June 30, 2009
As far as genres go in the shooter world, the western genre remains fairly sacred and generally untouched. The truth is, there probably isn’t that much of an audience to warrant more than one or two titles every few years. Given that caveat, 2009 will surely be a great year for western fans out there, with Red Dead Revolver expected in the fall and Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood invading consoles this week. The original Call of Juarez title, when it finally got ported to the Xbox 360, was generally seen as an unpolished diamond that showed great potential but ultimately seemed rushed. Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood is Techland and Ubisoft’s latest effort to build on the solid foundations they've already established and bring the western genre to its knees.
Bound in Blood in terms of the story acts as a prequel to the events told in the original. Making use of the Chrome Engine 4, Bound in Blood tells the story of the McCall brothers circa the ending of the American Civil War. They say war changes people and for the McCall brothers, not only did the war make them cold and callous, but it disrupted their perfect family life leaving the brothers with a diminishing hope and loss of morals. With nothing left to live for, the two brothers and their younger - and more innocent - brother set off on a journey running from the law in a tale of betrayal, women, and of course, the root of all evil ... riches! Bound in Blood’s content is typical of the events that would transpire in your traditional western films and is an entire book of clichés and expected set pieces; including the high noon showdowns, the carriage chases and town square ambushes. The story is relatively short however and it seems unlikely you’ll be able to squeeze more than 8 hours of gameplay out of your first, and possibly only, playthrough.
Throughout most of the game you’ll be tasked with the ability to play as either Thomas or Ray McCall depending on the situation. Whilst both generally control the same, there are a few key differences between the two. Thomas, the younger of the two brothers and a bit of a ladies man, is the more agile of the two who is more accustomed to long range weapons and has the ability to use a lasso to get to certain places; mostly dictated by the story or task at hand. Ray on the other hand is the more surly of the two who prides himself on being a cutthroat brawler. Where Thomas will make use of the game’s rifles, Ray will be dual wielding pistols to see off their foes.
Bound in Blood's controls are pretty responsive and intuitive throughout, and there won’t be many times you’ll be cursing your character for things beyond your control. The game seems to have a good balance of well situated checkpoints and shouldn't really be classed as your normal everyday first person shooter either, as there is a reliance on making use of the cover mechanics whilst taking into account the relatively slow reloading times. It is meant to be an authentic western experience, so we’re not saying that’s a hang up … the title just requires an element of strategy sometimes. The pacing of the game however seems to be spot on with the heavy action sequences not outstaying their welcome and showdowns and on-rails scenes thrown in to mix things up. The game does free its shackles from the main story on a couple of occasions to deliver some sandbox-esque areas for you to explore and dabble in the odd side mission, but other than that, the game is completely linear. Another indication of Techland mixing the pace up a little and keeping things fresh.
The strategy element and relatively slow pacing of the first person shooter comes in to the forefront a little more with the game’s cover system. It’s one of few (I said few, not there isn't any) FPS titles that I can recall with some sort of cover mechanic but it’s a little finicky and awkward at times as you’ll find yourself sticking to some cover you obviously never attempted to use.
Another of the game’s fundamental mechanics is the “concentration mode,” which you can initiate once you’ve taken down enough foes to fill your meter. Once it’s full, you have 60 seconds to trigger the sequence with the B button whereby you can take down all the foes in range, in a split second. Each of the brothers has a different way to choose his targets for the takedown but both are relatively simple and taking down 5 plus enemies in a split second never gets old. There are also co-operative concentration modes that you can take part in throughout the story where you and your AI controlled brother burst through a set of double doors into a room of pesky varmints. These aren’t as easy to master as the general concentration modes you’ll be using throughout the game and are nowhere near as fun. The AI of your companion is actually pretty solid throughout, yet you have to wonder why with the game's structure the way it is, there is no co-op aspect to the title. Despite that, you won't be left longing for your mate's help as they can actually prove to be quite useful.
The weapons throughout Bound in Blood are of true western ilk allowing you to take control of gatling guns, cannons, dynamite, and even a stealthy bow and arrow. The majority of your gun play will make use of three weapon classes though; pistols, rifles and shotguns; each having different variations that affect power, rate of fire and reload rate. Nothing special here, but what do you expect from a title set in the 1860’s?
I’ve briefly mentioned the showdowns in passing throughout the review thus far whilst managing to contain my genuine excitement. In true western fashion, throughout Bound in Blood you’ll get chance to take part in this epic western cliché. They effectively make up Bound in Blood’s boss fights as you’ll encounter them on numerous occasions throughout the story, with each level escalating towards these one on one encounters with the game’s main story characters. When the scene loads you’ll be faced with a short showdown mini game whereby you have to control the main character with the left analogue so that your enemy is in focus whilst readying the hand of your character with the right analogue stick waiting to grab the gun when the bell tomes. When it does tome, you have to quickly reach for your gun initiating a reticule and firing on your opponent before he shoots you. It does take some mastering but they are pretty damn fun and that’s all that matters.
There are a few annoyances throughout that Techland failed to pick up on or just cared to ignore. There are times throughout the game where the poorly crafted dynamite detector will let you down and you’ll struggle to pick up where your enemy had just thrown that stick of theirs. That’s only made worse by enemies who have a stupidly accurate throw and give you little time to react and move out of harm's way. There are also times throughout where you’ll go off for a wander to grab ammunition and check for gold when the game will fail the mission because you moved too far away from your brother. I was less than 20 yards away the once when that flashed up on the screen forcing me to go back 10 minutes to the nearest checkpoint. Really, what’s the point?
