History Lessons: Call Of Juarez

New readers may wish to read my History Lessons Introduction first. Previous History Lessons posts can be found here. Also remember that you can click on images to see larger versions.

How old must a game be before it qualifies for History Lesson treatment? I’m tempted to say that it’s my blog and I can do whatever I want, but I actually do think I’m justified in this case. While Call of Juarez is only seven years old, playing it felt like revisiting an earlier generation of design, one that corresponds to a gap in my own gaming experience.

I wish I could say that the positive response to Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, the latest entry in the series, motivated me to buy the original. But that’s not the case; I bought it because Kieron Gillen told me to. I further wish I could say that the positive response to Call of Juarez: Gunslinger was what motivated me to finally get around to playing the original game, but that’s not true either. I had just finished the melancholy and thought-provoking Anodyne, and decided I needed something a little lighter and more action-packed to play next. After realizing that my backlog contained a distressing number of huge role-playing games and puzzle-focused indie offerings, I spied Call of Juarez on my shelf and decided that a Western romp would fit the bill perfectly.

Yes, I did say I spied it on my shelf. I have a physical copy, picked up from a bargain bin on a whim after reading Kieron’s review. This meant I had to install and patch the game manually, but fortunately for others, the v1.1.1.0 patch should be included when purchasing the game from a digital distributor like Steam. But while applying the patch, I discovered that it is primarily related to the DirectX 10 version of the game.

This is one reason why I find the game interesting from a historical perspective. DirectX is, for those who don’t know, a set of application programming interfaces or APIs made by Microsoft for the Windows platform (and the original Xbox, hence the “X”; I am not sure if more recent iterations of the Xbox still use DirectX or not). It essentially allows games and other software to communicate with and use different pieces of hardware like graphics cards and input devices, which also means it sets the limits of what these devices can be used for. In the context of games, DirectX is mostly about graphics. Each new version of DirectX is usually an iterative improvement over the previous, but DirectX 10 was a very big leap forward from DirectX 9, enabling a lot of fancy new graphical effects. It also, infamously, does not work on Windows XP, so when it was released in 2006, players had to upgrade to the oft-maligned Windows Vista in order to get the new graphical effects in their games. Most players opted to stick to XP, so for a while games had to include separate DirectX 9 and DirectX 10 versions. Now, however, most players have made the jump to the relatively well-liked Windows 7, so there’s no problem running games that use DirectX 10 or 11.

Call of Juarez was released right around the same time as DirectX 10, and was therefore among the first crop of games to utilize it. And, playing it today, I can feel the excitement the developers must have had as they built visuals that had previously been impossible. The game looks surprisingly good in DirectX 10 mode, only really betraying its age through low-resolution textures on distant objects, comparatively simple character models, or the odd low-polygon tree. The lighting is the most impressive: sunlight actually looks like sunlight, and is blindingly bright when emerging from a dark tunnel, before dimming automatically to mimic the adjustment of the human eye. I’ve seen this effect in modern games (notably Skyrim), but didn’t expect it from a game from 2006. That’s the same year Oblivion was released, which was a graphical powerhouse at the time, but for all its HDR (high dynamic range) shininess it had less convincing lighting than Call of Juarez in DirectX 10 mode.

And that lighting is key, because, like any good Western, Call of Juarez is set amid the wilderness of the American west. Texas, in fact, which made it a bit odd that so many environments were positively mountainous (looking it up later, I learned that there are actually a good deal of mountains in Western Texas, close to Juarez, but the game starts near present-day Yoakum, TX which is much flatter in real life). To keep the player from roaming too far in the wrong direction, the developers provide plenty of ravines and cliffs to define the path forward. Like most modern first-person shooter games, Call of Juarez is a linear affair, but it does a decent job of not feeling too restrictive. Even within its canyons and ravines there are large expanses behind or alongside the player that help sell the illusion of a real wilderness (complete with surprisingly convincing foliage) rather than a glorified corridor. Trained as I have been to poke around in corners and seek secrets in games, I happily ignored my objective to explore these areas in the early levels, but came out empty-handed. They really are just wilderness. Which was actually refreshing, because it means the environments don’t feel overtly game-like. Later levels tended to have more limited areas, albeit with more action to keep one’s mind off of exploring. But one highlight towards the end of the game let Billy loose in a huge and beautiful expanse near a lake, free to ride around more or less at his leisure.

