How two men defeated all of America.
I feel as though I can count the number of Western-themed games with the fingers on my hand. And that I can count the number of noteworthy Western games made over the years with my genitals. While I’m glad that this shooter sub-genre doesn’t get as overpopulated as the country of muscular space marines, it’d also be nice to get one truly great Western shooter that doesn’t feel like it’s merely hiding behind its theme to justify its impotency when being measured against the genetically stacked Master Chief.
Take Call of : Bound in Blood. The controls, the play style, the mechanics, they’re all a little too reminiscent of another famous Call in gaming. Even the dynamite sticks, the grenades of the 19 century (so it seems), have the same “grenade indicator” to tell the player where to run to avoid certain death. All we need is a quote from George Washington dismissing war to greet the player upon death. But perhaps comparing to Call of Duty is a bit unfair, so lets compare it to a lesser but fairly popular shooter. borrows a loose version of the Killzone 2 cover system, so perhaps that game should be the measuring stick. And I can at least make the brazen, fanboy-enraging statement that Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood is a much better game than Killzone 2 on sheer personality alone.
You alternate control of Ray and Thomas McCaul, two Confederate army deserters, turned into two outlaws, turned into a two man army. They like gold, women, guns, redefining the phrase “surly”, and driving their preacher brother William mad with their tendency to paint their visiting town red with blood. It’s hard to not develop an admiration for the brothers as they trash talk each other with their most Southern of drawls, as long they’re not repeating certain audio bits ad nauseam. Sometimes I wish Thomas would stop telling me to stop wasting five bullets on one man; it’s a bad habit I have! But the McCauls are a cocky bunch and perhaps for good reason, as they have a killcount worthy of rendering them Duke Nukem’s ancestors. By the end of the game, you’ll have slain at least four gangs, an entire town, two Native tribes and both the Yankee and Confederate armies. It’s a wonder why we don’t call it the United States of McCaul.
The game’s story of greed and betrayal has many interesting moments. Right away, the player is treated to a cutscene of the brothers McCaul flashing guns at each other over “gold and a woman.” The rest of the game is a flashback leading to that point. However, I couldn’t help but feel grossly disappointed with the game’s climax and subsequent payoff. Without giving anything too vital, the game’s finale takes “Hollywoodizing” to a level rarely seen in gaming, and that is some kind of major achievement in of itself.
Before each mission, you’re given the chance to select which unbathed cowboy you’d like to play as. Thomas can use silent weapons like throwing knives, as well as scoped sniper rifles (Wikipedia says that snipers existed in the Civil War, so I guess their presence is not as historically inaccurate as I once thought.) Ray can dual-wield pistols, headline the occasional gun turret sequence and chuck dynamite, igniting the fuse with a lighter I presume is hidden in his fly. Also, each brother has their own variation of the Red Dead Revolver Death Vision where time slows and you can lock on to numerous targets and open fire with your magically-reloaded pistols. Which brother you use will depend on whether you prefer picking shots from a safe hiding spot or the more Rambonian approach of shooting first and taking cover only to shake off the bullets in your chest using your magical tough-guy auto-healing system.
But the other differences between brothers are a bit more forced and annoying. Thomas can use a lasso to climb to higher locations… but only at very specific hooking spots that the game tells you are lassoable. Why I can’t I use this lasso to explore the game world, or even to tie up the baddies like a Hanna Barbara cartoon? Continuing the theme of annoying context-sensitive powers, Thomas can climb very single, specific ledges and then pull Ray up, but only in locations highlighted by a red light. The strangest of all is that Ray and ONLY Ray can kick doors down, but only the door that takes you to the next part of the level. Thomas can lay down dozens of outlaws like floorboards but is stumped when faced with a wooden door. And the game has so many doors that exist only for decoration and cannot be explored, that it leaves the game feeling too constricted. It’s impossible to get lost in this game world when the towns yell at you “No! Don’t explore me! Don’t look for my hidden secrets!”
And considering how the game is built around two brothers who are forced to help each other to progress, where is the two-player co-op mode? This game seems like it was designed specifically to be played with a friend, and yet the option doesn’t exist. As it is, the second brother exists to be a slow AI tool that frequently falls behind because he’s still in the midst of a shootout with a single goon, in an area you’ve ran away from a good long time ago.
Some of the game’s other “Westernisms” are a bit hit or miss. When you ride a horse, the game feels like your character simply grown 4 feet taller, rather than virtually create riding a four legged animal capable of stomping through your ribcage. Maybe the horses of the Wild West were so well-tamed that they make effortless 360 degree turns and glide on the floor like a hovercraft, I don’t know. And while you can shoot outlaws and even livestock, why can’t you kill civilians? Your bullets will simply pass through them, which makes one wonder why these indestructible superhumans are even fleeing in terror from ensuing shootouts. One time too many, I found myself dying from enemy fire because I was focusing my attention on what I didn’t realize was a fleeing civilian that just wouldn’t go down. And the game occasionally throws you in a giant, empty sandbox desert with three optional bounties. They’re usually fairly simple and fun missions to take, but is $100 really an adequate reward for slaying entire gangs?
On the other hand, the game’s gunplay is fantastic. Keep in mind that the game is set in a time where each bullet needs be manually inserted, so there’s a small feeling of value in trying to make each bullet count. Ocassionally, you and your brother will do an old fashioned “kick a door down, make an entrance shooting everything at once” sequence, just like in the movies. Two targets will swing across the room in slow motion and it’ll be up to your timing and grace to pick off anything that gets in your way. And then there’s the showdowns. Call of may feature the most exciting shootout sequences in all of gaming, which….isn’t quite a major feat but is still noteworthy. The player uses the left stick to keep his opponent in his sights as he paces around, and the right stick to keep his hand just close enough to the holster. Then a mysterious bell rings from…somewhere, (and these shootouts can happen in strange settings,) where you then must move the stick to grab your gun and fire. The odd quirk in these shootouts (and you’ll either consider this a flaw or point of celebration) is that, judging by the aiming cursor, you’ll almost always win each showdown by shooting your adversary in the sack.
When you finally corral the game’s 8-odd hour campaign, you can move on to the fairly strong multiplayer component. Like that very famous army game that Call of Juarez borrows liberally from, everything is class-based with the player unlocking new character classes through frequent play. And while gre…I mean dynamite feel a bit overpowered, the use of flimsy Western guns at least makes this mode feel unique. Also, the scoring system is based not on head counts but cash, with higher-ranked players worth more money when you collect their scalp. Finally, the game deserves a pint for “Wild West Legends”, which takes the old “attack/defend the base” multiplayer system of past shooters and earns several points of credibility for basing each mission on famous Wild West stories.
Like Gun and Red Dead Revolver, Call of Juarez is an average shooter that gets by almost entirely on the strengths of its historical setting. But at the least, Call of Juarez does a better job of playing to those strengths, and does so with more character and charm than most other shooters. It’s not quite the Zelda of Western games (in fact, a ten-plus year old Zelda game on the Nintendo 64 has more realistic horseback riding, and that’s a bit embarrassing) but it delivers as advertised and will give any wannabe cowboy the first-person shootout experience they may be craving.
3 ½ stars