Bound in Blood marks the return of the Techlands western shooter Call of Juarez. Two years after its original debut on the Xbox 360, more gamers have the chance to experience this spaghetti-western prequel as it finds its way onto the Playstation 3. Slap on that cowboy hat, saddle up the horses, and prepare to meet the McCall boys in a blaze of glory.
Ubisoft publishes their second Call of Juarez offering with confidence in Techland to create another captivating Western tale of outlaws, treasure hunting and faith. It might seem like an odd choice to have a European developer behind the creative wheels of an American Wild West game, but who ever would have thought Italians could make one of the most influential Western films of all time? let alone a whole genre of Western films? From the film, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, to the Call of Juarez, everyone besides North America seems to be more interested in the Western subculture of the United States.
Being European doesn't phase Techland as they have created a remarkable adventure that pushes the value of a story right up beside the gameplay. Inspired by old spaghetti-westerns, Bound in Blood exploits ever turn making this 7hr gunslinging adventure a memorable run in the Old West. If you haven’t had the chance to play a Western themed game in the past, Call of Juarez is a great place to start. The era lends itself perfectly to the world of gaming with the immeasurable amount of fiction to draw from. Forget the Second World War; or blasting aliens away with laser pistols, the Old West is plethora of unwritten tales waiting to be discovered.
The Wild Bunch
The time period in Juarez rewinds us to the end of the American Civil War as three brothers make their way across the states to the Mexican border. Without providing too many spoilers, Juarez starts out as your typical running-from-the-law outlaw tale that turns into something with more substance. Driven by a strong script focusing on the relationships between each brother, Juarez evolves into a dynamically rich tale that is supported with a strong cast of secondary characters. For a little teaser expect to be lured in by a vengeful Confederate Colonel, a double crossing Mexican bandit and a seductive woman temptress, all while you search for a lost treasure of unfathomable riches. The plot is well crafted as it weaves through four distint acts with the focus never swaying from the McCall Brothers. Forget the Aztec treasure, Juarez’s story is worth is worth its own weight in gold, and if you're one for Western drama then you will likely be locked down watching every second of the cut-scenes, even when the “skip” icon is flashing in the corner.
The game itself is a pure shooter with some extra elements like rail events and slow motion shooting added into the cooking pot. Like the storyline, the gameplay also highlights the McCall Brothers. Before most missions you will be given the option to play as one of the two brothers, Ray McCall, the close combat dynamite wielding brother, or the more agile, long-range fighter Thomas McCall. The third brother William is non-playable and given his role as the bible preaching Reverend it’s only right. For all those who have played the original game, Ray McCall is hard-hitting preacher from the first title who heads into battle, bible in hand. Playing the original Call of Juarez isn't necessary to get into Bound in Blood, however gamers who have explored the first title will get some perspective on Ray's character.
Brothers in Arms
Even though you will usually have the option to pick one brother over the other, Juarez plays out with the brothers working together. The co-op feel helps you out to blast away the outnumber odds, it also helps Juarez separate itself from the long list of competing shooters. Sure other titles have characters working together, however they always lack a personal connection which isn't the case in Juarez. Having your NPC controlled brother running around and helping you down the enemies is a lot of fun and thankfully the A.I. is fairly sharp with keeping up with your skills. Unlike other NPC co-op styled titles you’ll have to do most of the leg work, so don’t expect to get the A.I. to do all your dirty work. One aspect of this tailored co-op styled gameplay that is missing is actual two-player co-op. Online, or offline, Bound in Blood could have been an excellent co-op shooter without too much adjusting. It is strange that Techland didn’t explore this option... maybe next time.
A Lil' Bit of Dynamite is good for Your Soul
Ray and Thomas have the same in-game feel, but their differences come in their unique abilities. Ray McCall is the straight ahead gunslinger who has some abilities his brother doesn’t, most notably the ability to throw dynamite and dual wield weapons. Thomas is the more clever brother who uses his rope to climb to high areas which Ray can’t access. Thomas can also throw knifes for stealth-kills, but its something that is hard to pull of in Juarez simply because there isn't too many moments when the dust isn't rising from bullet casings. However there is one small section in a corn field that rewards the player for having assassin’s blood. In another difference the Brothers handle their slow motion focused techniques differently; this is basically old school bullet time done in a Western style. Ray's character allows you to mark all his targets in a time limit and then unleashes the bullets when counts down. Thomas has a cool analog flicking mechanism attached to his slow motion shooting that feels more like your firing a real weapon. These slight differences don’t drastically effect how the gameplay, but it does add a nice little dose of unique flavour. Helping to motivate the player to choose one brother over the other is Trophy/Achievement awards attached to finishing the game by only using one brother. This also motivates you to run through Juarez a second time as the other brother along with a number of difficulty related rewards.
Bring on the Action
Like other shooters, Bound in Blood uses a regenerative health system that lets you abstain a little bit of damage before you need to hide and wait. The balance is well done with a nice cover system to help you out in the trickier gunfights; however it’s not your typical Gears “Stick to an Object” cover mechanic. Hiding behind cover in Juarez is automatically initiated when you go behind an object and stay still for a second. Then your character will start to peer over, or beside the object as if it was a natural extension. I really enjoyed this easy lean cover style and hope to see more often in future shooters. Juarez also puts you into a number of action sequences like gattling gun shooting galleries, or defending a moving stage coach. All the little extras are done well, and thankfully not over used. The feeling of riding a horse could have been done a little better, but other than that you’ll probably be pleased fighting through the scripted set pieces Techland has set up for you.
