makes a title like Red Dead Revolver stand out is not its gameplay, but its aesthetics: the revolvers, the quick-draws, the horses, and the wild west atmosphere. I love Red Dead Revolver, but it bears mentioning that if you stripped the game of its western flavor, you’d be left with nothing but a redundantly paced, moderately adequate third-person-shooter.

Call of Juarez is not invulnerable to this critique, either. If you took away the story (which I’ll get to in a minute) and the western setting, you’d be left with a completely underwhelming first person shooter. 

What matters, however, is that Call of Juarez‘s aesthetics are present, and they do make the game more fun than it really deserves to be. The graphics are, bar-none, the prettiest we’ve ever seen in a western game. The ragdoll physics are awesome (if you don’t believe me, try shooting a cowboy with a sawed-off at point-blank range). And, best of all: bullet wounds! 

Remember how satisfying the kills were in the first Hitman game? How every bullet made a tangible mark in its target, whether it hit a piece of scenery or human flesh?

Call of Juarez brings back that feeling. Every time you shoot an enemy, a satisfyingly large hole is created in that baddie’s character model, accompanied by a spray of blood. When combined with the ragdoll physics, you can get some truly cinematic-looking deaths. For example: at one point, three tomahawk-wielding Apaches charged me simultaneously. As I shot each one of them in the face, their heads snapped back, blood shot through the back of their skulls, and they were blown backward by the impact of the bullet.

The deaths may sound gratuitous or disturbing when described in simple words, but they’re also extremely satisfying on a purely visceral level. As important as gameplay is to a first-person shooter, it doesn’t hurt if the deaths themselves are juicy, cinematic, and satisfying.

The Dual-Protagonist System


I don’t know if the guys at Techland knew their choice to implement two protagonists in Call of Juarez was intelligent and original, or if they just did it for shits and giggles. Either way, it bears mentioning that the gameplay conceit of playing as two opposing characters not only elevates Call of Juarez above the other bargain-bin western games out there, but also showcases a surprisingly easy way to connect the player to his protagonist(s). Even though games like Red Dead Revolver have implemented multiple protagonists in the past, these heroes were usually working together, and not pitted against one another.

Basically, the story goes like this:

Billy Candle, a bastard child who is generally detested by everyone in his hometown, returns home penniless after failing to find the lost gold of Juarez. After getting hassled by the Sheriff, the townspeople, and the proprietor of the local brothel, Billy visits his mother’s ranch. Unluckily for him, however, he finds that his house has been set aflame, and that his mother and stepfather have been very recently murdered.

Cut to the other protagonist, Reverend Ray. Ray is an ex-outlaw who gave up his violent lifestyle and decided to become a preacher. As Ray begins his Sunday sermon, the doors of the church burst open and a young woman informs him that his brother’s ranch is on fire. Ray runs over to the ranch and finds the flaming ranch, the words “CALL OF JUAREZ” written in blood on a barn door, and the dead bodies of his brother and his sister-in-law. 

At this point, the two stories overlap: the Reverend looks up and sees Billy standing over the bodies. Billy, panicking, runs away and the Reverend gives chase. The rest of the game entails Ray’s pursuit of Billy through the western landscape. 


What makes the story extremely cool is that everything I described in the previous three paragraphs is delivered through gameplay, and not long-ass cutscenes. You play as Billy, from the time he returns home to the moment he discovers the corpses of his mother and stepdad. After that point, the perspective switches and you play as Ray, starting the Sunday service and subsequently running to your brother’s ranch where you discover Billy standing over the bodies. You then chase Billy through the forest for a little while, until he escapes into the wilderness.

In any other game, this chase scene would be a straightforward scripted event used solely to move the plot along. But, since you’ve played as Billy for a good twenty minutes, and Ray for about ten, you have inadvertently bceome attached to both characters. It feels outright surreal to chase Billy, because you are, in effect, chasing yourself: you were playing as Billy when everyone in town started giving him shit for leaving, and as a result the player sympathizes with the Billy character and connects with him. It feels strange (in a good way) to suddenly have to chase yourself as a different character.

The Mission Structure

With a few exceptions, the game missions alternate between Billy’s perspective and Ray’s, often times out of chronological order. For example, a Billy mission might end when you arrive at a ranch, and suddenly a bunch of US marshals start indiscriminately killing everyone inside. The next mission, where you play as Ray, will explain where those US marshals came from and why Ray is travelling with them. At times, the story structure almost resembles a Tarantino movie: you start at the end with a Billy mission before working your way to that point with a Ray mission.

The dual protagonist system allows you to attach whatever thematic BS you want (the opposing narratives show the duality of man, or other similarly pretentious crap),  but the system really serves to connect you to the characters, and to break up the gameplay.

