Game design: Call of Juarez

Game design case study of the Xbox 360’s Call of Juarez

I played a decent chunk of this shoot-em-up – “the only Western first-person shooter experience on Xbox 360” – the other evening. I’m curious as to what other Westher shooter experiences there might be in the game universe. I’m offering $25, public accolades, and a free Space Squid t-shirt to the first person who can find me a Western second-person shooter experience on the 360! Jump on it! Wiki and google it, baby!

Anyhow, here’s our game design case study on Call of Juarez.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a decent Western shooter – since 1997’s Outlaws (Lucasarts), to be exact – and this one has some cool ideas percolating under the surface. I was thinking of starting with the game design mistakes so I could wrap with the good news, but I decided to follow a certain cinematic trope. Cliched but too fun to resist.

The good game design

I give the Juarez game designers credit for trying to inject new life without throwing out the baby with the bathwater. For example, weapons have lifetimes, and after pumping out a lot of lead, they start to cook off and finally explode. Like Halo, Gears of War, and many other shooters, Juarez dispenses with the healing item treasure hunt; you only have to avoid damage for a time and your health crawls right back up. Health status is indicated by the color of the hit direction indicator – an entirely new and harmonious idea. This eliminates the need for any kind of health bar.

Special notice goes to Juarez’s special version of “bullet time.” It’s a toned-down version of the gameplay mechanic that Max Payne made famous. You have to holster your weapons to use it, which means you have to plan for it in advance. You can’t just punch a button when things get hairy. You also can’t fire at anything; your movement is slowed. No silly diving through a hail of bullets.

Instead, you see two cursors progress from the lower corners of the screen and move toward the center. Each represents the business end of one of your holstered revolvers. As they pass over your slowed-down opponents, you can open fire and put them down. If you’ve positioned yourself wisely going into a standoff or ambush, you can change the odds dramatically.

Other good design elements: Some good level design that throws a variety of challenges at you from different directions. Nice mood and tone (the main character is a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher whose Bible is one of his weapons). Some environmental interaction, like the ability to use fire as a weapon, and to douse fire with buckets of water. Audio includes some distinctive gunshots.

The bad game design

Juarez throws in a fair percentage of jumping puzzles and narrow walks. I’ve never been a fan of designing jumping puzzles into first-person shooters. Why? Simple. You can’t see where you are. If you fall off that pipe between the barn and the water tower, whose fault is it? I’d say it’s half yours and half the game designer’s, because you can’t see your freakin’ body.

There’s also an odd plainness to the game that gives the experience a sheen of plasticity. Details are sharp enough; the texturing has been done adequately, although few items or scenes give you that “wow” that many 360 games deliver. Animations are jerky and lip-synch atrocious. Even the guns you find – marquee items if there ever were ones – are designed with a shortage of polygons. The game also is badly lit, in my opinion. In the level I saw, I think the art department was designing for stark shadows, but as a result we get either full blare or near-darkness. This is a gameplay gaffe as well as a missed opportunity for nuance that would better display the game’s textures and polys.

The ugly game design

The capper is a problem with the camera and gameplay design. I believe Juarez suffers from a distance, accuracy, and visibility issue. To survive Juarez, you have to approach enemies carefully and use cover. They’re fairly accurate and so are their weapons. You end up shooting at hidden bad guys as both you and they are hunched down behind obstacles. Basically, you end up moving the aiming reticule over dark spots on the screen where you think a bad guy might be shooting from, based on the hit direction indicator, and firing into that tiny space whenever the cursor turns red.

This is surely ugly game design. Although Juarez has plenty of virtues, for me this was the equivalent of pixel-hunting in an adventure game. You know, where the game designer has placed some special exit or item in the level, but because he’s too lazy to think up a good way to create gameplay, he’s hidden it with darkness or a bad camera angle, forcing you to click all over creation looking for it.

The game designers should’ve changed the dynamic, if you ask me. Much less accuracy for the bread-and-butter revolvers. (This is the Wild West, not Iraq. A thug shouldn’t be able to pop me repeatedly from 100 yards away.) Bigger and bolder. A different focal length on the virtual camera, if you will. Zoom in. No revolver sniping. Force both the player and the bad guys to get up close and personal, putting a premium on careful approaches followed by bold attacks and battles of nerves. It’d be a different kind of first-person shooter entirely. It’d be fresh game design.

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