Review: Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood

The original Call of Juarez had to be played to be believed. An alternately awful and incredible mixture of poorly designed levels with an incredible attention to pacing, narrative, and character (for 50% of the game, you could literally recite Scripture with the press of one mouse button and shoot a bandit in the face with another), CoJ quickly became a favorite among those who could tolerate it.

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Fast-forward to a couple years later, as we find ourselves confronted with Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood, a prequel to the events of the original game. Early gameplay footage seemed to suggest a less subtle, more outwardly action-packed exprience than the first game. Still, perhaps the chance to get acquainted with the McCall brothers before the crap entirely hits the fan for their family presents an interesting opportunity.

Does Bound in Blood reach the peaks (and valleys) of its predecessor, or does it surpass it to become something more?

After the jump, Brad Nicholson and Anthony Burch will attempt to answer those questions.

Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed], PC [reviewed])
Developer: Techland
Publisher: Ubisoft

Released: June 30, 2009
MSRP: $59.99

Brad Nicholson (Xbox 360)

What kept me interested in Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood wasn’t the narrative or gunplay. It was the western setting. It’s refreshing to interact in a world where a large mammal is the primary mode of transportation, baser desires take precedence over the thoughtful ones, and violence is the only means of conflict resolution. But beyond the cacti, the grit, the canyons and the dumb accents, I found nothing of substantial value. Bound in Blood is an average shooter that skids, dips and shifts into complete mediocrity or below. Playing the game is an exercise in apathy — it’s neither solid nor liquid. In other words, it isn’t compelling.

The game’s story revolves around three brothers who are searching for a way to rebuild their property and dignity in the wild 1860s. The game opens with the two playable brothers, Thomas and Ray, in a losing fight against the Union Army. After the brothers realize their family plantation is in trouble, they desert the Confederate army and head to the hills. When they arrive at their house, they discover burnt wood, a dead mother, and a grieving brother. Not good.

Vowing reconstruction, but wishing to avoid capture by the Confederate army and its dickhead commander, the three brothers journey west. Ray and Thomas change during this grand adventure: they become murderers and thieves — real outlaws.

But wait, that’s not all: in a late plot reveal, the brothers reckon the best way to put things back the way they used to be is through Aztec gold. Once the details are hammered out, two problems immediately present themselves: a woman and a high-strung general. Things spiral out of control because of these relationships throughout the game.

The story has interesting elements: deception, deceit, greed, moral disregard and even love. But the execution is poor and simplistic. The vehicles of the plot are the two brothers. Ray, the rough brother, speaks like a retard and seemingly has the same base motivations as a house cat. The thoughtful Thomas is no more interesting than cardboard. Even the woman — the prime mover of the love and deception in the game — is a flat, stereotypical feisty chick who eventually devolves into a slobbering mess. Boring metaphors and silly symbolism also appear at random intervals, making me laugh and wonder why Techland bothered with the two techniques.

Bound in Blood is all about the notion of the old untamed American West — a world Ray and Thomas successfully cut a swath through, leaving a pile of bodies and blood in their wake. The gunplay is no savior to the story — it’s archaic, at times veering into basic shooting gallery territory.

Here’s the deal: the game has a variety of old-school weaponry and has players utilize them in the same fashion as the protagonists of western flicks — two red-hot, smoking barrels. Every combat situation is a set-piece battle: a line of vigilantes or Native Americans pops up on top of movie set constructs or on the sandy (occasionally grassy) trails below them without fear of the oncoming hail of bullets. With this comes a sense of empowerment. I was always the death-dealer, but at the same time, it’s farcical. The AI isn’t smart and the levels are quite linear.

At the beginning of every mission, you’re given the choice of controlling either Ray or Thomas. Ray is the brawler of the two, able to use dual pistols; he’s best when you don’t care about making a mess. Thomas is a long-range guy who can climb and lasso his way through levels. The duality of approach worked for me. It changed the way I played the game and seemed better for it. However, it’s poorly realized: most missions break down into gunfights regardless of care, and for whatever reason, Bound in Blood can’t be played cooperatively — even though the other brother is typically nearby.

There are two things in the game’s campaign that I wanted to love dearly, but just couldn’t. The first is the bullet-time mechanic. As you kill dudes, a small bar fills, allowing you to slip into a supernatural, hyper-focused state in order to demolish lines of soldiers with a few button presses. At times, it’s a great system, perfect for clearing out a room or a nasty alleyway. But, again, the execution is poor. When you fill the bar, it doesn’t stay that way. A countdown timer starts immediately, giving you a little under a minute to initiate the focus mode before the counter needs to be refilled. There are several gaps in action and I found myself often without focus when I needed it the most. The other thing is the “Shootout.” Like old-school westerns, you’re given the ability to circle around a villain one-on-one in a classic scenario. The camera pans down to your character’s hand and when a bell rings, you grab for your gun and put the bad man down. Poor contextualization will make this one of the most frustrating portions of the game. I did it over ten times and never quite grasped where I was supposed to steer the hand. Sad, considering the Shootout could have served as a wonderful climactic end to a mission instead of the fumbling mess that it is.