Speaking of Billy, I really should talk about the characters, who so impressed Kieron. Billy Candle is the first of two playable characters, and the one that most players complained about. It’s easy to see why: he’s whiny, constantly complaining about his lot in life, and kind of a wimp, tending to hide and sneak around rather than face his opponents. And his opening level (the first level in the PC version, although the Xbox 360 version apparently added another level before this) is easily the worst in the game. Ostensibly acting as a tutorial in stealth, gunplay, and movement, it’s a complete mess. Players begin having just been introduced to Billy through his opening monologue, learning how he’d been mistreated his whole life by his cruel stepfather (and everyone else) due to his Mexican heritage, constantly blamed for everything and treated like a good-for-nothing thief. So Billy left home to try and find the fabled gold of Juarez, failed miserably, and is now coming back empty-handed to see his mother. So far, no real problems.

But upon taking control of Billy, the player immediately engages in the very activities that everyone allegedly accused him of. He trespasses, steals a gun, gets his gun confiscated, and promptly steals another gun from a prostitute (after sneaking into her room without paying). He’s caught with the prostitute, naturally, but he escapes through the window and must sneak away from town. Or at least that’s what the on-screen objective told me; it turns out this is impossible. Despite evading the gang that was whipped up to hunt Billy down, he was suddenly shot in the back every time I snuck him out of the hole in the town fence. I tried this section countless times, wondering how I’d been spotted, before realizing that it’s scripted: gang members pop into existence to shoot at Billy no matter how stealthy he was, forcing him to run. A clunky implementation to say the least.

The next section is even worse. It should have been exciting, with Billy fleeing along the narrow ledges far above the river at the bottom of the ravine, with an angry mob shooting at his heels. In practice, this section introduces the fiddly controls for swinging over gaps using Billy’s bullwhip, made all the more frustrating by having the mob shoot Billy dead if he can’t keep moving fast enough. I retried this section so many times that I had soon memorized the timing queues, learning when I could safely take my time to cross a pit and when new gunshots would trigger. It’s the worst possible way to design a tutorial, and left me with a strong dislike for Billy.

Eventually, Billy arrives at his mother’s farm to find it on fire. Then control switches to the other playable character, and absolute highlight of the game, Reverend Ray. Ray is Billy’s uncle (the brother of his stepfather), who has given up his old gunslinging ways to take the cloth. Sadly, his early sections are underwhelming too. His sermon is interrupted with the news that his brother’s barn is on fire, so he runs there to find both his brother and his wife (Billy’s mother) dead, and of course this is exactly when Billy shows up. Ever the coward, Billy runs, and Ray assumes he must be the murderer. After a short chase, Billy gets away, and Ray gets into a fistfight (another tutorial, of course). The fistfight system is awkward, especially so after playing Zeno Clash 2, and after fumbling through it I was fairly annoyed with the game overall.

But the next segment, wherein Ray unpacks his old, rusty revolvers and vows to bring the Lord’s justice down upon Billy (and any other sinners he might come across), is where the game truly begins, and it’s fantastic. The townsfolk, Ray’s parishioners, have shown their true colors and reverted to gun-toting outlaw mode, so Ray runs on a rampage through town to bring holy wrath upon them. This introduces Ray’s signature “focus” ability, which is one of the best parts of the game. Ray can wield a revolver in each hand, and upon drawing them he enters slow-motion focus mode. In this mode each revolver gets a separate crosshair on the screen, slowly moving inwards from the sides towards the center. Ray lines up his enemies in these two crosshairs, firing each revolver individually with the left and right mouse buttons, before regular time resumes and his enemies lie dead. This mode is a blast to use, requiring quick decisions about which gun to line up on which enemy, and how many shots are needed to dispatch each. It takes only a short time to recharge focus mode; a typical scene saw me running out from behind a building, drawing my revolvers to start focus mode, firing at several different enemies, and then quickly ducking behind cover again to reload my guns. After taking a few deep breaths, I was able to holster my weapons and then dash back out for more slow motion shooting.

