Review / Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood (Xbox 360)

The wind is blowing. It whistles by, but it’s no happy tune. It hits you with millions of dusty needles, crawling away at skin that’s been hardened by years of this. All the while the heat beams down and drains all the life from you, but still you stand, because not ten feet away is a wanted man with his hand near his gun and his eye on you. You stand in nearly the exact same pose, with the exact same purpose. You have to draw fast and swift. You have to take him down. You wait for the bell to ring to draw, and when you do, oh it’s going to be Hell for this guy. Right between the eyes kind of Hell!

But wait a second… what bell? You don’t remember a bell in the movies. It was always someone who’d just start to make a break for his gun. But if you try and make a break for your gun then your character just waggles his hand away? What the hell is this? This is stupid. Who is ringing this bell anyway? Oh right, it’s a videogame. It’s Techland’s Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood. By no means a bad game, but it has equal parts convincingly immersive details particular to the Western genre, and unconvincingly silly or bland videogame tropes at the same time. It’s a decidedly good game. Not superb or great, but good.

You play as two brothers: Thomas and Ray McCall. Your little priestly brother William follows you around as well. You start as Confederate soldiers in the Civil War, but quickly desert to go back to your family home and do some saving. Then the war ends and it leaves you on the run from the law. Cue up the girl who comes in and ruins everything, as well as the myth of boundless treasure in the city of Juarez! You can kind of see how the story unfolds with that setup, with maybe a few surprises here and there. You’ll also come across some entertaining NPC’s along the way. Most of the voice acting, especially Thomas and Ray, is pretty good, too. It’s a decent enough story, and the presentation is solid as well, if a little standard. It’s the old cutscenes/narrations during load screens stuff, so don’t go expecting new means of storytelling or anything. It just gets the job done, but they are pretty good cut scenes.

Of course, the real draw of this game is going to be shooting people. So how is that part? It’s pretty good. You’ll feel right at home if you’ve played Gears of War or any of the various Call of Duty titles. You enter a skirmish of some kind, and can’t move on until you’ve either killed x number of enemies, or moved to x location, or completed x oddjob like pull a lever or something. Okay, maybe not right at home. You will have to adjust to the fact that there are no assault rifles, and that most guns are reloaded bullet by bullet. You get to choose between Thomas and Ray, with each having their own special abilities. Thomas is a sharpshooter who has some climbing and jumping abilities. Ray is a brawler who is a huge short range damage dealer and can also wield dynamite. They both also have slightly different concentration moves, which is basically a bullet time/super accuracy mode (more videogame tropes) you earn after killing the right number of enemies.

Generally, it’s a pretty standard experience. In fact, it may be too standard, giving it little to distinguish itself beyond the Western setting. It’s competently done, at least, and there are some things worth mention, and they’re all small. They pull off things in the immersion department that really just plain need to be emulated. First up is the cover system. It’s not just a case of covered/uncovered. Here, you literally peek out slowly, gradually revealing yourself. It’s a tough system to adjust to, and is sometimes even downright inconsistent, especially when hiding behind rocks or pillars, but it’s a great experiment that just needs a little ironing out. It’s a tense feeling to slowly inch around a corner, with your gun sticking farther out than you. Not perfect, but so cool. Another is animation. When Thomas is in Concentration, you hold down the left trigger to lock onto enemies, and then flick back the right stick to fire, which is the best simulation of flicking back the hammer on a revolver. In addition, the hand animation is just fantastic. After firing, your character will reach his thumb out to pull back the hammer, and it’s amazing. It’s a simple animation, but it’s so cool and convincing that it actually impressed me. Similar animations are in the quick draw parts.

Ah yes, the quick draw. That makes it stick out as well. It’s basically a mini-game boss battle type thing. However, given the clichés of the Western genre, Techland can get away with sticking it in there. On the whole, it’s pretty cool. You move left and right, and also move your right hand. Like a real hand, it will kind of drift off, so you have to be keeping it close to your gun. You’ll want to keep your opponent centered on the screen too. It’s tough to maintain the two, and requires some marked skill. Waiting for that aforementioned bell, while not quite realistic all the time, is tense as can be. You’ll also be frustrated at how slow that right hand can move sometimes. That’s namely the case when it’s too far from the gun to win a draw (which was all the time for me). It’s tough, but fair, and fun.

The game world is fairly confined most of the time, but it looks great. From rocky cliffs and mine fields to forests crawling with Apaches, Comanche and Navajo to fight against. It’s all well conceived, and towns look exactly as they should, with the sun beaming down and causing intensely dark shadows, and wood buildings look like they could break if you kick them in just the right place. It’s all really well done. Some animations, like on the horses, are a little stiff, but it’s not too bad overall. There are two points in the game that are “open world.” Basically, that means you can wander the desert and visit a handful of towns where some wanted criminals may be dwelling. You can get into a shootout, fight their gang, then do a quick draw bout against them. These points are alright, but feel like half-baked excuses to let you “explore” and just enable marketing to use the term “open world.” You do earn extra money from the missions that enable you to buy better guns from some gun shops sprinkled around, but that’s about it. It’s not as exciting as it should be to ride around and explore. They’re just not given as much care as the guided and confined levels, and they’re really just spots to get that cash. Compared to a desolate setting like what we’ve seen in Fallout 3, which has a lot of the Western genre to it, it’s just weak.

Multiplayer is pretty much what you’d expect. There are team battle modes, capture the flag variations, conquest modes themed around The Law and the Bandits, and some other things. There is little to no lag most of the time, but when you come across someone with a bow & arrow who knows how to use it, just quit. That weapon is absurdly powerful and not worth the hassle of a fight. There are few moves in the way of dodging, and your pace is pretty steady. Even running doesn’t get you moving that much faster. Still, for a Western twist on some competent multiplayer, you may find some value in this. It’s by no stretch bad, but like the single-player, it’s overall not a particularly new thing.

Bound in Blood is almost a conflicted title with the way it battles between aspects that convince the player of the Western setting, and the general, tried-and-true mechanics standard to first-person shooters. While the game makes no strides for the single-player shooter experience as a whole, it does show how little details can go a long way in establishing immersion. It also is just a solidly fun experience. The Western genre can run deep… really deep. Some Cormac McCarthy novels can be a testament to that. At the same time, it’s wild, fun and adventurous. Techland seemed to slant a little more toward the wild and fun side of things, but touches on the depth of the genre’s clichés just enough that one can only imagine how much more awesome and gripping games in this setting can be. This is no doubt a good game and is recommended, but it’s also clear that something amazing is on the horizon. Until that day, a ride with the McCalls probably won’t disappoint.

+ The little details that really make the Western setting come through.
+ The cover system is an idea that, while not perfect, is a lot more tense and fun than expected
+ Quick draw fights are great fun, and have a true sense of pride upon victory.

– Pretty generic shooter formula at this point. Overall game’s structure is just a Western Call of Duty.
– Amid the immersive details are aspects that brutally remind you that you’re playing a game. Things like the quick draw’s bell or obligatory bullet time function.
– The open world parts are half-assed and just not as fun as the main levels.