Genre: First-Person Shooter
Release Date: June 30, 2009
It's not often that a game with a lukewarm critical reception and poor sales gets a second chance to right everything it did wrong, but that's exactly what happened with the Call of Juarez series. Set up as a prequel to the events of the first game, Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood tells a fascinating story about three brothers, one of whom goes on to become Reverend Ray from the original game, and their journey as outlaws across the Wild West. Over the course of the game, these guys manage to piss off just about everyone they come across, and by the time all is said and done, you'll have killed soldiers on both sides of the Civil War, dozens of random outlaws, Native American Indians, and a wide variety of hired guns. Other than some technical issues and some bad AI, the single-player campaign is a fantastic, if short, experience.
Bound in Blood introduces you to the three main characters in the middle of a battle in the Civil War. Of these three characters, only two are playable: Thomas and Ray. The third, William, is the innocent young one who helps to flesh out the story between chapters and serves as the voice of reason and explains his brothers' actions to the player. It's a brilliant move and helps players get more involved in the narrative. Since they fought for the losing side of the Confederacy, Thomas and Ray realize that they will be hanged for their actions and quickly desert to protect their family from Union soldiers. They take William and flee, which is a setup to a fantastic narrative that deals with all the great clichés of westerns: romance, revenge, treachery and hostile natives. It's all there and woven together with some fantastic writing to create a truly compelling tale.
The characters are much more interesting than most of the characters seen in today's games, which is partially due to the writing. Though they are terrible people, Thomas and Ray end up as believable and interesting characters because the writing manages to perfectly capture the brotherly bickering. It sounds like what two brothers might actually be saying to one another, rather than just two characters talking in a story. It's particularly interesting if you've played the original game and watch the transformation of Ray as he's presented in this game (a terrible, selfish, violent individual) into the Reverend Ray of the original Call of Juarez.
While Call of Juarez was content to switch between two characters who were quite different to play, one with a focus on stealth and the other on combat, the focus in Bound in Blood is on two characters who are both outstanding gunmen and have more of an action role. Ray plays the role of a tank; he's not quite as fast, can run around shooting two revolvers at once, and wears a giant metal sheet on his chest that allows him to take significantly more damage in combat than his brother can. As the two brothers will almost always be together during skirmishes, Ray can help out his brother by setting explosives in context-sensitive scenarios or kick in doors that his brother couldn't hope to touch. On the flip side, Thomas is a more accurate shot with his guns, is more agile and essentially plays the role of the support sharpshooter in most combat scenarios. With his mobility, he can lasso his way up to places that Ray can't, and he can climb large ledges. At the start of each chapter of the game, you can select which brother you want to play as for that segment. Only during a select few chapters does the game force you to play as a specific brother.
The differences between the characters end up creating an interesting co-op mechanic between them, as they usually have to support each other to a certain extent. What baffles me is that there is absolutely no multiplayer co-op in the game. With a game that so blatantly asks you to cooperate with another character who is there and shooting alongside you at almost all times, it strikes me as a tremendous oversight to force you to tackle this alone, especially with the AI as spotty as it is. There were several instances in the game when I didn't take the route through an open area that the game expected me to use to get to the other side, and the AI governing the other brother simply locked up and stood there until I went back and took the path that the game expected me to use.
In firefights, your partner usually isn't entirely useless; he can act as a half-decent bullet sponge and will take out some of the enemies that attack. The game rewards you for killing enemies in the form of focus. Build up enough focus from killing enemies, and you're given a minute to unleash your focus. Using focus correctly can change the flow of a firefight from you slowly being overwhelmed to complete annihilation of the enemy, so it's a very powerful tool indeed. Each brother has a different focus attack. Ray has a few seconds to mark his targets before he fires on every single one of them. Thomas automatically targets each enemy on-screen, and you have to deal with a timing mini-game to deliver each killing shot.
Most of the game levels are extremely linear in nature, guiding you along a path from one interesting area for a firefight to another. While it makes for very little replay value in forcing you down the exact same path with the exact same stupid enemies every time you play the level, it actually creates a much tighter and entertaining firefight the first time you play through it. For a few chapters, you're actually set loose in a reasonably large environment to explore and take on side-quests. There are only a few select side-quests, but the paths to all of them feel fairly linear, and every single one of them devolves into firefights just like the ones on the story missions, except their lack of connection to the game's overall narrative make them significantly less interesting.
Most players will be able to finish the game in well under 10 hours, which makes the game length a bit on the short side, and with almost no replay value (playing as the other brother doesn't really change how things play out), and unfortunately, the multiplayer aspect of the game should be forgotten entirely. I'm hoping that things fare better on the console versions of the game, but the PC version suffers from a very small community of players and poor netcoding that results in almost unplayable lag for just about everyone. Sadly, those two elements combine to pretty much ruin the multiplayer aspect. The modes are reasonably fun and yield rewards if you can keep at it, but it's difficult to justify spending your time playing a game with such a small community.
Bound in Blood manages to look absolutely amazing at first glance. The gritty look combines with great subtle touches like the reflections in the guns and incredible particle effects, and it certainly helps that almost everything in the game looks absolutely amazing from a distance. However, when you start to get close, things take a turn for the worse. Once you get within a few feet of anything, textures start to get blurry and rough around the edges, and the outstanding-looking game suddenly looks like it came out a few years ago. Compounding the issue further are some major problems with pop-in and screen tearing, especially in the "open world" levels of the game.
Thankfully, the audio work is fantastic. The score feels plucked straight from any top-notch Western movie, and the voice work in the game is fantastic, especially between the three brothers. Everything within the game manages to sound just right and avoid being too cheesy to pull you out of the great level of immersion that Bound in Blood constantly delivers.
While Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood may suffer from just enough technical issues to become annoying and the multiplayer component doesn't have the staying power to occupy your time (on the PC, anyway), the majority of the single-player experience is compelling and entertaining. Between the fantastic characters, wonderful story and largely entertaining gunplay, this is a title that's worth checking out.Score: 8.1/10
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