You wouldn't expect it from "the major Polish games developer" but Techland's Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood nails everything that makes for a good spaghetti western, except for that first chapter. Being a modern action title I appreciate how the story starts at the end of the game and then retells how the brothers McCall got to that familial standoff. I even understand how turning my expectations on their head by starting out in Civil War Georgia is a great design choice but it came off as more jarring than inspired. Being that the rest of the game uses an almost completely different set of assets the first chapter feels pretty barren and boring despite being set in the middle of this country's defining war. The explanations of the gameplay aren't as clear as you'd expect and the whole thing has this ultra-linear Medal of Honor feel that makes you think the game is going to play like a military shooter from 2002.
Stick with it though because just after Thomas and Ray defect from the Confederate army by destroying a riverboat, the game heads in the right direction... to Mexico. Like any good western, Bound in Blood is loaded with twists and heavily accented cowboy talk that leads the brothers (including William who preaches God's Word and tries to keep the gang together) on a trek for lost Incan gold in the hills of Juarez, Mexico. Along the way the brothers will deal with scheming ganglords, Indian tribes, a disillusioned ex-Confederate Colonel, and even each other as they fight over the love of the same woman. I was surprised by how much dialog is in the game and how much of it plays out as you're running around shooting banditos. It's no award winning plot but it's well acted and compelling enough to make the next surprise as much a reward as the next gunfight.
And this game is full of surprises from storyline to gameplay. Most chapters let you choose which brother to play as at the outset, Ray being the dual-wielding, dynamite tossing heavy and Thomas being the agile rifleman able to scale obstacles and stealth-kill with bows and knives. The differences aren't too stark but each side is worth playing to see the sights from your almost inseparable brother's perspective. You're almost always fighting alongside your brother (and frequently a few extra A.I. pals), running and gunning around shanty towns, sun-scorched deserts and even into the dense forests of the unexplored northwest territory. Inexplicably, and sadly, though there's no form of co-op. As you play you'll find that there's almost an RPG-lite aspect to the weapons, each being rated on power, reload rate, and firing speed with several variants of each falling from the hands of enemies or up for sale at in-game shops.
Enemy fire comes from all angles and heights but you've got a unique cover ability to save your hide. Unlike other games where you simply pop out from behind a wall or box, Juarez shifts your perspective and lets you lean around and over just about any solid surface. It's more strategic and realistic than anything I've seen in a first-person shooter and keeps you feeling like a badass even when you're technically hiding behind a woven basket. Sometimes, though, even a brick wall isn't enough cover and you may feel overexposed when it crumbles in front of you under heavy fire. That's when Concentration mode can help, a slow-mo ability that builds up as you fight and gives you a prolonged second to take out any enemies on-screen either alone or in scripted co-op scenes where you control both brothers.
When it comes to dealing with bosses, however, there's only one way to settle things no matter how awkward it seems for a one-on-one showdown when your brother is at your side and after you've just taken out a small army. Showdowns are as tough as you might expect and a little tiresome after you've failed a dozen times but they're also a highlight of the game and always leave you feeling satisfied. The character models here are truly impressive as is the animation, from a subtle wagging finger to indicate you reached for your gun too soon to the slow-mo ragdoll flump of your opponent (or you) as the body falls to the ground. It's all punctuated by a thrilling score, a signifying bell toll and the clever post-kill crickets.
Things progress at a great pace once you're in Mexico with each chapter spanning multiple battle ready locales that are littered with detailed and destructible objects. Some of the textures get a little ugly up close but the lighting, focus effects, and sprawling environments look amazing and I can't recall the framerate stumbling more than a few times. Though the path you're advised to take is pretty linear and there are some obvious barricades along the way, each town is clearly designed as such. It's a town, not a set piece and you can easily wander right out into the desert or explore the dusty corners after a firefight, just expect a Game Over if you leave your brother alone for too long. It's essentially an invisible wall but it's a clever conceit that, like so many little touches in the game, makes Juarez feel refreshingly uncommon. There's one more huge surprise that I personally wasn't expecting and I'm not about to give it away in detail (think: Grand Theft Equine).
The game is not without its flaws and they hurt like buckshot to the face considering how great the overall experience is. Many of the scripted events, both in-game and in cutscenes, should be shocking and thrilling but miss their mark with unconvincing animation or off-the-beat timing. It's a real contrast to the action which typically embodies those traits. There are a few painful visual problems as well with loads of screen tearing that taints some of the cutscenes and enemies that are frequently impossible to spot until they've shot you a half dozen times. There's a hit indicator but I constantly found myself running for cover until I could regain my health and finally locate an enemy. There's another indicator to call out flying sticks of dynamite but I could never tell if it was in front of me, next to me, or safely on the other side of some indestructible cover. The best remedy I found was to run far, far away from those blinking red icons.
Fumbled cutscenes and invisible dynamite are nowhere near enough to spoil the gritty goodness of Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood. You can blaze through it all in just a few days but the other brother's story and built-in Trophy/Achievement tracker provide great incentive to do it all again. There's also a robust multiplayer mode with thirteen unlockable and upgradeable classes and a few nice game modes with team-based skirmishes built on historical events like the showdown at the OK Corral. It's not the next multiplayer sensation but the gameplay feels spot-on for the time period with players dueling it out in the streets and bodies dropping to the dust. If you're a single player gamer and not into the intangible rewards then you'd be best advised renting this one, but if you enjoy a good game of multiplayer as well, then the McCalls won't stear you wrong, little brother.