This brilliantly evokes the feeling of being a badass quick-drawing gunman in a Wild West shootout. The switch between shooting and taking cover to reload feels just right, and the power of focus mode is offset on those occasions when an enemy stumbles upon Ray while he is reloading, before focus mode has recharged. Shooting without focus mode is suitably frantic, and even though Ray wears a metal breastplate to help deflect a few bullets (and making him more resilient than Billy), he will still go down with just a few shots (although I played on the highest difficulty setting, and this may be relaxed somewhat on the easier settings). While this did mean I was reloading my quicksaves often, I was still having a great time working out the best way to tackle my army of adversaries.

And Ray, as a character, is so wonderfully over the top. His monologues before each of his levels are full of appeals to the Lord to guide his hand, and his single-minded crusade makes him suitably terrifying. This is helped in no small part by excellent voice acting from Marc Alaimo. He can decide to forgo one of his pistols and whip out his bible instead, reading fire-and-brimstone passages out loud as he shoots bandits. Apparently this can confuse his enemies, but I generally found that having a second pistol for focus mode (it works with one, but not as well) served me better than spouting verse. I certainly had fun doing it on other occasions though, like when I was chasing Billy.

As the game progresses, the player switches between controlling Billy, now on the run as a murder suspect, and Ray, who is tracking him down. And Ray is hot on Billy’s heels, often catching sight of him at the end of a level. This character switching was hailed as a highlight in Kieron’s review, because it makes for an excellent one-two punch: sneak through an area as Billy, avoiding detection, then head through it again as Ray, killing everyone from whom you just spent so much time hiding. Kieron also noted the inspired decision to split the stealthy sections and action sections between two characters, rather than having a single protagonist awkwardly switch between the two, as happens often in modern games. Strangely, I’ve never actually played a game with this clunky fusion of stealth and action, but I gather they exist and are fairly common. But I did appreciate that each character in Call of Juarez plays to his strengths.

And, unlike most reviewers, I actually enjoyed Billy’s levels. After his horrendous intro, he gets to tackle much more interesting challenges. The stealth seemed weird at first until I realized that it’s not really about hiding in shadows (except for one level that takes place at night), but rather about hiding in bushes. This means Billy must sneak between spots of relative safety, carefully watching his enemies to time his movements. He can also employ some distraction measures like slapping a grazing horse to get it to gallop off (a tactic straight out of a Western film). He’s not entirely helpless either; while some levels prohibit killing anyone, others do not, and Billy gets a bow and arrows which are unexpectedly effective due to their own slow motion mode. Aside from the free-riding area I mentioned earlier, my favorite of Billy’s levels involved navigating a mountain pass full of Apache raiders. While it might have been possible to sneak through the whole level without being detected, I preferred using stealth to dispatch a few enemies with the bow before engaging with my rifle. Incidentally, combat with the rifle is also great fun; neither Billy nor Ray has access to any special slow motion ability when firing the rifle, but its longer range and high power led to some excellent outdoor combat, sometimes on horseback.

In general, the combat felt like it was designed to be played on a PC using a keyboard and mouse, something that’s become rare in recent times. I was surprised to discover that Call of Juarez released on PC almost a year before it appeared on the Xbox 360. While there was little overlap in terms of games between PC and consoles in the ’90s, after the release of the original Xbox most AAA games have appeared on both, and the consoles are often the primary targets during development. This is good, in that more people get to play the games, but it does mean that controlling games on PC can be functional but not necessarily fluid. But in Call of Juarez I felt right at home, utilizing the precision aiming of my mouse to its fullest. The game also uses a custom engine, again unusual by modern standards. A game engine, for readers who may not know, is the set of systems and code that define how the three-dimensional world looks and behaves, including everything from graphical capabilities to physics, the size of the environments, and enemy behavior. It’s a lot of work to put an engine together, so many developers simply license an existing engine and build their game with it. The most common, today, is the Unreal Engine, although Frostbite is becoming more popular and Unity is a common choice among independent developers.

