FBT attends to a Call of Juarez
CaJ is the very definition of ‘almost but not quite’. A chase shooter where we flip between two narratives. This should be awesome. Instead it’s just another shooter. Or two.
In 1884, young tearaway Billy returns home to find Ma and step-Pa murdered. He’s accused of the crime by Ray, his Step-Uncle who was a feared gunslinger before finding the Lord; Billy understandably takes off running as soon as Uncle Ray dusts off his six-shooters.
Playing both of them, we’re trying to get Billy across the plains to reach his Sweetheart for protection, while we’re also hot on our own heels as the bible-thumping bastard-child of George C. Scott and Johnny Cash channelling Eastwood’s Pale Rider.
Billy’s levels are largely stealth based, using a bow for silent kills and a whip to platform as he tries to stay one step ahead of Ray, who is like playing Jules’ speech in Pulp Fiction. We are great vengeance and furious anger, with a metal vest that pings away bullets and dual-wielding pistols. Both have a great bullet-time option; Billy’s bow slows down time allowing for some great arrow kills while Ray can fire his pistols in slow-mo quick-draws. And he literally has God on his side. You can equip a bible which causes him to quote Old Testament stuff which presumably is supposed to terrify opponents and act like a shield; it’s great, but doesn’t work for me. Guess God doesn’t love me.
I don’t love the game either. This awesome set-up just becomes two middling shooters that share cut-scenes; they never really impact each other, never interact or mess with each other’s in-game narrative. Billy’s actions aren’t reflected in how Ray’s level plays out, or vice-versa; there’s no repercussions to our acts, it’s just a straight, linear shooter(s) where we stealth a level then replay it as a tank, which makes no narrative sense and comes across as recycling; didn’t Billy just kill all this lot? CaJ made out I’d be the hunter and the hunted, but they’re dealing with the same outlaws not each other.
Ray is a great mess of contradictions, questioning his faith and God’s will, lamenting that after years of being a Preacher he’s back to being a killer, but Billy is a bit of a nothing character. At the start he’s a loser returning with his tail between his legs – and stops off to get his tail seen to by the local prostitute before going to Ma and Pa’s – but once he’s on the run he doesn’t grow or face up to why Ray didn’t give him the benefit of the doubt.
We should be deciding the pace and tone of this, choosing pathways and repercussions, at least have the two of them face-off occasionally. It should be stuff like you chose to have Billy stealth through a level, leaving Ray to deal with all the outlaws - or take them all out knowing that'll speed up Ray's passage but gives us an in with the local sheriff who might be inclined to lock up an ornery old coot that's about to pass through. We'd be impacting our own other playthrough.
We know Billy didn’t commit the murder, but if that was kept from us, if it just opened with him running, we could have decided if he was capable, play him as blood-thirsty and then, as Ray, we could choose to question the events; Billy killed everyone, he has to be guilty - or we save someone and Ray strides through town and discovers that altruistic act and questions who he’s hunting. All of it building to if Billy wants to get the drop on Ray or trust him to stay his hand. If we wanted to. We'd be examining our own gamer actions, wondering if they'd have impact.
So much could have been done and instead it’s just Billy runs / Ray follows until the final third’s reveal, which is obvious anyway. It’s like Batman V Superman where we spend hours waiting for them to realise that they’re on the same side - and in the meantime we have to play the same unremarkable shooter twice.
It’s not a bad western though – we’ve got six shooters, shoot-outs, prairie plains, western towns, corset-wearing prostitutes, horses, cowboy hats flying around, outlaws, bandits and whooping Apaches in In’jun territory (which is excused because they’re a ‘war party’); an standout early on where Billy sneaks around a camp during a thunderstorm, trying to avoid being seen during lightning, and later Ray storms through a mine, riding in mine-carts like Indy. There are nice touches like the guns break or jam, but there’s also some really obvious padding, like having to sneak around an old codger’s ranch to steal a horse – why, I'm armed - and you have to find a saddle, which for no reason other than to make it harder, is on the top floor of the codger’s house rather than in the stable.
CaJ just isn’t what was promised. It would have made a lot more sense to have the more generic option of choosing Billy or Ray to play, then we make our way through as that character alone, the other our nemesis; playing as both just cancels each other out.
CaJ came out the same year as Gun, which was immeasurably a more compelling western than this (iffy representations aside) – but while Gun faded, CaJ spawned a franchise. Bound in Blood, a prequel followed in 2009, then a present-day sequel (The Cartel, 2011) and a second Western-set sequel in 2013, Gunslinger. Techland even teased the return of Juarez the day Red Dead II was released. It’ll never reach those lofty heights, but if it actually follows through on CaJ’s promise, a fifth Call might finally be worth answering.
2006 | Developer; Techland | Publisher; Ubisoft
Platforms; Win (Steam), X360