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The Player 

by Marty Demarest & r & & r & Call of Juarez & r & & r & Rated Mature; Xbox 360, Windows & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he loading screens in the Old West shooter Call of Juarez -- those interludes that fill the television while the videogame loads into the Xbox 360's circuitry -- feature handy tips for surviving the game. "Cannot catch a bough with the whip?" it asks me. "Look at your feet -- maybe you are standing too far?" it says cryptically.

When the loading screen is dismissed and I finally am able to play the game, I decide to look at my feet. They lazily swing forward and backward as I'm running, though much slower and rarely in rhythm with the screen's bobbing view. I also seem to be floating a fraction of an inch off the ground. And my shadow often radiates out in front of me no matter where I turn or how the sun is shining.

My enemies are likewise unusual. I can shoot one of the Speedy Gonzalez-speaking "banditos" in the head with my silent bow and arrow, and he can fall at his friends' feet without their caring. But if I miss and he turns on me with his rifle, the entire gang lining the game's Southwest-Meets-Roller Coaster hills will come gunning for me.

At least I can hide in the shadows. The game is suitably dark for an era when underground tunnels and midnight forests were pitch black. Most of the light between sundown and sunup comes from fires. But like nearly everything else in Call of Juarez, the fire seems to obey digital laws from the Old West of the future. I can drop a lantern on a crate, shoot it, and the crate will gain the flickering animation of flames all over its surface. But no charring is apparent. And boots, hats and dead bodies seem to be entirely flameproof.

All of the surfaces in Call of Juarez have that strange sheen that seems to be currently in vogue among videogame art directors. Here, however, it gives the animated characters the look of animatronics, as they shift jerkily, then move with a sudden mechanical ferocity, their skin glistening like painted rubber.

Wake me when it gets Western.

THE GOOD: The lighting engine in Call of Juarez makes good use of torches and campfires. Shadows are sharp and dark, and not only allow my character to hide, but actually seems to put him in the shade. And dramatic use is made of daylight, with porches in the game's tumbleweed towns fading into deep obscurity while the dusty streets are washed out and nearly white with brightness.

THE BAD: Even more distracting than Call of Juarez's wobbly physics engine is its mixed-up storyline. The game splits its action between two characters who are mutual antagonists. I switch between a young man and the man who is pursuing him, and as the story progresses, it becomes difficult to care about them equally. I hate them both -- the old man for not being able to climb up on low rocks, and the young man for not having a Bible as a weapon. The old guy does.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Call of Juarez is a slow and uninspired shooter that simply swaps six-shooters, Indians and mineshafts for the usual plasma pistols, aliens and spacecrafts.

2/5 Stars

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