Review: Call of Juarez – Bound in Blood

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Polish developer Techland’s Call of Juarez was a western-styled shooter filled with plenty of spaghetti-styled trappings and action that told of a story between outlaw-turned-preacher, Reverend McCall, and Billy Candle whose mixed Native American ancestry had made him something of an outsider on both sides of the fence in the Wild West. Centering around the legend of the treasure ransom paid by the Aztec Empire in the sixteenth century for Montezuma to Cortez, everyone was convinced that they would find it first…as long as they survived the standard curse that accompanies such vast amounts of loose change.

Bound in Blood is the prequel to the first game, telling the story of the three McCall brothers and how a crack shot and vicious bastard like Ray had turned to religion, although you needn’t have played the first to get an idea of what is going on here. Putting you in Ray’s shoes as a Confederate sergeant in 1864 defending a series of trenches against the Union army, it’s clear that Techland will be spinning as much of a western yarn as it will put six shooters and rifles into the player’s hands.

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It’s also clear that both Ray and Thomas McCall were simply good soldiers doing their duty for the Confederacy but that family was always at the heart of their duty to the South. With their home in imminent danger, they decide to abandon their unit which had been ordered to retreat to help defend Atlanta, defying the fanatical Colonel Barnsby.

The story is told through both Ray and Thomas since playing as either one of these two at the start of each chapter following the first two is an option, although the third brother, William, performs most of the narration in between each chapter with his private thoughts. The two represent different, but subtle, ways that you can head out into the Wild West depending on whether you want to take on all comers with a lead hailstorm or surgically tattoo your calling card on someone’s head with your iron sights instead.

Ray can soak up damage, dual wield pistols, throw live dynamite at whoever he wants, and even carry around a dismounted gatling gun. Thomas’ specialties lie in being able to lasso himself up to unreachable spots, use rifles with sniper-like precision, wield knives and bows for sneaky kills, but takes a bit longer to regenerate his health than his bigger brother. Quite a few things are climbable with Thomas’ lasso and the controls make it reasonably easy to get to rooftops, balconies, and other spots that Ray will need help in following.

Neither man is a silent protagonist and the relationship between the two is fleshed out through cuts and seamlessly within the game during the action as they praise each others’ shots or make comments on the trouble they see coming, adding to the camaraderie that was felt by fighting alongside either one of them. If you’re hoping for a little online co-op, though, partners in crime won’t find a spare horse here waiting to take them into the fight.

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It helps that the AI behind your brother won’t force you to make you feel like his keeper, but you can’t wander too far from their side. But they’re not immortal gun slingers, either, with all of the grit of Clint Eastwood as without your help, they can die and fail the mission. But BiB’s checkpoint system is also one of the best that I’ve played through, spacing every automatic save in such a way that it never feels as if I were forced to repeat too much of anything and keeping the story moving forward.

It’s also useful as, since this is the Wild West, it isn’t complete without having a showdown between particularly nasty hombres and yourself. Dueling takes you to a third person perspective just next to your holstered gun with your opponent in view, your hand hovering just above the handle. Keeping your hand close to your gun, stepping to the left or right to keep your target in view, reaching for it when the signal bell tolls, and then snapping off your shot as the crosshairs take aim requires quite a bit of timing to pull off.

Cues in the music help, but these sequences can also be some of the most frustrating as the game doesn’t offer you a way around them if you’re not very good at this. Reaching for your gun too early has your hand wag a finger at the screen which can’t be interrupted if the time comes to snap your shot off at the same time, but proving who is the fastest draw can still be satisfying if only because you can get on with the rest of the adventure.

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A few other twists add to the frontier mystique between the two brothers. Cooperative concentration moves allow the two of you to get the drop on enemies with dual pistols as twin crosshairs slowly cross the screen, one for each thumbstick, taking aim at whoever might be on the other side of the door you and your brother had just kicked in. Kills also build up a concentration gauge that, once filled, gives you sixty seconds to actually use it to whack your foes with a form of Wild West flavored bullet time and both brothers’ personalities determine just how it’s done.

When you use concentration mode with Ray, all you have to do is tag your targets within the mode’s time limit and let him automatically rip into them with his dual six shooters. With Thomas, holding down the right trigger and then flicking the right stick sweeps the hammer of his gun instead. Being a crack shot, he doesn’t have to line up his shots, depending only on how quickly you can get him to bury his enemies with lead. Both are incredibly satisfying ways to deal with the endless flood of green horns that come at you leaving you wishing that you could kick at them while they’re down with spurred, manure stained boots just for good measure.

