Review – Call of Juarez II: Bound in Blood
Pick up the gun…
The Old West has got to be up there as one of the most underused settings for a video game FPS. Instead it seems that every other FPS will have you playing through WWII, hunting down modern day terrorists or exploring underwater dystopian cities with psychic powers with the hopes of harvesting magical slugs from little girls. Westerns have provided myself with lots of fun in the past, Outlaws (C64), Sunset Riders (Arcade) and Oddworld: Strangers Wrath (XB) rank among some of my favourite games and as such it was with a great deal of enthusiasm I bought Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood to see if could meet my expectations.
Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood (a prequel to 2007’s Call of Juarez) has you playing as the McCall brothers, Ray and Thomas, two veterans of the Southern Confederate Army who fought in the American Civil War. Before the war is over they go AWOL in order to head back home to defend the family homestead; unsuccessfully. Branded traitors by the Confederacy they go on the run along with their pacifist, preacher brother William and after causing enough trouble in the towns they pass through they head south of the border looking for gold. There is more to the story but it’s not exactly complex stuff, along the way the brothers befriend a bandit leader named Juarez (the adversary from the original Call of Juarez), some of the Native Americans and of course a sultry Femme Fatale who quickly stirs up conflict amongst the brothers. And so you start off working with bandits and injuns alike trying to find clues to the location of the treasure.
The characters are voiced superbly, in particular the in game interactions between the brothers. Half compassion, half bitching at each other is a joy to hear, especially with Marc Alaimo (geek ref) reprising his role as Ray McCall. The story may not be Oscar wining but there are a couple of in game scenes that nearly drew a tear to my eye as the three brothers relationship becomes strained over the journey. The levels in the game are for the most part remarkably non-linear, however your objective direction is clearly marked on screen. If you do decide to go exploring, your AI brother(s) will not follow you and moving too far away from them will result in a GAME OVER. Environments range from Western style and Mexican towns, Indian Hunting grounds, Battlefields and the inevitable Aztec Temple and are all very well reproduced.
The start of nearly every level will allow you to choose which brother to play as and for the most part the experience is quite different depending on your character. Thomas is designed to be a bit more stealthy with his throwing knives, a Bow and Arrow, two pistols (non dual wielding) and either a shotgun or rifle. Thomas can also clamber over certain high objects and also carries a lasso which at certain parts during game will allow him to ascend to a greater vantage point. Ray is more the ‘close quarters’ tough guy with his Dual Wielding Pistols, Dynamite and he can also carry either a shotgun or rifle. Ray can also kick down some locked doors, thus providing alternate routes through levels. It is a good concept â€“ being provided with alternate characters with different weapons and abilities to tackle the different levels but to be honest it feels somewhat ‘limp’. Thomas’s climbing is rarely used because these is no indication of what surfaces and walls will allow you to actually climb over them and his lasso is very rarely used in game. Having the knives and bow to use as silent weapons is also a nice idea but there is no way to effectively sneak up on enemies aside from the knives tutorial at the start of the game. As for his supposed advantage to be able to dispatch enemies from afar this will be pretty much made null and void when you realise Ray can also carry rifles.
Combat during the game is incredibly enjoyable (even when you hopefully turn off the very generous auto and stick-aim feature from the options) whether you are running about guns ablazing or using your characters adaptive cover skill. Basically moving next to the corner of a wall, building, rocks or stack of crates will automatically ‘stick’ you (very lightly) to said cover, from here you need just use the right stick to peek out, aim and shoot. It’s incredibly useful to do â€“ popping out every now and then (a la Time Crisis) to take pot shots at the enemies and it’s as realistic as you can imagine; this is also useful to recover your not so realistic recharging health. The cover system is essential for the latter difficulty levels but you’d be a fool not to use it for just a first time play through â€“ the bad guys won’t hesitate.
