Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood Review (Xbox360)

Like the film genre itself, western-themed videogames are on the decline. America’s love-affair with its own past seems to be over, or at the very least the obsessive about time period has shifted. Whilst there was nothing wrong with those classic films of old, this ‘moving on’ means that whenever someone does decide to do another western, it’s usually quite good. The original Call of Juarez was one of the first games to use Microsoft’s DirectX 10 technology, and despite the odd flaw here and there, it was an all round decent game.

Which brings us to Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood. Bearing in mind most of the original cast were dead by the end of the first game, a sequel would be a little hard to do without bringing in a whole new set of characters. Instead, developer Techland has created an ‘origin story’ chronicling ‘Reverend’ Ray McCall’s glory days before he became a preacher. Like the original game, there are two playable characters – Ray and his brother Thomas. However, instead of following two separate storylines, the two brothers accompany each other on all of the missions, and you get to choose which one you want to play as.

The American civil war serves as the basis for the McCalls characters. Too bad it’s executed rather poorly...
Thomas is able to climb up to places Ray can’t reach, making their individual tactics diverse.

The backdrop of the story is the American Civil War, and its aftermath. It’s a shame, because only the first couple of levels actually take place during the war, and then it skips to two years later. Several significant character developments are supposedly tied to that conflict, and yet the player doesn’t experience it, and you must take it on face value that it happened. This cripples the story somewhat, as we’re left with these characters that, despite being mildly entertaining, have no credible basis for being who they are. That and the ‘third’ brother, who really is a preacher, is just annoying and seems to be able to follow the two troublemakers anywhere and not get killed.

Still, providing this is a polish developer’s interpretation of a stereotyped American genre, it’s mildly surprising that they’ve done this well. It’s interesting to see how this era of expansionism and conflict is perceived from the outside, and whilst in many ways the plot and other game devices seem a bit clichéd, they are probably so on purpose. What better way to pay homage to the classics?

As a first person shooter, the game actually stands up pretty well. The two brothers each have their own unique fighting style, lending themselves to different types of weapons for a nice variety. Ray specialises in dual-wielding pistols and dynamite, whilst Thomas uses a rifle to shoot from afar, and can use a bow, knives, and a rope to reach high places. There’s nothing more satisfying then pulling off several successive shots with your rifle, all in the face. The only criticism about the combat is that there isn’t a mêlée mode. This isn’t such a big a deal as, theoretically, all your opponents should be dead before you’re within reach. However, dodging around and flanking can sometimes bring you face to face with an enemy, which is where the lack of a mêlée button becomes an annoyance.

Like the first game, there is a special ‘concentration’ mode available for both characters that allows them to kill off a load of enemies in a short space of time. Thomas uses his single pistol to take up to six shots in quick succession, whilst Ray’s special is to highlight up to 12 targets (because he uses both pistols) before shooting. This all takes place in slow motion, and you only have a limited amount of time in order to perform these ‘specials’. The general flow of the game is also broken up by ‘set pieces’ that usually involve you and your brother busting down a door together and shooting the place up, again in slow motion.

The ‘brother’ dynamic is present quite heavily in the game, in both gameplay and story terms. It’s a shame that there’s no co-op mode available, as it would have made the game really interesting. Other features which are missing which also would have been a good inclusion is a multiplayer version of the ‘shoot-out’ duels. Another throwback from the original game, these duals are a mixture of timing and reflexes as you strive to draw and kill your opponent before they get you. In single player, these generally take place at the end of a level, comprising the ‘boss fight’, however there’s no multiplayer equivalent. The online mode instead consists of the usual team or all v all death matches, along with a few special game modes such as ‘Wanted’. There is also ranked and unranked play, and you can get achievements for doing well online.

To begin with, the gameplay follows a straight linear progression, going from mission to mission. However, as you get further into the game, free-roam levels become available in-between certain missions, allowing you perform side quests and earn money for better weapons. These environments can be quite fun to explore, and possess a certain realism about them – bandits will attack helpless civilians, and you can find all kinds of secret hideouts to raid. However, this attempt at ‘role-play’ is ultimately limited by its purpose – eventually you’ll have bought all the upgrades you can, and seeing as in there’s really no other point in doing the side missions (unless you want to hunt for secrets) then you’ll eventually stop bothering.

There are numerous in-game set pieces which require the brothers to help each other out. Some are good, some are a bit weak.
Naturally, brotherly love can only go so far...

The graphics are smooth, although like the original game the character models aren’t as good as they could be. Facial features look ‘drawn’ on, and little things like hair and clothing are too static. Still, there’s plenty of explosions and bullet effects that make the environment that more believable, and the backdrop vistas are quite beautiful too.

All in all, Bound in Blood is another solid title. Whilst there may not be anything spectacular about it, the game is an improvement over its predecessor in some respects with increased replayability, and an enhanced multiplayer system. Some of the old niggles are still there, along with the new ones, however these are easily ignored. Those of you looking for something different will find yourselves right at home with this title, and those of you who enjoyed the first game shouldn’t be disappointed with the prequel. Just like the actual western frontier was back in the day, there’s something for everyone with this game.

Top Game Moment:
Taking out a room full of enemies without getting shot is immensely satisfying.

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By Praetorian (SI Core) on Jul 10, 2009
This game is good