I’ve always wanted to try out the trilogy of the Call of Juarez western FPS games by Techland. It’s sort of another leftover from when I was deep into video games many years ago. I’ve had Gunslinger from 2013 in my Steam library for quite a while, and last week I bought the two oldest games from 2006 and 2009 cheap on sale. So with all three games in hand, I decided to try them out back to back.
I won’t be playing The Cartel since it’s not a western. Besides, it received a lot of negative reviews.
Call of Juarez
Developer: Techland | Released: 2006 | Genre: FPS, Western
Quite an old FPS by now, it’s the first in the series in Techland’s in-house Chrome Engine. Steam started the game in DirectX 9, but a tech site recommended I started an executable file for DirectX 10, since it would look a lot better in that. They were right – the lighting was much better, and the grass more dense.
When I published the first version of this blog post, I actually didn’t want to complete this game.
It’s not because the gameplay scared me away. Sure, it had its share of annoying features such as forced stealth, time limits, excessive reloading and bullet sponge enemies, but it didn’t seem too unfair and I still wanted to experience the game. However, there were issues of a more technical nature.
The loading times were extremely long at first, but it turned out that the game sort of cached the unpacking of its data. While still a tad too long to be convenient, I could probably have lived with that too. What wasn’t awesome, however, was the ineptly designated quicksave feature. Quicksaving took about half a minute each time. Sometimes a little less, but those were the exceptions.
Fine, I’ll quicksave less often? Not a sensible workaround. The game often autosaves as well, and those also took thirty seconds or more. It was a real deal breaker and frequently took me out of the mood. In fact, it was enough for me to abandon it after two hours and 3 out of 15 episodes. But I had heard so much good things about it, the game had a great atmosphere and voice acting, and I was very curious to play the infamous eagle nest mission that many forum dwellers had been talking about.
So the very next day, I swallowed my pride and decided to withstand those saving times.
The game was quite varied and did a good job setting the western mood. A shootout in a western town in the third episode felt right out of the classic movies. However, I didn’t think it started well. The first episode was about young Billy sneaking past a farmer to grab a gun, then only shooting one wolf before losing it again. Then more sneaking and finally escaping through jump puzzles.
I wanted to start shooting bad guys, but that didn’t happen until the third episode.
The game set up a story alternating between Billy and the reverend Ray chasing him. Billy seemed to get the stealth and jump puzzle sequences, while Ray was about shooting and fighting for biblical justice.
As for stealth, Billy had to crawl behind bushes and boxes avoiding being spotted. The game even made use of shadows, dimming his character icon when appropriately hidden. Apart from jumping across gaps, Billy could also use a whip to grab hold of a branch for swinging past a crevice. I liked the latter – it felt right, and I usually made it the first time. Sometimes I also had to hoist myself up.
Ray actually didn’t start with guns, but rather a bible. After witnessing a personal tragedy, I had a fist fight with three equally unarmed bandits. Left, right, then left mouse button again to end with an uppercut. In episode three I finally got my hands on two revolvers, one in each hand. I could fire them at the same time, but the capacity of only six bullets in each meant a lot of reloading. And I mean a whole lot.
I know that’s how revolvers worked back in the western days – but when reloading has to take place that often, perhaps don’t also make bullet sponges out of the bandits?
The game expanded upon the shooting gameplay with a concentration mode (which was basically just a slow motion bullet time feature) and a real duel mode where I had to move the mouse down and up real fast for whipping out the gun. The latter was used in the end of Ray’s episodes.
- Good idea with a spoken monologue while the game is loading.
- Trying to reach a 4K resolution in DirectX 9 mode crashed the game.
- The game had body awareness – i.e. I could look down my own body in first person mode.
- Lots of time limits in this game, typically of 30 or 60 seconds trying to reach a goal. However, I must say that they were usually quite lenient. I always had lots of time left as soon as I knew what to do.
- Revolvers could overheat. Bandits often dropped revolvers and it was easy to swap an overheated gun with one of theirs, so it wasn’t until I tried shooting one into a wall that I discovered what would happen. The drum simply popped out of it and the gun was thrown away.
- There was a compass with a red dot for guiding me, but the game was usually quite linear. I rarely needed to check up on it.
