Ascaron – Call of Juarez review

how the Wild West might have been won
Photo of Ascaron – Call of Juarez

The First Person Shooter genre has been so dominated by World War II and alien invaders that the chance to explore a much under-used scenario is too tempting to pass up. Wild West games in general have been pretty thin on the ground, apart from the relatively recent Desperadoes and Gun, and developers Techland previously released the below-par Chrome, so expectations weren’t running high.

As it turns out, Call of Juarez has emerged as a sleeper hit, cleverly merging elements of other games such as Thief, Max Payne and Indiana Jones with a revamped graphics engine and a decent storyline. The first surprise is that you play as two characters – alternating between the orphaned Indian Billy Candle who’s on the run following the murder of his mother and step-father, and the stern Reverend Ray who’s pursuing him, armed with Bible and six-shooter.

This radically affects the gameplay, as Billy progresses mostly through stealth, assisted occasionally with bow and arrow (as in Thief) or with a bullwhip (like Indie) and he’s able to climb up and over objects. The Rev, on the other hand is a former hellraiser now turned hellfire preacher, who’s happy to shoot everyone in his way. The fun part starts when he uses two pistols at once, as each gun is controlled independently by one side of the mouse and bullet-time (i.e. Max Payne style) slow motion comes into play. If you can align both aiming sights simultaneously then carnage will result. This Concentration Mode also comes into play if you’re having a one-on-one duel.

In addition you can make use of dynamite and oil lamps, and objects such as chairs, crates and stones can be picked up, thrown and used as weapons. As you’d expect from a Western, horse-riding is obligatory and exhilarating, although it’s tough for the Rev to ride and shoot at the same time.

One of the undoubted highlights of this game is the convincing recreation of the atmosphere of every cowboy movie you ever saw, including dusty wooden hick towns, rickety mines, raiding the railroad and even piles of horse poo. You can virtually smell the sweat on the beautifully detailed rendering of the faces and the same care has gone into buildings and landscapes.

Impressively, there’s also a multiplayer option where you can indulge your bloodlust in Skirmish, Robbery (like Capture the Flag only with gold), Gold Rush (who gathers most wins) and Deathmatch competitions. A new multiplayer map-pack will be available for download imminently and the hope is that more use will be made of the range of each map than in the single player option, where most of the action is contained within a very limited space and there’s little opportunity to step outside the linear structure of the story.

The other negatives are the frustratingly long load times between levels, frequent clipping problems and the tedious opening scenario where you learn how to use and develop Billy’s stealth skills. If you can progress beyond this you’ll start to understand how the (violent) West was won.

Company: Ascaron

Thanks to a much improved graphics engine and a smart reworking of other action and stealth tricks of the trade, Techland has succeeded where many have failed in recreating the sights, sounds and smells of the Wild West.