We know about the genre known as the spaghetti western, but is there such a thing as a pierogi western? There is now, thanks to Polish developer Techland's Call of Juarez. An Old West-themed first-person shooter, Call of Juarez fits snugly into the solid little niche that games like Gun and Red Dead Revolver have already taken up residence in. The game is similarly hard-boiled and filled with gunslinging, horseback riding, train robbery, and all the other staples of the western genre that you might have already gotten your fill of. Still, for as few risks as Call of Juarez takes across the board, it's a well-made genre exercise that's more often entertaining than not.
Never has a game so realistically rendered a Sunday sermon as Call of Juarez does.
The game puts you into the boots of two distinct characters. Billy Candle is a half-white, half-Mexican drifter of sorts who had been on the hunt for the legendary Lost Gold of Juarez, a treasure trove of gold buried somewhere within the titular town. Unable to find it, Billy decides to come home to the town of Hope to visit his mother and stepfather--only to find them murdered upon his arrival. The other character is Reverend Ray, Billy's step-uncle and the town preacher. Ray's a reformed gunslinger now dedicated to spreading the Lord's word, but when he hears of the ruckus going on at his brother's farm and arrives to see a panicked Billy running away from the bloody corpses of his brother and sister-in-law, Ray vows vengeance, and begins tracking his step-nephew until he can satisfy it.
The dynamic of having two playable characters would be more interesting if there weren't such a distinct separation of quality between them. The more entertaining of the two, both in story and gameplay, is easily Ray. Voiced by an actor who seems to be equally channeling Sam Elliott and the creepy priest from Poltergeist II, Ray's sequences are filled with enough amazing, self-righteous bible quoting immediately followed by heavy amounts of murdering that you almost wish they'd gotten Samuel L. Jackson for this role. Heck, Ray's even got what we'll affectionately refer to as a "bible button." One of the weapons he can hold is a bible, and if you press the fire button while he's holding it, he'll start reading random passages to any nearby enemies, who will then stop for a second to listen, at which point you can shoot them in their stupid faces. That's either genius or awful--or possibly both.
Apart from using the gospel as a weapon, you spend most of your time as him running around, shooting various hombres, rustlers, outlaws, and other unsavory individuals. His primary weapon is a pair of six-shooters, which he can actually use to bust into a slow-motion "concentration mode" when he draws them from their holsters. Doing this gives you a pair of targeting reticles you can guide toward any nearby enemies and then unload upon them. Ray also gets to engage in some straight-up gun duels against other gunslinging baddies. These are essentially the bulk of the game's boss fights, though they're very quick. In these fights, a counter ticks down, and when you get to the end, you quickly pull back and then press forward on the right control stick to draw. Once you do, your reticle pops up and the scene goes into slow motion again, though the reticle is a little off-kilter, as you did draw rather quickly. It's up to you to aim and shoot before the other guy offs you. You can't call these sequences brilliant, or even especially original (Red Dead Revolver had some similar mechanics), but they're fun all the same.
Less fun and generally more irritating are Billy's sequences. Billy can fire the occasional pistol, and even exclusively use both a bow and arrow and a whip, but nearly all of the scenarios he finds himself in revolve more around bad first-person platforming and overlong stealth sequences than any form of real action. The stealth stuff isn't bad, exactly. Billy can find shadowy or otherwise dark areas to hide in, as well as use bushes and boxes to hide behind, and that all works pretty much as advertised. The issue is that all the stealth bits take way, way too long. Waiting for your enemies to slowly wander through their patrols so you can move from shrub to shrub is about as fun as it sounds. In a few cases you can run and gun it if you want, but you're rarely ever properly armed for these types of situations, and as you are without uncle Ray's concentration ability, Billy just isn't quite as useful for gunfights. So instead, you're stuck spending 15 minutes just trying to navigate one camp full of bandits.
Less tolerable are the bouts of climbing and swinging. First-person platforming has never been a good idea, yet for some reason developers keep trotting it out in these sorts of games. It doesn't work here, either. Billy can climb up short ledges, use his whip to grab onto branches and other elongated protrusions, and then swing from one ledge to the next. The main problem here is perspective--when you're jumping around in the first-person, it's sometimes difficult to gauge the distance of jumps, so you end up trial-and-erroring it until you get just the right amount of distance. The whip-swinging thing seems neat at first, but it can be tough to get the right amount of swing momentum to hit certain ledges. Again, it's a trial-and-error process to figure out how much you need to climb up the whip to get the proper angle. And like the stealth bits, these scenes are just overly protracted. There's one obnoxious fetch quest in the middle of the game where you have to climb up a giant mountain for nearly a half-hour (counting time needed to die and start over), just to grab an eagle feather for some cranky old Indian, only to have to spend another several minutes jumping your way down. Creating a degree of separation between the two playable characters wasn't a bad idea, but this was perhaps not the ideal way to go about it.
Ray's gunslinging abilities are pretty much the highlight of the game.