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Compared to other eras in world history, the American Old West, which dates back to the late 1800’s, hasn’t really had too many quality titles. To date, only a few have actually been genuinely entertaining, with Rockstar’s Red Dead Revolver topping the heap. Earlier this generation, both Gun and Call of Juarez were released, neither really capturing the more alluring aspects of the era. With Ubisoft’s Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood, the developer, Techland, is taking another swing at their franchise, hoping to make a fistful of dollars by revising the Old West, and hopefully doing a better job of it.
There’s really no reason the Old West isn’t more popular in gaming. Developers search far and wide for ways to introduce interesting weaponry to their games, and the late 1800’s represents a unique time for firearms. It was before the dawn of handheld semi-automatic weaponry and after the day of Muskets, where weapons could be fired and reloaded quickly, but required precision and reflexes. Bound in Blood takes advantage of that with different types of weapons, each coming in several varieties. Fans of the era will likely find their weapon of choice somewhere on the battlefield, with different types of shotguns, pistols, and rifles. The actual gunplay itself is very polished, making the player feel like a genuine gunslinger. It sells the experience well, and before long it feels plenty natural to be in the boots of the McCall brothers.
Bound in Blood is a prequel to Call of Juarez, and follows Thomas and Ray McCall, the father and uncle of the main character of the original. It begins with a cutscene of the two in a standoff, fighting over a mysterious woman, about to fire upon each other. The view then turns to their brother, a preacher named William, who recalls the events that lead up to the confrontation. During the Civil War, the McCall’s fought on the side of the confederacy before leaving the battle to protect their home, disobeying a direct order and being labeled as deserters. Years later, they travel from town to town, only barely eluding arrest for their careless, violent actions. William travels with them, all the while attempting to save their souls from the dark path they’re traveling down. Eventually, they meet a man named Juarez, who promises them riches beyond their wildest dreams.
If you’ve played the original you’ll likely know the path the brothers take, but going into the game fresh offers a more surprisingly experience. They’re scumbags, plain and simple, but their motives are wholly understandable, even if their methods aren’t. In many ways, the prequel route was a great move for Techland to take, and allows new players to jump in without having played the original, while fans of Call of Juarez will enjoy the fleshed out back-story. The actual narrative is involving and interesting, taking inspiration from classic western films like The Good the Bad and the Ugly and The Magnificent Seven. It contains staples such as duels, wanted posters, and ghost towns, all playing into the gameplay in interesting ways.
Bound in Blood lasts about six hours, but has a large amount of replayability thanks to what Ubisoft calls “dual collaborative gameplay.” Each level allows the player to choose which of the two brothers to play, each offering a different path, revealing different sides to the story. They’re usually only minor divergences, but it’s enough to justify a second play through, especially considering how entertaining the gameplay can be. It’s polished and rewarding, bringing players through different locations. Running down a hallway and shooting a few enemies might not be anything new, but when the guns are sixshooters, the hallway is a saloon, and the guys are lawmen it’s propelled from tired to entertaining really, really fast.
Occasional optional side quests also pop up, offering a chance to collect on bounties in short, open-world quests. They’re a departure from the otherwise linear single-player levels, offering a brief chance to enjoy a few dozen acres of desert and gear up for the next job. It also allows players a chance to simply ride around, enjoying the wonderful environments. The developers did a fantastic job with the graphics and overall presentation, giving every inch of the world a true Old West feeling. Both the visuals and audio are high quality, really selling the game as a Western experience. The voice work in particular is stellar, and there isn’t a weak actor among the cast.
Most of Bound in Blood’s more unique features come from the “Collaborative Gameplay.” Despite their constant quarrels, the McCalls work well together, helping each other up ledges and providing covering fire. Other times, they’ll actually work together directly, joining together to shoot up a room and clear it of enemies. Besides following slightly different story arcs, the brothers also each have their own style of fighting. Thomas is more agile, and has access to a lasso, which can be used to climb to higher locations, silent throwing knives, and a bow. Ray, on the other hand, is more powerful, and can smash down doors, dual wield pistols, and throw dynamite. They also both have access to their own special meter as well, which charges up when enemies are killed and can be unleashed to devastate enemies. Ray’s allows him to unload on a group of opponents by selecting where to shoot in slow-motion, while Thomas’s has him automatically targeting all nearby foes for quick, one shot kills. The differences aren’t too drastic, but the characters are dissimilar enough that they will likely be suited for different play-styles.
The only issue with the actual gameplay is in the lack of melee and the cover system, which gains points for the attempt, but loses them for the execution. Players will automatically take cover on some walls and objects, and the right analog stick controls their movement. It so infrequently works that is can never be relied on, and usually kicks in at inopportune moments. It’s a good idea in theory, but it’s so inconsistent that it’s best to pretend it isn’t a part of the McCalls’ arsenal. All in all it’s a well-put together shooter, giving western fans something to get excited about.
Strangely, and almost inexcusably, there’s no cooperative play. It seems that a game based around two characters (with slightly diverging paths from time to time) would have worked perfectly in this game, but it’s mysteriously absent. There are very few times where the characters are alone for all too long, and the game comes complete with a collection of multiplayer options, so it’s strange that it would be left out. Competitive multiplayer comes in five modes, which range from a typical Team Deathmatch to an objective-based selection called Wild West Legends, but none really stand out as being different than the offerings of other shooters. It’s unfair to call it Call of Duty in the west, especially since it doesn’t come close to scratching the surface of Modern Warfare, but the game doesn’t really break from the mold very much. There are a number of playable classes, with more unlockable, but nothing about the multiplayer is all too alluring. If the promise of a solid single-player shooter with Western-era weaponry doesn’t sound too interesting, Bound in Blood does little to sweeten the deal.
Gamers looking for a fun Western-themed shooter should look no further than Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood. There’s nothing incredible about it, but it’s a strong title with a solid enough story to keep most people interested. It might just be a hold out until Red Dead Redemption, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good deal of fun, and it’s easy to recommend checking the game out anyone with an itchy trigger finger.