A dust-kicking, emotional thrill ride through the wild west
It's understood that games which follow a particular theme run the risk of being cheesy novelties that aren’t worth your time. But Techland’s Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood, the prequel to the western shoot-em-up released two years ago, is anything but cheesy. Stepping into the boots of Ray and Thomas McCall as they maraud through the southwest feels appropriately badass and radiates with attitude. This hard-boiled premise is nicely blended with cinematic gunplay that, albeit plain, makes for some intense moments iconic to the Wild West. So as an adventure into a gritty era mostly unexplored by games, Bound in Blood gets the western theme right, even though the single player campaign passes by quicker than a tumbleweed.
You choose to fight as either Ray or Thomas before each chapter, and both play rather differently. Ray is upfront, wielding dual pistols that can plow through foes with style. He can also chuck dynamite, an effective way to get through obstacles and kill large groups of foes alike. Thomas, on the other hand, has less firepower but can squeeze off lethal shots from a distance with a rifle or bow. The game presents Thomas as the sneaky side of the duo with the addition of knives and a lasso, but there aren’t many opportunities to use them, and when there are, they’re often cumbersome and scripted. For instance, only during one sequence when you’re prowling through a cornfield and whipping knives at unsuspecting soldiers does the game emit a stealthy vibe. While this absence of Thomas’ full potential is unfortunate, it is better than the first Call of Juarez’s attempts at forcing you to play stealthily. And ultimately, both brothers are equally fun to play and control differently enough to warrant intense, guns-blazing action from both perspectives.
Whether you play as Ray or Thomas is also affected by the game’s concentration mode, a slow-mo that’s triggered temporarily and has you dispatching enemies like practice bottles. For Ray, you move the reticule along enemies and fire once the mode ends. Thomas, however, flicks the gun’s hammer and shoots as the reticule automatically shifts from enemy to enemy. Ray’s mode feels kind of sloppy and never fully succeeds, but Thomas’ is tighter and proves particularly useful when it snuffs out hidden enemies.
Bound in Blood follows a linear stream of events for the majority of the single player, but is punctuated by plenty of hallmark moments that will surely enthrall you. One of these includes duels, which is about what you’d imagine: drawing your gun at the sound of a bell and shooting your opponent before he shoots you. These duels are extremely tense. Your fingers will be just as twitchy on the controller as Ray or Thomas’s readying to draw their pistol. There are cheer-inspiring moments, too, a notable one being the rampage through town on a horse and buggy with no remorse for property damage. Speaking of which, a chunk of the game’s visceral appeal comes from horseback riding. Shooting enemies as your horse kicks up dust is a blast. The addition of these neat situations serves Bound in Blood’s typical gameplay well, injecting flavour into
what otherwise could have been stale.
And of course, no game set during the dusty days of the Wild West would be complete without an authentic arsenal. As aforementioned, Ray and Thomas both dabble into various types of ammunition, all of which look, sound and feel real. Initially, your choice of guns appears to be lacking with only a basic six shooter, rifle and the odd shotgun, but seeing as how the weapons are relative to the time period this is easily understandable. The seemingly strict arsenal isn’t a compromise, either. The guns handle tightly and pack a mean shot. This is just as true for the stationary Gatling guns and canons, which are a thrill to use when encountered, and for Thomas’s bow which strikes with swift, concentrated shots. But since it’s the olden days, there are no infinite ammo slots a la Unreal Tournament; with a few exceptions, reloading is a constant and long process. Thankfully, the game’s intuitive cover system lets you catch some relief from the fray to reload, in addition to letting you peek around corners to pick off enemies at relative safety. For a first-person shooter the game’s cover is surprisingly well executed. It’s pretty easy to use, doing what it’s supposed to do without extracting you from the first-person either.
Cover might’ve been more helpful, however, if the enemies weren’t so slow in the head. Quite simply, they never seem to have a strategy. They shuffle around aimlessly and stand deer-in-headlights when you approach them up close. Due to this, most gunfights are cinchy, though there are some sudden spikes in difficulty throughout the game that cause further imbalance. In some landscapes, enemies seem omnipresent because there are so many nooks they could be hiding in. However, you won’t know where they are until you’ve bitten their dust. Fortunately, there are plenty of checkpoints, so the occasional trial and error is excusable but still frustrating.
Clearing out these dense foes would probably be more interesting with a friend, but for some reason Techland omits co-op as a game mode. You’d think a game like Bound in Blood would be perfect to play with two people, but apparently Techland doesn’t think so. Still, there’s a meaty competitive multiplayer that lasts a while after the scrawny six-hour campaign is done. There are a bunch of classes – or more precisely, character models with a small selection of weapons – to be unlocked as you play through the modes, though they don’t really impact the tide of the match. For example, a sniper can be just as effective as a miner (think lots of dynamite) when completing a given task. Modes are plentiful, and distinguished from the typical FPS fare. The best mode is Wild West Legends, a sort of western cops-and-robbers that divides players into outlaws and lawmen as a certain objective, such as the saloon, must be robbed and protected respectively.
Never do the multiplayer modes stray from Bound in Blood’s heavily embedded western roots, which is easy to spot across the board in the game’s remarkable technical feats. The visuals could benefit from a little polish, but they’re so meticulously detailed that you’ll easily get lost in the game’s environments. They’re varied, too; you’ll see more than just the sun-beaten town square that all westerns have. You’ll see fortresses, caves, mansions, and even a ghost town, and all are brimming with beauty yet remain unmistakably western. The voice acting for Ray and Thomas is nothing short of phenomenal, either. Most of the time they sound witty and bashful, but they can also be emotionally charged and human. And the latter is where the top-notch voice work stands out.
Maybe there’s a reason that Bound in Blood is one of the only western games on the market. With outcries for developer innovation, who would want to make a game from the scrapings of a genre that dissipated long ago? Techland took a hefty risk, but they definitely followed through with Bound in Blood. Yes, the single player is tragically short, but Bound in Blood is a solid experience that should be checked out by anyone craving some good ol’ western fun.