Reviewed: August 5, 2009
Released: June 30, 2009
I’m not a big fan of Western movies. “Back to the Future 3” is probably my favorite if that gives you any indication of how deep my knowledge or love of the genre goes, but I do love a good Western game going back as far as GUN, Red Dead Revolver, and the original Call of Juarez that released in the summer of 2007. Not only was that an amazingly fun game to play, you actually had a preacher who used the Bible as a weapon. How cool is that?
For those who loved that game and the story it told you can now learn how it all came about in the sequel/prequel, Call of Juarez: Bound In Blood. In this game we travel back several years to the end of the Civil War. We meet Ray and Thomas, two brothers who fight alongside each other in the war, as you will quickly learn in the opening tutorial level. When word reaches them of the Yankees invading their home they desert the army and rush home to defend their property, but they are too late.
With their mother dead and the house in ruins, the McCall brothers are forced to flee south of the border to avoid arrest for desertion. Their brother William, a preacher, joins them. William provides the narration for the story as well as a moral compass for his brothers, who more often than not ignore his comments and attempts at salvation. While in Mexico they decide to search for the lost treasure of Juarez, a fortune in cursed Aztec gold that they could use to rebuild their home, and in the process they get mixed up with a deadly Mexican gangster, two tribes of Indians, and even some old military “buddies” from their past come back to haunt them.
Bound in Blood is a surprisingly deep and compelling tale spread across 15 chapters and some of the most gorgeous and authentic levels you will ever see in a video game. Most of the missions are playable as either Thomas or Ray. You select the character before going in and you can always return later to play the mission from the other's perspective. Each brother has their own specialties. Ray is stronger and tougher, able to duel wield pistols and chuck TNT with deadly accuracy. Thomas can shoot a bow and sling a rope to lasso and climb up ledges creating some of the rare co-op moments in the game. Only a few missions have diverging paths where the brothers actually split up for their own mini-adventures.
Thomas is also the ladies man, known for stealing Ray’s women out from under him, which leads to much of the conflict in this story when both brothers go after the sexy Marissa, a conflict that results in the ultimate tragedy and defines the characters for the events of the original Call of Juarez, especially Ray. While this game stands on its own, it is also a pefect complement to the original Call of Juarez, and even more interesting, it doesn't really matter which one you play first - just make sure you play them both.
Gameplay unfolds much like any other FPS. You have a nice assortment of authentic weapons that you can cycle with the RB or hold the RB down and choose from a radial menu. Weapons are ranked starting with rusty and going up to various prime levels ranked with gold stars, each increase earning you better power, reload, and fire rate. Most of the weapons you pick up during a mission are junk so you will want to keep an eye out for weapon shops that sell the expensive higher ranked guns. It’s rather amusing to be in the middle of a huge shootout and duck into a shop to purchase new guns or fresh ammo. I also enjoy the shop owner’s greeting, “You here to buy or rob?”
You can fire from the hip or use LT to aim down the sights, blurring the foreground with a realistic depth of focus effect. An optional snap to target assist will help you track any nearby target by locking on for a quick second. This is especially useful for long-range rifle use, but for those looking for more realism or a greater challenge, you can turn this feature off in the options.
As you run around some of the most realistic Western levels ever created for a game and rack up kills your Concentration meter will slowly fill up, and when the gun chamber icon is completely filled you have 60 seconds to tap the B button to enter a slow-motion “bullet-time” reality specific to each brother. Ray has a few seconds to move the cursor around and “paint” his targets. When the meter expires he unloads a flurry of bullets into all locked targets. Thomas is more of a real-time event in that you hold the RT down and rapidly flick the right stick back to simulate repeated firing of the gun by strumming the hammer while the game tracks and locks targets for you. Both modes are extremely cool but my biggest complaint is that by the time you fill the meter you’ve generally killed everybody and then it’s a race to get to the next batch of enemies before the countdown reaches zero.
Bound In Blood has the absolute best cover system of any game to date. They had better be using this system in all future FPS games from now on. Once you lock to a piece of cover you can go into sight mode with the LT and then slowly peek around or over cover, pop off a shot and retreat to safety. It’s a fantastic system that takes a bit of practice but is well worth the effort and really makes you feel like a cowboy in certain situations.