- Fire looked good in this game, and it was always dangerous. It was used to good effect too. Buildings were often set aflame and the protagonist then had to escape in a jiffy.
- I could wield Ray’s bible in the right hand while shooting with the left. Ray then read from the bible as he shot baddies, which according to various reviews should stun them for a short while. I didn’t feel it really did much of a difference. I quickly went back to duel wielding guns instead.
- I really liked shooting the hat off a bandit, even if I’d rather have shot him in the head.
- Way too many incidences where I quicksaved and then the game autosaved a few seconds later.
- Using the bow was quite nice. Pointing it turned on slow motion bullet time.
- Wolves had an easy time overwhelming me when I had to reload.
- The game also had a collection feature in the form of wanted posters. The developers, right?
- After the last episode the game just wrote “The End” and hit the title screen. If I wanted to see the credits, I had to choose the menu item on the title screen.
Episode I – Billy
The game starts with a stealth tutorial and a level in a town visiting a prostitute, then escaping bandits.
I loved how the first barn in the game looked like it could crash down in a pile of Mikado sticks just by blowing at it. I so wanted to kick it and watch it happen.
So I snuck inside the saloon using a whip to enter a window, and just as Billy was getting a blowjob by a prostitute, bad guys entered the room. Billy escaped through the window. The bad guys then ran out to the street with guns at the ready. I tried going back through the window, but the door in that room was locked. It’s typical these kinds of linear games – never any leeway there. I know this isn’t Deus Ex, but come on.
Episode II – Ray
Ray gives a short ceremony in a church but is called to a farm to witness Billy running away from Ray’s dead brother and his wife. Ray thinks Billy did it and decides to hunt him down. He is intervened by three robbers who wants to have a fist fight with him.
The three robbers all had empty gun holsters. How convenient.
The fist fight wasn’t difficult and was actually very simplistic. Left and right mouse button, perhaps as left, right, left to end with an uppercut. What wasn’t awesome was that I was fighting two guys at the same time at one point. I still handed them their asses.
Episode III – Ray
Ray grabs two guns for dual wielding. After the sheriff is shot and killed by a bystander, Ray decides to induce justice in the town, which of course is crawling with bad guys.
Finally, some proper gun shooting. Better late than never. Lots of Ray versus about 3-4 bad guys at once, which turned out to be the normal in this game.
Enemies were bullet sponges unless shot in the head. They often walked to the sides and sometimes took cover, so not always as easy as it may sound.
Some going in and out of the houses, in one location learning about the concentration mode.
Took a minute before I understood that I had to shoot the water tower to let the tap drop down for me to walk on. I wonder how many players got that immediately?
After setting the saloon on fire, the episode ends with a duel against the boss. It then turns out that pretty much all of Ray’s episodes ends with a duel like this. Fortunately, the opponent is not tougher than standard bandits – the gameplay is just a little different.
Episode IV – Billy
Taking place at night, Billy has to sneak past lots of bandits huddling by camp fires. A thunderstorm approaches, sometimes lighting up everything. The episode ends with Billy jumping on the roof of a train passing by a mine.
The first episode where stealth gets serious. It’s obvious that the inspiration has been the Thief series, what with the lighting of the character icon to indicate if the shadows are working.
Sometimes I snuck through a couple of tents in the middle of a big bandit camp.
I fell in the river and was killed by stones until I understood that I had to get to the other side.
Neat that I could pick up arrows after killing enemies with them. In fact, it was pretty much necessary to do it since I never found more arrows. Only ammunition for guns and rifles.
The episode ended with Ray coming out of the mines to witness Billy jumping onto the train.
Episode V – Ray
Ray moves through a big mine with mine carts and lots of bandits.
Some of the mine tunnels were long, so not always viable for close rifle killing. On the other hand, I loved throwing dynamite behind boxes where a bandit or two was taking cover.
Sometimes the mine was shaking and stones fell down from the roof.
I could push or even ride mine carts. I usually settled with just pushing them.
Episode VI – Ray
The train has been stopped on a bridge by bandits and Ray catches up with it.
Soldiers on the train – mostly just dying to begin with (the train robbers were skilled) but later as allies.
First episode where a machine gun post pumps bullets like straight out of Serious Sam. Also introduced a bandit version hardier than the rest, taking more shots to kill.