Keeping with the trend of little touches is a showdown mini-game that usually comes into play as you are finishing up a level. The showdown is a classic moment from Western movies that no Wild West game should do without. The showdown mechanics in Juarez is nicely inputted and simple to learn, yet hard to master. The way the showdowns work with the two fighters moving their arm by their pistol with the one along stick, while the other one controls movement. Moving in a semi-circle, the key is to be in a good stance to take a shot while your hand is close to your guns grip. Then when the bell-tolls and its time to fire! In your first few showdowns you’ll likely bite a few bullets until you get into the swing of things. Helping you along the way are game save points that activate right before each showdown with no limit to how many times you can re-attempt the duel. These moments are some of the most intense and frustrating moments in the Juarez that come out feeling extremely rewarding when you finally down your adversary.
Explore While You Can
Bound in Blood also has a two points in the game where you can decide if you want to partake in a few side missions for a cash rewards. Cash is used to upgrade your weapons and isn't given too plentiful, so its a good choice to run through the few that become available. The side missions are set up as an open-world feel which totally differs from the main linear driven storyline. This makes me wonder if Techland flirted with an open world concept and then dropped it for a more focused game experience. The optional missions offered up aren’t too exciting compared to the main campaign, but its a nice to jump into for the fact alone that you get a different feel from the game. Downloadable content is planned, so expect Ubisoft and Techland to take advantage of this free-roam feature in the future.
Pick Your Hardware
The difference between the Xbox 360 version and Playstation 3 edition doesn’t come into play until you start looking at the graphical comparison between both. Judging the graphics straight up would tilt towards the Xbox 360 as it seems a tad sharper then the Playstation 3 version. Given this is Techlands first run on the Playstation 3 this is understandable, but the lack of crispness is nothing compared to the stuttering load times that bust up the gameplay every time a checkpoint saves. On the Xbox 360 the saving stutter is only a 1-2 seconds long, however the Playstation 3 is on average around 4-6 seconds. This doesn’t sound like a big deal on paper; however when you’re in the middle of a firefight and the six-shooter barrel saving icon comes on the screen it can be a momentum breaker. A little more optimization would have fixed this; hopefully it’s not too complex that Ubisoft can’t offer up a patch in the future
In terms of quality, Bound in Blood has some superb audio tracks along with some detailed graphic work. The amount of detail added into the environments and the simple archtechture sets like a small Western town, or a Indian village is excellent. Juarez has more than a few moments when you will want to stop the action and gaze around at the countryside. The scale is also wonderful in Juarez and is something that is done without putting a spotlight on. A few of the sections in the game are beautifully pieced together and look great when you look back at the big picture. Following up the eniroments is some excellent facial detial in the characters even through the lip-synching has a few issues, they still look great!
Listening to the audio it equally stands out with some solid voice acting done with conviction. From the bit-players to the three brothers, Juarez really sounds the part and will likely draw you in with its Southern charm. Beyond the voice-overs, the other effects like explosions, weapon discharges, and ambient touches are well done. I only have one small criticism and its about the games soundtrack. I felt a few of the backing tracks seemed a little too rocked up for the games setting, however that is the minority because the majority of the tracks feel at home keeping the illusion of being a Western film. All in all, Techalnd’s second run at this series is a big leap from the first as they showcase the strength of their games engine. It's always amazing to see how rich and entertaining the Wild West can be when done right.
Outlaws vs. Lawmen
After all the smoke clears and the single player campaign wraps up you will want to check out Bound in Blood’s online multiplayer matches. The online game of Outlaws vs. Lawmen is a lot of fun supporting up to 12 players. This instant separation between the two groups carries on the Old West feeling online with a lot of characters to choose from and online unlockables. The balance between each character class and the weapons delegated to each character makes the variety online interesting. The battles with these older weapons instead of machine guns and rocket launchers is extremely satisfying and a good break from the normally Call of Duty warfare. There aren’t a whole lot of modes to choose from but from the solo death matches to team battles, you’ll likely drop a few hours building up your online bounty.
Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood is an extremely satisfying shooter that should please any shooter fan who is looking for something new. When compared to the current market, Juarez breezes in like a breath of fresh air. Not only does the Wild West source material make a great backdrop for a shooter, Juarez backs it up with a great story, fast paced gameplay, and a number of small innovations that help push the momentum forward. Not to mention a highly addictive Outlaws vs. Lawmen online mode.
For downsides, Bound in Blood might be a little short clocking in around 7hrs, however its seven hours of solid entertainment. It also might run a little slow if your looking for a straight-up run-and-gun experience. Sure, Juarez has the run-and-gun gunfights, but it is balanced out with a well told tale of Americana Western lore. If you enjoyed the first Call of Juarez game then you will be pleased with Techland's second offering. Even more impressive then the original, Bound in Blood proves you don't need high-tech machinery, undead creatures, or space aliens to have a good time shooting things up. Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood is one of the highlights of the year, and worth a look for all shooter fans.
Reviewed by Downtown Jimmy | 07.14.09