The multiplayer works in the game’s favor, but don’t get too excited: it’s a basic component with some levels and characters stripped directly from the campaign. In it, you can play as either the “Bandits” or “Lawmen” across a variety of shoot-to-kill modes with simple objectives — kill this guy with a marker above his head, kill these dudes within a certain time frame, and so on. Surprisingly, it’s enjoyable. The gunplay feels better when characters are ducking, diving and running around. A nice bounty system (you’re rewarded with cash when you kill someone) ties into a basic upgrade system across a variety of mundane character classes. It has legs, but I’m not quite sure how long people will stick around. Some of the levels are much too large or convoluted for the simple mechanics and a few of the higher-level classes seemed a bit too powerful in my limited play.

Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood
isn’t a terrible game. On the contrary, it’s a game with a ton of unrealized potential that executes with the grain. The few times you’re allowed to travel on the open plains with a horse made me wish the entire experience was such. Defying the spirit it’s trying to capture, Call of Juarez is a tightly bound mediocre shooter with an uninteresting story, flat characters and boring AI. I’m a fan of western shooters, but I found nothing of substantial interest with this one. If you’re itching for some idiotic southern commentary or an opportunity to kill vigilantes (or Indians) with a six-shooter, give this a rental.

Score: 5.0

Anthony Burch (PC)

I have to disagree with Brad — Bound in Blood is probably a terrible game. I say “probably” because I cannot be sure to what degree my own familiarity with, and adoration for, the first game influences my feelings toward this sequel.

The original Call of Juarez was a flawed masterpiece; though half the game consisted of clunky stealth missions and overly linear level design, its intensely clever narrative and pleasing western aesthetics made it one of my favorite first-person shooters of all time.

After completing Bound in Blood over the course of a day, I have only one question: what the hell happened?

Noninteractive cut scenes? Two protagonists whose play styles are nearly indistinguishable? A narrative entirely devoid of urgency or weight, wrapped around awkward and unsatisfying gunplay? Who are you, and what have you done with Call of Juarez?

The first game alternated player control (without using cut scenes) between Reverend Ray, a balls-out gunfighter, and Billy Candle, a complete weakling. Though most of Billy’s levels pretty much sucked, they contrasted so sharply with Ray’s kill-a-thon sequences that a truly interesting dynamic between helplessness and power emerged that not only resulted in an interestingly paced campaign mode, but also endeared both protagonists to the player. That core structure, when combined with the simplistic-but-visceral gunplay, made Call of Juarez something bizarrely alluring.

None of that allure is present in Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood. The two playable characters have no interesting gameplay differences, apart from the fact that Thomas’ reliance on long-range weaponry makes him boring as hell. Since neither protagonist feels truly different from the other, the unusually satisfying pace of the first game is missing entirely; every mission feels pretty much like the last, tasking the player with blowing away hundreds of enemies with an occasional shooting gallery-esque sequence involving a cannon or a gatling gun.

The story meanders aimlessly from plot point to plot point, as poorly-motivated villains swear revenge for no real reason and the brothers find the flimsiest of excuses to get themselves into gunfights. Long, uninteresting cut scenes remove whatever narrative power might have been wrung from the ability to play as either brother at any time. The one plot point that Bound in Blood absolutely needed to nail — namely, Ray’s transformation from a murderer to a man of God — felt so abrupt and downright lazy in execution that I’m strongly tempted to call the entire story a complete wash.

Hell, even the gunfighting isn’t even fun anymore. A new automatic cover system has been added that awkwardly and immediately makes your character crouch behind any stationary object of sufficient height. While this initially seemed like a more streamlined version of the cover system found in nearly any modern shooter, it’s incredibly off-putting to go from a dead sprint to crouching two inches above the ground just because your character stopped in front of a barrel. The auto-cover constantly threw my sense of perspective and location, making gunfights a needlessly confusing affair. Even when I did manage to exit from my undesired cover, an equally clunky auto-aim system — which can’t be turned off, by the way — robbed me of whatever satisfaction I may have had from taking out literal armies of bandits and Injuns. And don’t even get me started on the quick-draw showdowns, in which the player must put their virtual hand as close to their virtual gun as possible until finally drawing when an invisible bell arbitrarily rings; though these showdowns might be intuitive on a console, they’re almost unplayable using a mouse and keyboard.

The multiplayer actually isn’t all that bad, though I take major issue with the inclusion of goddamned sniper rifles in a western game. The rest of the weapons feel adequately balanced for close and medium-range combat, but the sniper rifle threw at least one of the matches I played entirely out of whack. Apart from that one awkward design choice, however, I had a surprising amount of fun running around with dual revolvers, blasting away at bandits and lawmen alike.

Overall, Bound in Blood is unlike any sequel I’ve ever played. It literally feels as if Techland studied the original Call of Juarez, identified all the things that made it feel fresh and interesting, and intentionally left them out of the sequel. What was once a franchise of weirdly intoxicating half-successes has been turned into a dull, unsatisfying, originality-devoid shell of its former self. Regardless of whether you were a fan of the first game or not, Bound in Blood has almost nothing to offer you.

Score: 2.0

Combined Score: 3.5 — Poor (3s went wrong somewhere along the line. The original idea might have promise, but in practice the game has failed. Threatens to be interesting sometimes, but rarely.)

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