Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood Review
A solid single player western shooter that improves as it progresses with lots of action, great cutscenes and memorable characters.
Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood is the prequel to the 2006 western shooter and it features gameplay split between the two McCall brothers, Ray and Thomas. Ray returns in this prequel alongside his brother who makes up two of the three McCall brothers. The Bound in Blood tale takes place in the civil war front lines in the 1860s and also sees the McCalls travelling to Arkansas and Mexico in search of the lost treasure of Juarez. Most of the gameplay elements from the original remains including the chase scenes, the pistol duels and mad gun slinging of the west. There is far less stealth sections in this prequel however, some may certainly prefer it that way. This time around you have the recharging health mechanic that serves to keep the action flowing quickly. The two McCall brothers are both playable characters and unlike the sequel the player can select either before the mission starts for most of the game. The differences between them are not dramatic but the additional choice is nice and perhaps offers a bit of extra variety for those wanting to play through the some of the missions again. Bound in Blood offers a great story, memorable characters in a series of fun missions.
Thomas and Ray act a little bit like Billy and Ray from the first game. Thomas is designed as the long range, stealthier and nimble brother who carries knives and a bow for quiet kills. Ray is the brute force dual gun slinging McCall that likes it close and bloody. Even this is quite appropriately reflected by their characters in the game. Thankfully the wonderful voice actor for Ray returns, who does an outstanding job with the characters expressions and clarity. Thomas and the other major characters are suitable voiced, with some of the smaller characters sounding quite out of place in comparison. Ray’s dual guns have a semi auto aim function; they will lock onto nearby enemies needing only a simple mouse click to finish the foe off. This makes the chase scenes work a bit better as previously hitting a moving target while moving at a fairly rapid pace was slightly frustrating. This lock on implementation perhaps was chosen because at medium range they would lack the accuracy, but other techniques such as faster reload could have been used instead of this sticky aim feature. Thomas also gets the lasso, like Billy he can use it to latch to objects and climb up to places Ray cannot. Sadly the lasso seems like an afterthought, a little icon will show up on objects you can latch. But you need to swirl your mouse a few times before you can latch on and it hasn’t received any functionality upgrades and is used sparingly throughout the game which is mainly about the gun fights.
The special gun mechanics have been slightly altered for the prequel. Concentration modes for both Ray and Thomas have been changed, but not necessarily for the better. In the original for Ray this meant that two crosshairs would move from the edge of view towards the centre in slow motion. Simply clicking fire for either pistol would then fire a bullet at the point of the crosshair. This device has now been taken away from concentration and is now used for storming through doors during scripted segments of which there are quite a few. These parts involve joining your brother at a door and then bursting through while the game kicks you into slow motion. The general gameplay concentration modes have been changed to lock-on targeting systems with a counter. The skill required to perform these moves has been reduced which seems to take out some enjoyment. Ray’s concentration now simply places lots of targets over the enemy with a simple mouse hover. Once the mode is finished Ray will unload a stream of bullets at the targets in reverse order, wiping out all the enemies in the area unless they were behind cover. Thomas’ concentration mode is even less involving, a click and pull of the mouse makes him automatically target and fire at enemies instantly. The new modes seem more powerful than in the original game so to offset this they included a timer. Not only do you need to be within range to engage concentration but you need to do it before the clock runs out. This decision is rather perplexing given many players may prefer a stealthier approach. Early on my timer ran out when I was nowhere near any enemies. It would have been better to add some more skill back to these modes and have them used more often.
The changes to general gunplay and concentration modes, specifically the auto aiming, were disappointing at first but they quickly become a non-issue as I progressed. The rest of the game seems to be a genuine improvement over the original. The chase scenes, one where I was defending from inside stagecoach and another involving a canoe, a river and natives, are enjoyable and well placed. The enemy and friendly AI is fairly competent and only once did Ray stand in front of me while I was shooting enemies. The AI takes cover and doesn’t pop up in a predictable fashion for an easy kill although sometimes their spawns are a bit obvious when you aggressively push forward. The Graphics are still pretty good and they seem to improve as the game progresses partly due to the level design but also the variety. The locations range from the clean dusty Mexico, the streets of the slimy rain soaked shanty town and the green leafy landscapes of the civil war front. In particular the faces of the main characters look quite good and with a bit more lip syncing the in game cinematics would have been highly impressive. It’s a little bit of a shame that faces are reused a bit too much in the game for enemies, although most of the time you don’t get close enough to see them. The voices of the standard foes are also reused which brings back a bit of the cheap feel to the game. The sound of the gunfights is quite good and there are quite a few explosives that blow up during these fights.