Taking cover is as easy as slipping in behind a wall and then moving your reticle around the corner, automatically leaning you out to take your shots. Crates and boxes also offer protection and while this transparent cover system can take some getting used to, it didn’t get in the way of the action especially in how self-aware I felt about my place in the game. Looking down, I could see my boots and coming up to a wall automatically raised my pistols as if I were pushing against it while taking cover, but it won’t stop you from gunning your foes into the dirt.

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Later on, open world opportunities make themselves available before moving on to the next major arc as they stop at a frontier outpost to either restock on weapons and weapons using the gold dropped by foes or found lying around. Wanted posters and requests for help with rewards attached draw you out into the wide open area around the outpost on side jobs whether it is to stop a gang from escaping with cattle or tracking down a wanted outlaw.

There are also a few random encounters out on the trails with ambushes and shootouts between wagon settlers, but there’s not much else out there. In some ways, it would have been great to see more made out of these wide open areas, but as it is, once you’re done with the jobs offered, there’s not much more of a reason to hang out in the middle of nowhere.

While a good number of weapons are found dropped by enemies, the really good stuff that isn’t rusted out are found in the stores. Scoped rifles, bows, and pistols are only a few of things that you can add to your arsenal, although you’re limited in what can be carried and not every store carries the same inventory. You can’t carry a scoped rifle and a “superb” condition rifle at the same time…one will have to go…but the general accuracy of most of these weapons can usually make the rest feel a lot less useful. The interesting thing about the game is that you can repeat previously finished chapters in the game and grind for gold if you’re really set on being ready for the next store to come your way. Unfortunately, your arsenal won’t carry over to these earlier areas.

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The climactic end of this adventure won’t take long to get to, but while the ending seamlessly sets up what happens in the original game, the actual battle to get there can make the experience feel drawn out with what comes off as an unnecessary twist. The love triangle in the game also comes off as a little forced, but at least the action is there to keep the player focused on what the title does reasonably well. Most players that know one end of a gun from the other will finish this in less than eight to ten hours, although additional difficulty levels and seeing the story from the other brother’s perspective offer a few incentives on spinning the yarn just one more time.

The Wild West also comes with an easy to use server browser that doesn’t dumb down the experience to simply assuming that you want to connect to the first available game online, coming in with the basics which have been renamed into Western-themed sets. Posse is team deathmatching, Shootout pits everyone against each other, and Wanted makes one lucky lawman or outlaw a target that everyone is gunning for, the lucky shooter becoming the next wanted man. Manhunt is like Wanted, only now its team based so the target isn’t completely alone.

Wild West Legends is a play on the usual objective based gameplay, but based on a historical event like the shootout at the OK Corral, with two teams, lawmen and outlaws, each trying to prevent or accomplish certain objectives within a set time limit. Classes also play a big part with several unlocked at the start whether it is a rifle specialist or a Native American armed with a bow, and in a twist to the usual frags, players earn cash instead that can be used to unlock additional ones. The more players that you take down, the higher the bounty on your head making you a more valuable target.

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It’s too bad that playing online essentially feels broken.

Lag doesn’t teleport you in this game as much as it will freeze you in your place until you can move again, usually into the grave, and staying connected can usually rely on as much luck. For a maximum of twelve players on any one map, or even with less, most of the rounds I’ve shot through have been incredibly laggy whether it was a ranked match or a public one. The large, detailed maps make for great arenas to play through but only as long as anyone was able to stay in a game, or at least avoid lag death. This is on the same connection I use to do a little Ghostbusting with or take out enemy tanks through on Battlefield 1942 without any problems, so what gives?

There haven’t been a lot of Wild Western themed titles out there in comparison to the massive number of sci-fi or WW2 shooters, but Techland’s Bound in Blood brings in everything that you could probably want with the exception of a voucher towards your own duster. With a decent story behind its action and two characters to explore the cattle trails with, anyone looking to do a little six shooting while being treated to a spaghetti-western tale of greed and revenge will want to take the next train out on this adventure.

Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood
Ubisoft / Techland
PS3 / Xbox 360 / PC (Xbox 360 version reviewed)
Rated M for Mature