But alas, with all the praise I heap upon this game, we come to the one and only serious defect – the quickdraw showdowns. It wouldn’t be so bad if there weren’t so many of them…well, yes it would be, but nearly every level and even the side-quest missions end with a quickdraw duel that just seems broken. The concept is quite good but it fails in execution. A showdown starts with you opposite your enemy. You then circle around right and left using the left stick to keep your opponent directly across from you and in focus. You slowly move your right hand in real-time with the right stick toward the grip of your holstered weapon…not too close or he waggles you off, and wait for the tense music to stop and the chime to sound, then you quickly swipe the right stick to grab and aim your weapon and fire as the targeting cursor travels upward across your opponent.
On the surface there seems to be several nuances to the system, but in the end it all seemed to come down to a coin flip. I learned I didn’t have to move my character much, as the enemy almost always returned to center. I learned to keep my hand close enough so my fingers flexed and I learned not to pull the trigger until the red cursor was above the crotch. But some duels would take 10-15 tries and then I would suddenly win, doing nothing different. It was as if the game was feeling sorry for me and wanted me to move along. And since the game checkpoints just before a duel and there is no limit to the number of attempts or any penalties for dying, these shootouts become frequent bottlenecks to my overall enjoyment of an otherwise perfect game.
Visually, the game is absolutely breathtaking, from the dirtiest of ghost towns to the serene canoe trip through Indian country. One of the more spectacular levels has you escorting a pair of wagons through the mountains with lush forests, towering cliffs, raging waterfalls, and a vista that looks like a postcard. There were several times I caught myself simply sightseeing – the game is that beautiful. Subtle details like dust-devils (mini-tornados) would sprout in the middle of town, and the lighting and real-time shadow casting were fantastic.
There is some definite pop-up for the ground cover foliage that sprouts a few feet ahead of you when walking, and even faster while galloping on horseback. There is also a noticeable line of detail where ground textures suddenly pop into focus a few feet ahead of you, but in a world this complex and beautifully textured, it’s easy to forgive and even easier to ignore if you simply look where you are going and immerse yourself in this richly detailed world. Cutscenes are excellent using a combination of game engine graphics and stylish charcoal drawings with narration. While I do appreciate the ability to skip a cutscene I do not approve of having that option visible in the top corner during the entire movie. Talk about distracting…
Kudos to the music department that has created some of the best action game music with authentic Western flavor ever. You have all these wonderful action scores that sound like they were ripped from a Quentin Tarintino film. These numbers really fuel the gunfights and keep the adrenaline flowing. When you venture into Indian territory you get all new music with Native American instrumentation and a more primal beat, and even the quieter more emotional parts of the soundtrack are brilliantly composed.
Sound effects are excellent with accurate sounds for all the various weapons, the twang of a bow and the BOOM of a cannon and so much more. The clippity-clop of horse hooves vary from earth to stone and your steed will start to breathe heavy while galloping or neigh loudly if you jump too far. But the best part of the entire sound experience has to be the voice acting. The constant banter and bickering between Ray and Thomas is so realistic as is the intercession from William. Even the supporting cast of characters is totally believable and flawlessly acted, with the exception of a few parts of Indian dialogue. The M-rating is fully deserved with excessive amounts of cursing and remarks like, "I'm surprised my nut sack is intact" after a dangerous shootout.
The game features an impressive multiplayer offering, with all of the requisite gunslinger modes, and even a few fresh variations on team-based modes. Sadly the game has no co-op multiplayer – which is strange given the cooperative nature of Ray and Thomas’ story and even certain co-op gameplay moments that require the two to work together. This game would have been so much better if you could play the main story in side-by-side co-op over Xbox Live.
For those who seek Achievements more than lost gold, Bound in Blood offers a large variety of objectives including playing the game on all the difficulty levels. Finishing the game once will unlock the Very Hard mode. You also have one of my favorites, the High Noon achievement that requires you to kill four people between 12:00 and 12:15pm. Sure, it’s silly and easy to do, but it’s extremely clever and original. Others are more challenging like having Thomas complete an entire level using nothing but his bow, shooting two sticks of dynamite out of the air, or killing seven guys during a single concentration event. There is also the added replay of going back and playing the various chapters as the “other” brother, and 89 extremely well-hidden secrets that will unlock art, sound, and video galleries.
Call of Juarez: Bound In Blood has quickly become my favorite game of 2009, and with future DLC on the way, it’s not going back on the shelf anytime soon. Everything about this game has been flawlessly executed from story and script to graphics and sound. This is one of the most immersive FPS experiences I have ever played, and even a few flawed quickdraw events aren’t enough to keep me from nominating this title for Best Action Game of 2009.