For Call of Juarez, developers Techland re-used their own Chrome Engine, originally made for the game Chrome (which I had actually never heard of). The advantage to using an internally-developed engine is that the team had intimate knowledge of its capabilities and were able to design a game that takes full advantage of them. This engine is what allows for the beautiful vistas and excellent cross-country chases, as well as some special features like the fire mechanics. Fires can start from smashed oil lamps or other sources, and will spread over flammable surfaces like wood. In practice, fire was never as versatile is the system promised, used only in a few set places, but it did liven up certain sections of the game. Engines do more than this, however; the underlying technology that drives the visuals and the environments is something that can be sensed while playing. If you play enough Unreal Engine games, you’ll come to recognize them by sight and by feel, by the way the protagonist and other characters move and the way the environments are constructed. So playing a game built in an unfamiliar engine does wonders towards making the game feel new and fresh. Since the Chrome Engine is Techland’s own and is not licensed to other developers, it gives their games a unique character, and it was a major reason why Call of Juarez felt like an interesting piece of gaming history as I played it.

I was also surprised to discover that Techland were the developers. In a clever move, there are wanted posters scattered throughout the game, each featuring a member of the development team, with a description of their crimes that matches their role in making the game. After I’d snagged a few of these and realized from their names that it was clearly a Polish studio, I turned to Google to discover who was responsible. I was familiar with Techland from their recent offerings, like Dead Island, which hadn’t appealed to me at all. But given how much I was enjoying Call of Juarez I started to wonder if I should give their other games a second look. I also noted that, much like the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s, a team from Europe was stepping up to keep the American Western genre alive.

And they clearly love the genre. All the staples of the classic Westerns are here: one-on-one duels, abandoned mines, train robberies, horse theft, stagecoach chases, and many more. The weapons are even modeled after real period firearms, although the names had to be changed for licensing reasons. The game’s story is merely competent, although Reverend Ray manages to carry it. And I was pleased to see that Billy shows some true character development, learning to stop blaming everyone else for his problems and actually stand up for himself. But the game suffers from the same problems most Westerns do. Aside from the aforementioned prostitute, the women are relegated to damsels in distress, and neither the Apaches nor Mexicans show any more nuance than the old cowboys-and-Indians films displayed (aside from the stereotypical Apache wise man, of course). But Call of Juarez really is a celebration of all these Western cliches, and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable romp with an uncommonly good ending. It was enough to make me seriously consider getting the next game in the series (a prequel about Ray’s younger days), despite deciding against playing it on release. I’m still undecided, since all indications are that it’s a bit of a disappointment in comparison, but maybe I’ll check it out anyway.

That’s how much I enjoyed Call of Juarez: it made me take a second look at a developer I originally had no interest in whatsoever. It really is great fun to play, full of exuberance and excitement. Kieron ended his review by saying “It’s a game which you feel someone actually cared about making”, and that’s spot on. Many modern games, especially AAA games, can lose their sense of passion. Huge development teams and market-conscious design can lead to an experience that feels tame and safe, rather than inspired. But Call of Juarez feels like a labor of love, and despite some frustrating moments it’s well worth playing.

The Call of Juarez series is not the most esteemed; both the original game and its prequel, Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood, received mixed reviews, and by all accounts the next game, Call of Juarez: The Cartel, is utterly abysmal. But the latest entry, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, has garnered a lot of praise. Given how much fun I had with the first game, I may just play through the whole series. Except for The Cartel — it seems best to pretend that never happened. So maybe at some point in the future you’ll be able to read my thoughts on the later entries, but right now I can tell you that the first game is definitely worth checking out.

Just make sure you don’t give up before Ray starts shooting. Trust me.

Call of Juarez is available on Steam, but players who want the Xbox 360 version will have to find a physical copy somewhere. At the time of writing these are pretty pricey, as it seems to be out of print.

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