Genre: First Person Shooter
Release date: Available now
Westerns–those tall tales of the Wild West–are an American invention, yet some of the best myth building has come from outside sources. It was Italian director Sergio Leone who placed Clint Eastwood on the map as The Stranger With No Name in his series of blood-drenched Spaghetti Westerns from the 1960s. While Americans took these oaters for granted and rolled their eyes at the creaky conventions that defined the form, it took an outsider to see the core attraction in these tales of the good, the bad and the ugly things men do and pump them up to operatic majesty. And while the world of cinema has long ushered its heroes towards that triumphant ride into the sunset, the video-game world has merely dabbled in the genre from time to time, most notably in the old Konami arcade side-scroller Sunset Riders and Gun, the Neversoft epic that ushered in this current generation of Western-themed games. Taking a page from Leone’s playbook, Polish developer Techland exploited this niche a couple of years back with their original release, Call of Juarez. This FPS benefited immensely from the developer’s decision to build a strong narrative around an aging archetype, following Leone’s lead in crafting a hero shaded in gray: the memorable Reverand Ray. Well, Ray is back, and he’s brought his brother along for the ride in Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood.
This prequel casts the player in the roles of Ray McCall and his brother, Thomas, two Confederate soldiers who go AWOL when they learn that the Yanks have sacked their family estate. Determined to rebuild their homestead, they make tracks for the wild west seeking fortune and glory, a desperate, winding path that eventually puts them in league with the Mexican outlaw Juan, who’s obsessed with hunting down a lost cache of cursed Aztec gold. This puts the McCalls in a precarious position: as their Confederate commanders hunt them down, a group of fierce Apache warriors stands determined to prevent anyone from finding the treasure.
The dense narrative crafted by Techland sets the stage for a heavily scripted, yet thrilling, FPS adventure in which the player can choose to control either Ray or Thomas, each of whom has character-specific abilities (Thomas is best with a rifle, while Ray packs a punch with both his fists and dynamite) as they fight the forces hunting them down. While the game owes a debt to the Call of Duty series, forever pushing the McCalls into highly cinematic scrapes, from time to time it slows down and gives you the option to take on bounty missions to earn extra cash, which can be used to upgrade or purchase new weapons to use in the multiplayer modes. On the online front, Bound in Blood offers a decent variety of deathmatch and objective-based scenarios. Most notable of these are the Wild West Legends skirmishes that place teams of Outlaws against Lawmen, tasking the Outlaws with perpetrating a series of crimes (Outlaws rob the town bank, then blow up a barrier to make their escape), while the Lawmen seek to enforce frontier justice and prevent the baddies from leaving with the loot.
Ubisoft has emerged in the last few years as a publishing house that rewards some risky development choices and pushes the boundaries of narrative construction in game design. Last summer, they published the fantastic Gearbox WWII tale Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway, which told a highly cinematic tale seemingly ripped from the HBO series “Band of Brothers.” With Bound in Blood the publisher follows a similar path in promoting Techland’s compelling story of vengeance, combining a challenging gameplay experience with one of the better Western yarns to be spun in the last few years. The characters of Ray and Thomas are surprisingly well defined, and the complexity of their relationship that emerges as the game progresses provides for a surprising payoff near the end. It really pushes the player to soldier through the thrilling encounters to see how the tale will turn next.
That said, we’re here for the game, and Bound in Blood doesn’t disappoint. It’s a real improvement compared to its cult hit predecessor, no doubt buoyed by the killer visuals afforded by Techland’s proprietary Chrome Engine 4. The engine allows for some realistic character animations and impressive draw distances, an important feature that helps extend the dusty desert vistas for miles. But the fact that you play alongside your AI-controlled brother reveals one big miss on Techland’s part. This game is screaming for online co-op and yet, outside of the competitive multiplayer modes (including the addictive Wild West Legends scenarios), there is no option for you and a buddy to guide the McCalls through their adventure. I’m not sure if that could be remedied through a patch, but it’s something that really would’ve been a plus.
There are so many first-person shooters on the market that it takes something special to merit must-play status for any new adventure. While I’m a firm believer that serious gamers typically find a favorite online shooter and stick with it until the next installment arrives (see the Halo and Call of Duty series for perfect examples), games such as Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood can leap from the pack by bringing something unique to the table. Techland has done just that by taking their breakout antihero Reverand Ray and telling his tortured backstory, allowing you to guide him and his brother through a grand adventure. Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood is a tale worth hearing and, more importantly, playing.
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