As a western tale of family and loyalty Bound in Blood offers something interesting and simple enough to be successful. The third McCall – William – tells most of the story through his eyes and his generally unfavourable opinions of his brothers. During the loading screens between missions short sketches are presented with narration from William on past and upcoming events. It’s a fairly old technique but it works well here, William’s voice is good enough to convey most of the story clearly. It’s good that the load times are very reasonable so you won’t be forced to listen to the narration again if you perish. The game has auto saves which can be a bit too far spaced out so the occasional quick save comes in handy. For those that have played the original the story unfolds with a few nice links to the events you have seen. In particular the later levels in the game are very similar to what you saw in the first game. The game does have quite a lot of secrets scattered in chests or about levels, I only came across about a dozen of these but I was not really looking for them. These secrets unlock art and memories, the memories being the most interesting with short audio tales from the main characters that add a little bit to the overall story. The ending was fairly satisfactory and all the loose ends were tied up.
Between the main story missions the game gives you the opportunity to take a little breather twice. They place you next to a gun merchant outpost where you can upgrade your equipment but this outpost also offers you bounties for completing a few side quests. There are about three of these mini quests available to perform at each of these pit stops. They offer monetary rewards to buy better weapons or more ammo for dynamite or knife throwing. The open layout of these missions show off the power of the Chrome 4.0 engine, large worlds with no loading where you will need to use a horse to complete the reward quests in suitable time. Most of the main levels do have large areas but you won’t see them because you’ll be in the streets of towns or going down roads flanked by mountains either side. The quests in these open sections are pretty basic, essentially you travel to a location and wipe out a gang of enemies. On the way to the farm or homestead you will encounter some battles on the roads which you can engage in or avoid. Once at your destination you can then enjoy killing a gang of outlaws for cash, most of the quests finishes after you take on the leader in a duel. These sections do indeed break up the flow of the more close quarter’s style of the story levels and they also let you get some cash to be prepared for more enemies in the later missions. The open sections can be completely avoided if you don’t really like them but it’s nice to have them there. It certainly raises the question whether Bound in Blood would have succeeded as an open world style shooter, but for now they are just fun diversions to the solid story.
Some of the best segments seem to be just the simple parts in the streets against gun slingers who come out from the shadow of a building into the scorching sunlight with their arm held at length with pistol in hand. The general gameplay seems to get better in the second half of the game, perhaps because it grows on you. Introduced with the gunfights is a new natural cover system. Around any corners you can lightly “stick” to the corner and then peek around the corner keeping most of your body behind cover. The same can be done behind boxes or smaller objects, in this case simply moving the mouse backward brings one of the McCall brothers into semi crouch, moving forward will make him peek out above the object. This natural cover system works pretty well, it doesn’t impede your movements much or your vision, it’s one of the better implementations of cover in a first person game I’ve seen; lean really is no longer needed with this system. It does have a problem around windows and smaller objects like posts. The other change is with the duels, this time viewed from directly behind the character focusing on the hand and the pistol pouch. Moving the mouse will move your hand, and when the bell goes off all you need to do is more the mouse fast, watch the cursor and fire. This implementation works well and is quite entertaining. It’s used at the end of the open missions or at key points in the story. These duels get harder as you progress, so you’ll have to work to keep your hand close to the pouch and move around to keep your enemy in the centre of the target zone.
Techland have succeeded in polishing the single player too, the chase scenes feel natural and everything flows together. In one situation I was escorting a convoy and stopped dead in front of them. Expecting to be pushed aside or disappear through them I was surprised when the convoy stopped and told me to get out of the way. Ray and Thomas will make sly jabs at each other during gunfights, usually these are well timed and aren’t repeated too much. In most first person games I prefer to play alone but Bound in Blood makes it enjoyable to fight with your brother. The differences between the McCalls are minor but enough to make you think about which one you’d rather play as. Thomas has a neat arrow that slows time briefly and can pack some serious punch especially against the apaches when they often drop lots of arrows. Ray takes more damage and can really get amongst it without as much trouble. The story also flows well, with characters returning aptly, good use of cutscenes and the basic story is delivered genuinely well. The game finished aptly and the second half works much better than the first half. On completion the game will be about the same length as the original which took me about seven hours including all the missions in the open sections. Anxious to try some multiplayer I was disappointed when I simply could not join any game no matter when or what server I tried. In its current state I would classify the multiplayer as broken and make no guarantees of it being fixed soon. Even if it’s fixed I’m not sure it would have huge player numbers like other games which greatly reduces its playability. If multiplayer is not your concern then Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood is a mighty fine game.