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The Pleasures of the Conventional: Considering the Call of Juarez Series

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Wednesday, Aug 19, 2009
Sometimes a game should focus on simply being what it is.

So, I’d heard some good things about Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood.  As a fan of the Western genre, I felt some desire to check it out, so I spent a few days with the game.  And, indeed, it is a pretty good game.  It is extremely pretty, handles some good standard Western themes (greed, revenge, struggles over domesticity and family) rather well, and has some good very good shooting mechanics.  The latter quality is to be expected, though, from an FPS.  After all, a shooter should be good at (if not exceptional at), well, shooting.


What had me baffled after my satisfactory encounter with Bound in Blood was why I hadn’t played the first Call of Juarez.  Well, I had played a bit of it, but by now, my experience was a hazy memory.  I knew I had rented it, and it was one of those games that I put in, played for an hour or two, and then had cursed the fact that I had paid for the 5-day rental instead of the 2-day.  But, all I really remembered was that I had thought that it was bad for some reason or other.


Having played through its prequel now, though, I decided to give the game another go (and even reluctantly went with the 5-day rental plan).  It took me only three days to complete the first gane, and I suffered for most of the 11 or so hours that it took me to get through it.


Unlike many of our expectations about film sequels, the fans of video games often do not necessarily have low expectations for sequels.  Very often improvements in graphics quality, new and improved mechanics, and overall higher production values for a game can mean that a sequel to a successful game title might in fact mean a better game than the first.  Certainly, the graphics, mechanics, plotting, and voice acting in Bound in Blood are all superior to the original Call of Juarez, which also certainly explains some of the pleasure that I found in the sequel as opposed to its predecessor.  However, a play through of the original also reminded me of why I had found the first game just kind of silly enough to turn off after just a few short hours.  Much of Call of Juarez is simply unconventional.  And not in a good way.


The most frustrating and, very simply put, outright wacky elements of Call of Juarez are largely found when playing the bits of the game dedicated to one of that title’s protagonists, Billy Candle.  Billy is an outcast Mexican-American orphan who is a bit of a thief, so in addition to wielding a six shooter in the game, he also does a lot of sneaking around and… jumping? 


Very early on in Call of Juarez, the player is introduced to Billy’s whip and trained to use it to snag overhanging branches to swing from cliff to cliff.  He also climbs around a lot.  Oh, and he has to jump… a lot.  I guess that locomotion is a fairly important detail in most video games, be it walking, running, driving, flying, or jumping.  Indeed, jumping is one of the staples of video gaming.  For example, you may have heard of a certain upwardly mobile plumber that has starred in a few games.  However, it is less of an essential staple in most FPS-style games.  While Mirror’s Edge attempted to make a go of hybridizing jumping mechanics with the first person perspective, its success in doing so is debatable.  Whether or not Mirror’s Edge was able to pull off the marriage of platforming with the FPS genre though, its efforts to do so are certainly a lot more successful in doing so than Call of Juarez was.  The inability to gauge distances easily without seeing your character on screen makes the large chunks of platforming in Call of Juarez... well… fall flat on their face. 


Part of the relative success of Mirror’s Edge at better platforming sequences, though, is clearly related to the focus and interest of the game and its designers.  It is a game about a parkour-style runner, and thus, a lot of effort went into working with this essential mechanic,a mechanic necessary to gameplay but also to the narrative of the game.  When one considers Call of Juarez, one wonders what exactly is the interest in wedding a Western narrative to platforming mechanics.  Doing a first person shooter that is a Western?  Makes sense.  As previously noted, an FPS is all about shooting mechanics.  Westerns are kind of interested in that kind of thing, too.  But, I don’t often see Clint Eastwood gingerly hopping from precarious perch to precarious perch in the Leone films.


That isn’t to say that there is no logic whatsoever to making Billy into a character that has to make quick and unusual escapes.  As I mentioned, he is a bit of a thief.  However, as both a gamer and an avid fan of the Western genre, it certainly was a surprise to me to find myself hopping around Mario-style in a game that advertised itself as a Western.  Part of my initial irritation at the game may be related to simple expectation, that this was not the game that I expected to play given the literary or cinematic genre category that it falls into (I would also be very surprised by witnessing torture porn gore in a light romantic comedy or a lot of skin in a children’s movie). 


But, given the focus of the genre itself, it seems that not a great deal of energy went into developing these, the worst parts of the mechanics of Call of Juarez.  For example, witness the way that Billy’s shadow hangs stiffly in the air when he swings from a tree branch.  It is as if no thought was given to animating poor Billy when he hangs from his whip because the player cannot see him and because swinging is such a minor element by comparison to the other FPS-related mechanics in the game. 


By the way, it is those mechanics, the shooting mechanics, that Bound in Blood does very, very well.  Improved concentration modes (when you get to slow down the pace of the game in order to gun down a room full of enemies because you are: just that fast), floating targeting reticles that snap to targets when blazing away with two guns, and increased accuracy with the slower but harder hitting rifles all make Bound in Blood‘s gun play that much more authentic in feel and that much more fun to experience, which is kind of what I expect in a genre associated with… gun play. 


Now, I don’t want to say that innovation isn’t nice sometimes (Sukiyaki Western Django is an often weird but interesting film for example), but I do want to say that sometimes a game should focus on simply being what it is.  There is a pleasure to be taken in conventionality when it is done very well, and it is often done better when the dominant experiences in a game are focused on at the exclusion of curious odds and ends that don’t necessarily suit the genre or, more specifically, the way that the gameplay complements that genre.  Bound in Blood does include some light swinging and sneaking elements (I suppose as a nod to the conventions of its predecessor).  However, these moments are blessedly brief.  Most of the impact of the new game lies in its adherence to the conventional elements of the Western.  The game is more an homage to the gun fight than scattered pieces of game play mechanisms that are all underwhelmingly accomplished.  Given the pride that the game takes in accomplishing what it is and doing it very well, I have to prefer the more conventional vision of the Western in this case.

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