The western shooter seems to be a conundrum to developers. Despite valiant efforts, and great games, few have ever enjoyed the runaway success of their modern warfare counterparts.
In Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood, Ubisoft adds an interesting twist to the genre, having gamers play as either of two brothers with distinctly different play styles. The game also promises to deliver a wild west tale that taps into the best of the history and fiction of the America's early, lawless days.
But will that be enough?
Authentic Look and Feel: Almost more than anything, the touchstone for a western shooter is its ability to deliver a convincing milieu. To not just provide a first-person shooter dressed up with cowboy hats, but to put gamers in experiences steeped in the tradition of the classic Western. It's here that Bound in Blood hits its highest notes. The story is a cleverly crafted homage to western traditions. The weapons and their behavior are mostly detailed and realistic. The settings seem pulled from a diverse selection of great spaghetti, classic and modern westerns.
Engaging Story: Westerns are, or at least were, modern day morality plays. Sure, they entertained, but they also taught us something about the fiber of heroes, the face of villainy and how easy it is to sometimes confuse the two. Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood does a heroic job of delivering a story in this tradition, tapping into the classic themes of lawless honor and family first, while neatly tying together the elements of the original Call of Jaurez's sometimes wanting back story.
Brothers and Arms: Rather than playing through the entire game as a single protagonist, Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood tells its story through the eyes of three brothers, two of whom you control in turns. The game uses the ability to switch between brothers at chapter endings to develop two distinctly different modes of play. While controlling Ray McCall, gamers wield two six-shooters, firing them simultaneously. Ray can also throw lit dynamite, wears armor on his chest which protects him from bullets, and can kick in doors. He can't climb well or run very fast. Thomas McCall, on the other hand, is more agile, allowing him to better traverse obstacles, even using a lasso to climb up buildings and trees. While he can't fire two guns at the same time, he is better with the rifle and can eventually use a knife or bow to kill silently.
Strong Voice Dialog: Maybe it's because I'm a younger brother, but I found the back and forth between the brothers, mostly the two you can play as, engaging and, at times, hilarious. Their constant foul-mouthed jibes at one another helped set the tone for the relationship they shared, and in some strange way also helped me build a closer rapport with them.
Horseplay: The horses aren't as plentiful a I'd like them to be in the game, but once you find one and mount up they're a blast to ride. It's fun to pick people off as you barrel through a town on horseback, but just riding around is a satisfying experience.
Six Shooter Bullet Time: They may call it "concentration mode", but Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood has bullet time. There are moments in the game, usually following a cinematic, where you kick open a door and you and your brother get to blast away bad guys moving in slow mode but controlling the two crosshairs separately with the thumbsticks and pulling the triggers to fire. Each of the brothers also have their own concentration mode that can be activated during play. Kill off enough bad guys and you can press a button to drop into the mode. For Ray that means painting the slow-mo bad guys with the crosshairs until time runs out and Ray automatically empties his gun into them. For Thomas you just hold the trigger and flick the thumbstick as if it were a gun's hammer, blasting away the enemies. All three modes are extremely satisfying.
Wide Open Maps: The game takes place in a broad expanse of post Civil War America, with settings in southern plantations, high deserts, ruins, dusty towns and plenty of old towns and forts. All of the levels are packed with hidey holes, second floors and accessible rooftops, making gun play exciting and fast-paced.
Multiplayer Cowboys and Outlaws: Bound in Blood is everything you could want from a western shooter. Besides the traditional and team deathmatch, the game includes two other interesting modes. In Manhunt there are two teams, each taking turns either hunting down or protecting a wanted player. In Wild West Legends, one team has to complete a series of objectives, while the other tries to stop them. The objectives are all heavily themed to classic western story lines. Online play also includes more than a dozen classes, most of which have to be unlocked.
Buried Extras: A neat addition to the single-player campaign are a set of side missions you stumble across in some of the towns you visit. The side missions show up as wanted and help signs posted on the side of a building and playing through one just means reading the sign and going off after the objective. It's great, but unfortunately, they're tied directly to the games campaign and can't be reached separately, it seems, after you've beaten the game. It would have been nice if they allowed players, after they're done the game, to revisit the towns and finish this side missions, which aren't required but certainly add a bit of play to the title.
Sweet, But Short: There wasn't a dull moment, a bad mission, a poorly designed map in the entire game, but it only took me six and a half hours to play through it on the average setting. A quick fix would be, again, to let me go back into the side missions later on.
I love the western shooter, from Gun to Red Dead Revolver to Outlaws, and fortunately, developers don't stop trying to try to turn what is essentially a niche shooter into a mainstream hit.
Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood doesn't redefine the genre, nor, I fear, will it win over the mainstream audience that these games so richly deserve. What it does do is offer gamers a chance to step into the boots of lawless men in lawless times, to slap leather, to avenge wrongs and to peek into the motives of single-minded men.
Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood was developed by Techland and published by Ubisoft for the PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on June 30. Retails for $59.99 on consoles and $49.99 on PC. Played through the single-player campaign on the PS3, including several side-missions, and multiple matches of online multiplayer.
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