I was given a sniper rifle with a very long looking tube for shooting a bar blocking a train door.
Episode VII – Billy
Billy steals a horse from a farm and kills a lot of Indians, then finds a big homestead.
There’s the horse. Easy! Oh, I have to get the saddle from within the farmers house? That wasn’t nice.
By the way, there was a trigger design problem with that first farm. It’s clear that as a player, I was expected to enter the farm normally first and get threatened by the farmer, after which he switches into roaming mode. But as a seasoned gamer, I immediately snuck in from the back to reach the horse. However, I couldn’t start sneaking from there yet since the threat trigger hadn’t fired.
I sure didn’t get to ride the first farm horse for long. Crevice. Luckily there were other horses waiting later.
At first I thought, why add Caps Lock for even faster riding? The horse felt plenty fast enough as it was. Turned out that a later episode chasing a stage coach pretty much required it.
Lots of Indians to deal with.
Hardcore stealth time again in the end – this time sneaking inside a homestead. Bandits patrolling. But Billy was still discovered in a cutscene in the end, so it felt like it was all for nothing.
Another fist fight. Three dudes, but luckily I only had to fight one of them.
Billy is caught and about to be thrown out as Ray arrives with… new friends!?
Episode VIII – Ray
Ray meets Texas Rangers and joins them in an attack against the homestead. Billy escapes and Ray follows, both on horses.
So obvious that these Texas Rangers would betray Ray later and become duel material.
Damn, Billy was a fast rider. I actually lost him a few times. Lots of time limits here.
And then Ray shot Billy and he fell into the river. Probably the first time the game actually surprised me. For a second or two, I was actually wondering if he was shot dead.
Episode IX – Billy
Billy is saved by an old Indian that gives him a few challenging tasks.
First, the Indian wanted me to hunt for three rabbits using only a bow. The first two rabbits fell easily, but I really had to ride far to get the third one.
I could have lived without having to kill fires with a bucket of water repeatedly filled by the river.
And then came the infamous quest for acquiring an eagle feather on top of a mountain. I had heard a lot about this and was excited to check it out. Good thing I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for jump puzzles, even first person. The cliff sides had tons of edges to climb and trees to swing under with my whip. It wasn’t that bad at all and I was having a good time. But the vertigo! VERTIGO!
Good thing the rattlesnakes could be killed with the whip. An eagle also attacked me here and there, but I couldn’t defend myself against it.
Nest. Feather grabbed. That climbing level was what people were miffed about? I’ve had way worse climbing experiences. But the vertigo sure was up there with the best of them.
Another cliché awaiting that I suspected right from the beginning, as I returned to the Indian. Bandits had killed the poor old guy, and Billy was knocked out and brought back to the big bad of the game.
Episode X – Ray
Ray follows a stage coach on horse.
Wow, that was a surprisingly long level that really showcased what the Chrome Engine could do. It went on forever. The riding was fast, and I had to enter top gear to make sure the stage coast didn’t escape. The baddie in the stage coach loved throwing dynamite at me.
Lots of assisting bandits, both standing around in the fields or riding to catch up with the stage coach and I. Shooting a rider was like watching a real western. Wonderful stuff.
Episode XI – Billy
Billy meets his father, the “charming” Juarez, who smacks him around for a while. Billy is forced to go fetch the Gold of Juarez.
Billy meeting Juarez, his father, had a lot of “Darth Vader revealing his fatherhood to Luke” about it. Juarez sure beat him up good. How is the poor kid still alive after that?
At first I was afraid I had to go find the medallion in the river…
Instead, Billy was let lose in a surprisingly “adventure game” sort of sequence. I helped a kid in a cemetary bury his dead father, which gave me a key for a church. The church lead out to three graves and an epiphany about where the gold could be found.
I had to climb the church and move all the way around the cliffs to finally push a boulder down on top of a stone hiding the gold, revealing a hole where the next episode would take place.
Episode XII – Billy
Billy explores a large cave system and eventually finds the Gold of Juarez.
Can’t say I was fond of those pesky “Tomb Raider” spiders. They had the same problem as the wolves – they overwhelmed me too easily.
