The movies would have us believe that the Wild West was full of tobacco-spitting, gambling, whiskey-drinking males who regularly got involved in saloon brawls, slept with hookers, robbed banks and took to the deserted streets for high noon showdowns. It’s this romanticized, clichéd version of that era with all its murder, suspense and skulduggery that draws us towards any Wild West themed videogame that sees a console release. After all, hasn’t every man once dreamt of being an outlaw?
Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood certainly gives you a flavor of what being an outlaw is all about. This first person shooter provides every gun-toting, cinematic action sequence that we’d expect from this violent era, and also delivers a very appealing visual depiction of the Wild West. Soak up a 360 degree view while out in the wild and you’ll witness some dazzling views that stretch as far the eye can see, complete with rich vegetation, grazing cattle and deep red sunsets. Alternatively, ride your horse into one of the towns and you’ll be greeted with a highly detailed Wild West set that comes complete with grubby saloon and well-stocked weapon store. While Bound in Blood doesn’t push the PlayStation 3 to its absolute graphical limits, it does present one of the finest recreations of the Wild West on any console thus far.
Indeed, Bound in Blood plays to its strengths admirably and leans heavily on its Wild West theme for its thrills. If developer Techland had created a shooter with a World War II theme then we’d probably have talked about the lack of innovation and the run-of-the-mill shooter gameplay. As it stands, however, the Wild West theme ensures that there are enough entertaining scenarios to make some familiar gameplay ideas feel fresh and exciting. It also helps immeasurably that Techland has got the basics spot on. Bound in Blood has an accessible and smooth control scheme, an enticing game world design and some challenging gameplay. Throw in the fact that there’s an immersive (albeit clichéd) storyline and you’ve got an extremely appealing Wild West package.
Bound in Blood tells the story of Ray and Thomas McCall, two brothers who leave their posts in the Confederate army during the Civil War in order to rescue their mother and their brother from invading Yank forces. The brothers are labeled as deserters and their commanding officer then spends his post-war years in pursuit of them while they go on the search for Aztec treasures in the foothills of Mexico. Despite the inconsistent quality of the cut-scenes, the archetypal 'good vs. bad' storyline drives the gameplay sufficiently with both a strong script and some believable voice acting. The brotherly-themed storyline also makes for a very good excuse to play through the campaign as either one of the two brothers and also switch characters at certain points in the game.
The campaign storyline isn’t affected by your character choice; however, the two outlaws do boast different skill sets, so the experience is slightly different depending on which outlaw you choose. Ray, for example, is good at close range fighting and planting dynamite, but he also has the special skill of being able to carry a Gatling gun. Thomas, on the other hand, is better at shooting from long-range distances and at using his lasso and bow. Whoever you decide to play as, the other CPU-controlled brother often stays by your side, and you need to team up together to trigger brief cinematic scenes in order to progress.
These teamwork objectives don’t require any brain power at all to execute -- they’re a bit of a gimmick more than anything -- but they do help to keep you immersed in the game and ensure that you always have to keep close tabs on your brother and make sure you have his back. You’ll help your brother out by covering his back while he attempts to achieve an objective, or vice versa, and you can expect times where you have to move into the correct position to give him a leg-up onto of roof, or another action that's just as menial. More often than not, however, you’ll be teaming up to crash through a door to surprise the enemy. In these situations, your brother does what’s required of him and does it well, but outside of these objectives his presence can be a real burden.
Despite being an expert marksman straight out of the Confederate army, your partner has a very poor aim. On numerous occasions you won’t be able to progress unless you’re with your brother, so you’ll have to backtrack to find him and help him out. Inevitably, he’ll be caught up in a gunfight where he’ll be struggling to see off his enemy, even if they’re standing out in the open. When standing by your side in battle he’s not that much help either. Though it’s nice having the option to play as either of the two brothers and be able to take advantage of their different skill sets, it’s a big shame that co-op play hasn’t been included. If it had then replay and entertainment value could have been even higher.
Bound in Blood does provide a lot of entertainment though thanks to its heavy focus on action and gunplay. You can expect to spend the majority of your time engaging in shoot-outs and picking up cash to buy better weapons, or partaking in stagecoach robberies (that trigger exciting on-rails sections), horseback chases, or cattle rustling objectives. When you reach the end of each act you also get the opportunity to partake in a one-on-one showdown against a big boss in a typical high noon shoot-out.
Aside from having a graphical uplift, the showdown system hasn’t changed from the first game in the series. The camera sits behind your character’s hand and you’re able to move him left and right while using the right analogue stick to inch your hand toward your gun. When the bell chimes you then need to sweep the stick around to draw your gun and fire before your opponent beats you to it. Visually, it’s an impressive sequence to watch, and to begin with it’s fairly exciting relying on your concentration and quick response to take down your opponent, but sadly showdowns rarely prove to be tense affairs. The problem is there’s no real punishment for losing the one-on-one fight. If you die, you’re simply forced to repeat the sequence again until you emerge victorious.
Thankfully, the majority of the shoot-outs that you’ll be involved in are much more exciting. The weapons, which are modeled after accurate historic replicas, handle extremely well. Many of them are limited to six shots, so you really need to focus on being accurate and ensuring that you take up a cover position when you’re re-loading. Bound in Blood is one of the few games where you don’t have to press a button to get into a cover position. Instead, you move against the object where you'll automatically snap into cover. Most of the time it works superbly well and on the higher difficulty settings using cover is a real necessity, but not everything can be used to hide behind or peep around. As a result, it can be frustrating if you dash to a cover spot only to find that it won’t let you maneuver into the cover position.
Aside from the standard array of Wild West weaponry (pistols, rifles, etc.), there are also stationary weapons emplacements, dynamite, throwing knives, and lassos that you can use, so there's plenty of variety. There are also some enjoyable moments where you have to interact with the environment, using your lasso to reach an area, or picking up a bucket of water to douse out the flames of a burning shack. You can also look forward to concentration mode, which provides a flashy alternative to the run-and-gun gameplay.
To trigger concentration mode you need to build up your meter by killing the enemy. Once it’s full, you have a window of opportunity to press ‘O’ to enter a slow-motion mode where you can pick off multiple enemies with ease. It adds some cinematic flair to the gameplay and comes in handy when you’re up against a horde of incoming enemies. Concentration mode also gives you plenty of opportunity to rack up the head-shots and gain some points that go towards your performance assessment at the end of each chapter.
Away from the main campaign, Bound in Blood also offers a multiplayer mode, though at the time of writing the servers were offline so we haven’t been able to test it out. Two of the modes are team-based, with one team playing in the role of bandits and the other as lawmen. With a number of different classes to choose from, including trapper, spy, sniper or miner, and Wild West, Manhunt, and Deathmatch modes, there looks to be a lot of variety to keep any wannabe outlaws happy.
Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood isn’t the perfect Wild West adventure, but it does embody the spirit of the era with a suitable amount of style. Not only does it look fantastic, but the gameplay is exciting, the controls are smooth, and there are plenty of dramatic moments to experience and frantic shoot-outs to enjoy. Inevitably, it’s a game that will appeal to anyone who is fascinated with the Wild West. If that’s you, grab your Stetson and pick up a six shooter, and we’ll see you down at the OK Coral.
-The Final Word-
The Old West is brought to life in Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood, the finest Wild West shooter in town.