The story is told through in-game cut scenes which have some pretty terrible lip syncing and a sort of brown paper graphic novel with various narrations from the game’s main players. The acting throughout seems a little rigid at times and some of the lines seem a little forced but the general voice acting is of a fair standard on the whole. You’ll no doubt experience a few audio problems throughout as well, as the game will sometimes deliver the dialogue scenes so that they sound like they’re happening in another county, effectively meaning you either need to whack on the subtitles or turn up the volume. The music however is of typical western mould and a welcome addition to the game as it perfectly sets you up for chase scenes and heightens the tension at the perfect moment.
Visually, Bound in Blood is a bit of a mixed bag. Even by today's standards the scenes and environments are impressive, bright, vivid and authentically western. As you hit the bigger environments, the wide open and bright vistas breathe the title life, yet the textures in the game throughout are hit and miss; some being highly detailed and others being a wave of blurry colours. The game also has a few issues with anti-aliasing the characters, a ridiculous amount of pop-up, especially in the desert when on horseback, and more clipping than I’ve seen in any game this year.
One of my pet hates as a reviewer is having to sit through seemingly tacked on multiplayer modes that essentially bring a title down. Thankfully Bound in Blood is not one of those titles and the multiplayer arena is a breath of fresh air. The pacing is a lot different to your traditional run and gun shooters and the authentic western environments transfer perfectly across into multiplayer. It carries a similar setup regarding classes to Far Cry 2 with players choosing one of 13 different classes to start off with, allowing you to freely change mid match to suit the game. There are 5 modes in all; Shootout (deathmatch where the leaders are worth more of a bounty), Manhunt (where teams protect one man on their team to score points), Wanted (only the wanted man can kill or be killed), Posse (team deathmatch with bounties essentially), and easily the best mode, Wild West Legends. The Wild West Legends mode is an objective based game type whereby players must work as a team to pull off a number of classic western scenes, for instance, the gunfight at the OK Corral. All modes cater for up to 12 players and there are 8 classic western maps to fight across. It’s a shame there seems to be no party system though – that ought to be compulsory in any Xbox Live enabled game in this day and age.
It’s been a while since I’ve been able to sit here and praise an achievement list but for once, Techland seem to have got the balance pretty much spot on. If it wasn’t for the insane collectible achievement and the odd over-the-top multiplayer achievement, the list would be nigh-on perfect. You’re looking at two playthroughs at the very least unfortunately as you’ll need to unlock “very hard” mode, and play through solely as both characters. I’d guesstimate at anywhere around 60 to 70 hours though if you want the full 1,000 as collecting $1 million cash isn’t going to be a five minute job. A quick estimation at scoring $4k a match (that's a pretty good performance as well) would put that achievement some 250 multiplayer matches away. There aren’t many multiplayer achievements (what is there is ranked) and other than the $1 million achievement, all seem doable in a reasonable amount of time. Thankfully the kill achievements (2,000 kills) and weapon achievements (250 kills with a weapon) can be unlocked in single player as well as multiplayer. Oh, and we love the Arkansas Fried Chicken achievement … blowing up chickens with dynamite for the win!
Bound in Blood does everything that you want to see a sequel do. It builds upon the foundations of its predecessor in every way shape and form, and delivers what is the best western experience available to date on consoles. The story is entertaining and the multiplayer arena is beautifully crafted. If it wasn’t for the game’s bugs and rather limited single player longevity, the title would easily be scoring in the 80’s, but as a result, it just misses out. You’ve got to question though that with a title that takes the perspective of two brothers, why there isn’t a co-op mode for us to sink our teeth into. Despite that, those who adore the western genre can’t really turn this down as the set pieces and western clichés throughout make the title a more than enjoyable experience.
The music does a solid job of recreating the western vibe but the stodgy and rigid voice acting seems a little forced at times. The game is riddled with audio dropouts as well meaning dialogue may be missed on occasions.
A bit of a mixed bag here really. The wide open environments paint an impressive picture of 1860’s America with an impressive draw distance and perfectly captures the western look and feel. Textures are either impressive or disappointing, and the game is riddled with pop-up and clipping issues.
The controls on the whole are responsive and intuitive. You may encounter the occasional issue with the game’s finicky cover system, but nothing to ruin what is a great shooter with ample pacing.
A relatively short single player experience but told with a true western story packed to the rafters with fantastic clichés and western set pieces. A surprisingly impressive multiplayer arena to boot as well. Wild West Legends will have you pining for just one more game.
A great list with one or two bad eggs. If it wasn’t for the over-the-top $1 million achievement, it would probably be one of the best lists of the year so far. Originality, check. Thought and humour, check. Not too much grinding, check. Un-needed collectible achievement, double check. D’oh!
Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood is a great realisation of the western genre both in single player and online in multiplayer. It truly is an authentic western experience that builds on the foundations of its predecessor and will be lapped up by western fans worldwide. If it wasn't for its lack of single player longevity and its few technical hang ups, some of which hamper the gameplay, the game would easily be shooting in the 80's.