When you play as Ray, you wield dual pistols, a steel chest plate, the occasional ability to go into bullet time, and the choice to hold a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other. The player can literally recite scripture by right clicking, and fire a revolver by left clicking. The Bible serves no gameplay purpose, but it feels really, really badass, and it tells you a lot about the character of Reverend Ray while emotionally connecting you to him.

When you play as Billy, you are generally forced to sneak past your enemies. Billy is armed only with a whip, he has little skill with a gun, and he is wearing no armor: as a result, his missions are slow-paced affairs that force the player to sneak past dozens of bad guys without being seen. And even in the missions where Billy is allowed to kill people without ending the mission, Billy’s weakness makes the individual battles much more satisfying. While Ray may kill 20 people without batting an eye, killing even two or three Apaches as Billy is extremely difficult, and, in the end, much more rewarding.

But back to the sneaking missions. 

Sneaking levels like Billy’s serve three purposes:


-Firstly, they emotionally connect you to Billy as he desperately and helplessly tries to run from Ray. In Billy’s inability to kill large amounts of people at a time, the player understands more about him: where sneaking missions in games are usually tacked-on and without reason, there is a real reason for why these missions are there. Billy has to sneak because Billy isn’t strong enough to do otherwise. 

-Secondly, since Billy’s levels are usually preceded and followed by one of Ray’s (and vice versa), the sneaking missions help break up the otherwise-monotonous shootemup gameplay that characterizes all of Ray’s levels.

-Thirdly, and most interestingly, Billy’s sneaking missions directly make Ray’s shooting missions more fun by giving them a greater weight.

Consider a pair of missions that take place near the beginning of the game. As Billy, you sneak past a camp of cowboys, evading their campfires and sticking to the shadows. As you crawl past them, you pick up snippets of their conversation: evidently, these are bad guys who are planning to rob a train and kill all the passengers. Both Billy and the player feel a genuine frustration: you want to kill these guys, but you can’t because Billy is too weak.

All that changes once the mission ends and the perspective switches to Reverend Ray. Since Ray is chasing Billy, you are essentially covering the same turf you did in the previous level — but not like Billy did. While Billy had to stealthily crawl past each of the three dozen bandits, Ray — who wears a steel chest plate and wields dual revolvers — doesn’t have time for that sneaking bullshit. Ray blasts his way through the same camp Billy just snuck through: the vengeance you were incapable of wreaking as Billy is transferred to Ray, who remorselessly kills every last bandit in the camp on his way to Billy. 

It is indescribably satisfying to play through a sneaking mission as Billy, jumping at every shadow, constantly hiding like a mouse, only to play as Ray immediately afterwards and slaughter every guard you had to avoid at all costs only a few minutes before. It also makes you much more afraid of the Ray character when you play as Billy: having played through a level as Ray, you know fully well what he is capable of. When, from Billy’s perspective, you catch an occasional glimpse of Ray, it’s downright scary. Ray could kill you with both eyes closed and one hand tied behind his back, and it’s absolutely terrifying to see him when you’re playing as armorless, weaponless Billy.

Billy’s missions make the player enjoy the action of Ray’s missions all the more — and as the player enjoys the way Reverend Ray blasts his way through each level, the player becomes as equally attached to Ray as he is to Billy.

And as much as the player enjoys sneaking and killing, sneaking and killing, and as the player subconsciously sympathizes with both protagonists, the developers refuse to let you forget about your ultimate goal as both characters.

Opposing Protagonists, Opposing Sympathies


When Ray finally tracks down Billy and the two have a brief showdown, it’s a lot more emotionally affecting than it really has any right to be. Granted, it’s not as cool or dramatic as it could be (the showdown is pretty abrupt, and you’re far away from each other instead of up close and personal), and while you won’t be crying or even particularly shocked when you’re finally forced to pull the trigger on your alter ego, you’ll definitely get an uneasy feeling. When the player is forced to shoot a character he has played as and identified with, the player truly feels the consequences of his actions. I have never before played a game that made me feel like I was shooting an actual person instead of some AI controlled character model, until the dual protagonist system in Call of Juarez

Shadow of the Colossus develops a theme and connects the player to his protagonist by making the Colossi seem innocent and, at times, relatively harmless. Ico connects the player to the princess by implementing her in all the gameplay puzzles. Call of Juarez accomplishes the same feats as the previous two games by forcing the player to play as two different characters, one of whom is trying to kill the other.

This may all sound crazy considering we’re basically talking about an average/below-average western FPS, but Call of Juarez is honestly a reasonably fun game (the Big Final Battle as Ray basically combines every badass western cliche into one awesome orgy of violence) with an imaginative approach to character development, and an innovative method of telling an otherwise cliched story.

The demo only gives you the aesthetic feel of the game without the cool narrative aspects, but it’s at least worth checking out. 

So, have you played Call of Juarez? Agree? Disagree? Think I’m a pretentious jerkoff? Hit the comments.

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