The entrance to the death traps looked like an adventure puzzle, but I just had to climb around the door. I was slightly disappointed. A door puzzle there would actually have been refreshing.
Many deaths at first trying to jump the tiles. Wasn’t fooled by the dropping boulders, though.
Way too many games with hard-to-traverse cave systems end up with our hero meeting the antagonist at the very end, who has been secretly “following” all the time. It’s another one of those hackneyed game tropes. I’ve never quite liked it. Why didn’t he and his crew have trouble traversing the cave system too? Wait, he went through a back door, now didn’t he?
Another run for Billy’s life. At the end of some mine shafts, the roof comes down and there’s Ray. Ray now knows the truth and helps Billy up. Now it’s Ray’s turn.
Episode XIII – Ray
Ray enters the cave system through the mine shafts and meets Juarez.
Lots of shootouts through the mine shafts, ending in a predictable fight with Juarez who retreats in the end. Bring the gold or else Molly gets it. No surprises there. Just going through the motions.
Episode XIV – Ray
Ray attacks Juarez and his henchmen in his fort while looking for Molly.
A zillion henchmen at the fort required a lot of patience, even if I had a machine gun at first and later also used a cannon to blast the doors open.
The duration of the autosaving was particularly bad in this episode. I think it was in the vicinity of two minutes. I sure hope this problem is gone in the sequel.
Met Manson (wearing an eye patch) half way through, as sort of a boss fight. He had a health bar and took quite a long time to kill. It wasn’t even because of him being a boss sponge as how he constantly rotated through two or three rooms filled with crates. Lots of running around.
When I found Molly tied to a pole in a cell, the roof was rolled back and Juarez started dropping dynamite. I had to shoot them in the air. If they reached the floor and exploded, Molly was dead and I had to start over. So there it was – a genuine dependency trope. He didn’t drop many though – I’m not sure it was more than three or four. And then the episode just ended.
Episode XV – Billy
Billy overcomes his fear and travels to the fort. He helps Ray and confronts Juarez.
The kid from the cemetary gave Billy a bow and arrows, and I ran up to the fort to climb inside. I liked how I could hear both gun and cannon fire as I approached the fort. I was hoping they added that detail.
Ray and Molly was still in the pit. I had to tilt a water tower by running around the fort and jump onto it.
Of course Billy wasn’t allowed to use the cannon. Bleh!
The first duel between Billy and Juarez – with only three bullets – was anticlimactic. One shot to the head and he was down. I should have seen him coming back again as certain, but for once I missed that thought.
When Juarez came back, boasting about how his armor saved his ass, I was wondering how that was possible since I shot him straight in the face? Video games.
Oh, and he shot Ray when he came through the door. Now Billy had to defend himself again. This time it was a fist fight, but again it was a bit anticlimactic. It didn’t feel much harder than the previous fist fights. When Billy delivered the final punch, Juarez fell unconscious to the ground.
Now Billy and Molly hugged each other. With his back to Juarez, the brute got up and tried to kill him with a knife. This is where Ray, who was barely alive, had to kill him once and for all before finally dying.
Alas, as so many other players of this game, I didn’t get that the kill had to be a duel – because the game didn’t tell me! I tried various other means to no avail. Only after reading about it in the Steam forums did I know that I had to move the mouse down then up to engage the duel mode.
Not only should the developers be ashamed, they really should have patched it too. All they would have to do is add that window telling us about the rules of a duel. That would easily have fixed the problem.
- Graphics are okay of the time, but looks considerably better in DirectX 10 mode.
- Excellent voice acting – especially Ray sounds really bad ass, as he should.
- Gun fights look and feel like straight out of the good old movies.
- Lots of horse riding, and the horses are fast too.
- Ray can read from his bible while shooting bandits.
- Features both concentration (slow motion) and gunslinger duel modes.
- A few sequences of fist fighting as well.
- Have to enable a different file in Steam to make sure DirectX 10 is used.
- Depending on your system, quick- and autosaving can take a long time to complete.
- You don’t really get to shoot guns until the third episode.
- Lots of first person jump puzzles. I personally liked them, but I know I’m in a minority there.
- There are a lot of countdowns, although most of them are actually pretty lenient.
- Some episodes have stealth of the type where you’re not allowed to be discovered.