By killing the bad guys each of the brothers will build up their ‘concentration mode’ â€“ a variation on bullet time. When the meter is full you enter concentration mode with a quick jab of the B button which gives each of the brothers a chance to dish out the hot lead in a unique way. Ray will cause time to practically stand still (for about 8 seconds), during this time you use the targeting reticule to ‘paint’ any of the near by enemies/targets so that after the 8 seconds, Ray dispatches everyone targeted with lightning fast reflexes. Thomas enters the mode in the same way but just requires you to hold the rigger and flick the right stick on the pad downwards (like the hammer of a pistol) as quick as possible until all nearby attackers are horizontal. Rays attack requires an accurate thumb to target the enemies but can be used at range, Thomas’s attack just requires fast ‘stick flicking’ (ooh-err) but can only target near by enemies.
This is a rough and ready, gritty adventure in the way that a good cowboy game should be.
Unfortunately, all the ambition is sullied by some downright stupid design decisions. The first level is quite possibly the hardest in the game, dynamite is constantly flying everywhere like a Bugs Bunny cartoon, the cover system is so broken and fiddly you end up ignoring it, and the showdowns… oh man, the showdowns.
Sure, part of being an outlaw is having quickdraw showdowns, but these crop up far too often and are annoying as hell. It really killed my enthusiasm fighting through an exciting level and then having to attempt the showdown bit at the end 20 times â€“ especially as the guys you’re duelling are backstabbing lowlifes who don’t deserve the dignity of a fair fight.
These faults don’t manage to spoil the rest of the game, however, which is excellent fun. There’s a huge assortment of authentic guns and weapons, the scenery is absolutely spectacular and it really does feel like you’ve gone back in time 150 years. There are two fairly crude ‘open world’ sections where you ride through huge landscapes shooting bandits and earning money, and these break up the more linear chapters nicely. The sections where you use a horse in anger are excellent too â€“ galloping along furiously while blasting baddies is magnificent.
The story is largely forgettable â€“ it’s confusing and sprawling so as to allow the developers to showcase as many western clichÃ©s as possible â€“ but you’ll be having too much fun charging through frontier towns with a six shooter in each hand to care. With a few refinements â€“ a co-op mode (you play through the whole thing with your AI controlled brother, for goodness’ sake, just let us control him too!), some hand to hand combat (NPCs can wallop you but you can’t return the favour) and a lot less showdowns, this would be the perfect cowboy game. As it stands, it’s the best in its neglected genre and well worth saddling up for.
Secondary Score: 7/10
The majority of levels will end with a one on one duel, simplistic at first but it will take you a while to master. You use the left stick to slowly circle around your opponent, strafing left and right, all the while keeping your opponent in the centre of your screen. During this time you use the right stick to move your hand closer to your holster, grab your gun too fast and you won’t be able to control it for a second or two. With your opponent centred perfectly and your hand as close to the holster as possible you have to waitâ€¦ until the bell tolls â€“ at which point you reach for your gun and as soon as the red targeting reticule automatically reaches the enemy you pull the trigger. As I said this is remarkably difficult later on in the game but is immensely satisfying to pull off successfully, made all the sweeter with the fact that 9/10 times you will end up shooting the guy directly in the crotch.
Multiplayer is (as standard nowadays) included in the form of the usual competitive game modes, Death match, Team Death match, Wanted (each team must protect their wanted man), Wild West Legends (objective based attack/defend locations) etc. For the most part it is pretty competent which I was even able to enjoy for a while, but as we all know XBL is pretty much tainted with twats and camping mo-fo’s. All the modes operate the bounty system; the better you play during a round, the higher the bounty on your head, the more cash someone gets for killing you. Money is used in the MP modes to upgrade your character a few levels, thus making them a bit faster and healthier but the money is also used to unlock more character classes to play as.
If I had to point out a particular flaw I would have to say it was the fact the brothers aren’t different enough for my liking. Even just making Ray the only shotgun user and Thomas the rifle man might have been enough but I would have really appreciated having Thomas’s stealth mechanics and lasso abilities to be more frequently used. If a little more effort was given to this aspect I’d happily bump the score up a notch. Despite this I thoroughly enjoyed each play through the game.
Call of Juarez is an exemplary FPS which really doesn’t do much wrong. I don’t imagine the online modes are going to wow anyone but single player was fast paced, frantic and fun â€“ a must for any FPS fan whether they enjoy shooting people in the crotch or not.