Game: Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood
Game Version: 1.0
While there have been a few Western FPS games in the last few years, it still remains a largely underutilised theme, so it’s always nice to see another game with this setting. It’s particularly nice when it’s a game with high production values and great gameplay. The original Call of Juarez was one such game, and while it had some problems like some annoying stealth sections, the game captured the atmosphere of a Western movie perfectly. Three years later, we now have a new game in the series. Not a sequel, but a prequel, set many years before the original. And it’s just as good as the original, and in fact improves on it in many ways.
The plot of the game revolves around three brothers, two of which are playable. The McCall brothers are Ray (the strong one), Thomas (the agile one) and William (the irritating religious one who you can’t play). The game starts with the two brothers fighting for the wrong side in the American Civil War, before deserting to go and defend their family homestead. The story follows the brothers as they turn from soldiers to outlaws and from friends to enemies as William tries to keep them together. This isn’t a spoiler, since the game opens with a scene from the end with the brothers pointing their guns at each other, and the majority of the game is told as a flashback showing how they ended up in this situation.
Anyone who has played the original game will remember the character of Ray McCall as Reverend Ray, the gun-slinging, Bible-wielding preacher. One of the most interesting aspects of the plot is seeing how and why the rather insane trigger-happy brother ended up turning into the character we previously saw. In fact, all three of the McCall brothers are well developed characters with their own personalities, and added to a strong storyline and some cutscenes that often look like they could have come straight from a movie, it makes this one of the most cinematic FPS games around.
In terms of gameplay, it mostly plays out in the way you’d expect of a game of this type. It’s a linear FPS in an old west setting. You get the expected selection of pistols, rifles and shotguns, along with a bow and arrow and some throwing knives. One thing the game manages very well is to make the guns feel powerful. Games can often be guilty of making the most powerful weapons seem like peashooters as you unload round after round into an enemy, only for him to shrug it off as if it was barely a scratch. In contrast, the guns in Bound in Blood feel like the lethal weapons they genuinely are. The blasts sound believable and for the most part, assuming you haven’t hit them in the arm, your enemies aren’t going to be in any state to attack you again once you’ve shot them.
For all but the first two levels and one near the end, you get a choice of whether you want to play as Ray or Thomas. Each has their own style of combat. Ray is the only one who can dual wield pistols and can also use dynamite to blast his way through obstacles or to blow up objectives. He can also kick down doors. Thomas can only use a single pistol, preferring the rifle as the main weapon. He can also use throwing knives and a bow and arrow for more stealthy kills. He’s more agile and can climb higher than Ray, and has a lasso that can be used to climb his way up to high places. Each character plays slightly differently and it can be fun to change between the characters from level to level to vary the style a bit. If only we could play as William, tagging along behind the others and letting them do all the work.
The game doesn’t really make the most of the possibilities of the two characters though. There’s only a small number of occasions where the characters briefly follow separate routes, and for most of the game, the only difference to the route through the level is whether you have to wait for the other brother to kick the door in for you or whether you have to wait for him to climb somewhere and then help you up. The combat styles are still different, although the stealth possibilities of the bow and knives aren’t really explored. Although given the problems with the stealth in the first game, that could be a good thing.
The controls for the game work very well, with aiming feeling very precise. (Of course, with the guns of that time it would be practically impossible to hit someone stood a few feet in front of you, never mind at the range in this game, but then what fun would that be?) There’s a bit of autoaiming assistance, but only for Ray when he’s dual wielding pistols and not for any of the other weapons. When dual wielding, as long as you get close to the target, the crosshairs will lock on to them. This isn’t just a console remnant designed to make things easy for the players. Rather, it’s because there are times when you may get enemies close together, at which point your crosshairs will split and allow you to shoot a different enemy with each gun. The game also features a cover system, although it works in a more natural way than the usual “hit a key to glue yourself to the scenery” method. Here it involves simply ducking behind cover yourself, at which point moving the mouse will allow you to peer over or around the cover to get a shot at your enemies. It works quite well, although there are occasions where you find yourself peering over boxes when you had no intention of actually taking cover.
Another interesting feature is a simulation of the classic cowboy movie showdown. At certain points in the game, mostly at the end of a level, you’ll face off against an opponent one on one, at which point you get a showdown minigame. You get a camera view from just behind your holster and the mouse changes from controlling the gun to controlling your hand. The idea is to keep your hand as close to the gun as possible but not to grab it until the bell tolls, at which point you go for your gun as quickly as you can. A crosshair then starts to climb the screen and as soon as it reaches the enemy you fire, hopefully before he does. While you’re waiting for the bell, the opponent will be moving from side to side, forcing you to circle around to keep him in your sight while trying to keep ready for the draw. It’s quite tense and perfectly captures the feel of the famous western shootout scenes. It’s just a shame that’s it’s a bit overused. It would work better if it was a very occasional thing used to emphasise just some of the more important fights, rather than at the end of almost every level. As well as it works, it get’s a bit repetitive when you’ve done it a few times.
The possibilities for the gameplay are necessarily going to be limited given the setting, especially since they removed the stealth elements of the first game. The developer’s have still managed to do a good job of providing some varied segments though. For example, the opening civil war level plays out like a 19th century Call of Duty game. (Now there’s an idea. When are we going to get that?) At other times you might be firing a cannon at a ship, or defending a stagecoach first from the front and then from inside. They even throw in a couple of more open ended missions that are reminscent of Gun. In the end, they each turn out to basically just be three mini-missions that take place in a wide free roaming area, which you can do in any order or ignore completely and just jump to the next level, but the freedom is a welcome change from the previous linear levels.
One thing the game deserves praise for is being so well optimised. In an era where the PC seems to be regularly palmed off with shoddy console ports, Call of Juarez is a crowning achievement. The game looks absolutely amazing. The scenery in the outdoors area is incredible and at times in the cutscenes it genuinely looks like you’re watching a film. Indoors and more close up the graphics aren’t quite up to the same standards, but they never look bad and the majority of the game takes place in wide open spaces anyway, where the game looks stunning. What makes it really impressive is the fact that the framerate was consistently high, the load times were quite quick, and the controls felt like they were properly designed for the PC.
It sometimes seems that games are often criticised for not doing anything new, like innovation is the only worthwhile quality. While I love a great original game, sometimes it’s enough just to take an established genre and produce a top quality title that does everything right. That’s exactly what Techland has done with Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood. The game plays to the strengths of the original while removing most of the weaknesses, improving on it without ever feeling like it’s just a rehash. The fact that it has one of the best stories ever to feature in an FPS game doesn’t hurt either.
Save System Review: Perfect save system. Save anywhere, quick save that cycles through several slots, and also an autosave system that saves very regularly so that even if you forget to save, you probably won’t lose much progress.
Graphics: The graphics are spectacular for the wide open areas. In closed environments the graphics aren’t as exceptional but are still good. And the characters aren’t quite as weird looking as in the first Call of Juarez.
Sound: Sound is exceptional in all areas. The weapons sound powerful and the voice acting is first rate. Marc Alaimo returns from the first game to voice Ray, and his work is as wonderful as ever, but all the voice actors do a good job.
Bugs: I didn’t encounter any bugs. There was one missing word in a subtitle in one place, but that’s about all I can think of.
Gameplay: Solid FPS mechanics. It doesn’t do much new, but it does everything very well.
Storyline: The game has a brilliant western storyline driven by three interesting characters and well written dialogue. One of the best stories to date to be told in an FPS.
Arbitrary Final Score:
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