Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood Review
The underlying theme of Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood is as follows: a beautiful woman can be deadlier than any bullet. When Ray and Thomas McCall first laid eyes on the lovely Marisa in Mexico, it was the beginning of a widening rift between the two brothers; a rift that would eventually end in blood. But well before this unfortunate – yet perhaps timeless – event, we follow the McCall brothers through the latter stages of the Civil War and watch as they become colder, harder, and more willing to gratify their basest desires rather than retain any scruples or morals. Their younger brother, who just so happens to be a priest, tags along on their adventures and watches helplessly as his kin shun both divine and manmade laws, all in the pursuit of a woman and vast wealth. Greed and love can divide even the closest of friends and relations, and this concept alone is worthy of your attention, even if the game can’t be classified as a top-quality “AAA” title. However, despite our complaints and the technical drawbacks, Bound in Blood is a solid and entertaining Western shooter.
The graphics excel in the areas of character design and detail, and although the particle effects aren’t a shining example of technical proficiency, the backgrounds and environments are well depicted and often a pleasure to behold. Techland really did an excellent job in presenting the dusty barrenness of the 19th-century Old West and Mexican territories, and we even get the benefit of the occasional mini-sandstorm. There’s great consistency and variety throughout the visual presentation, as you will enjoy the dingy back alleys of a small Mexican town just as well as the cornfields of the Western US. Character detail really is a highlight, although the synching of voices with lip movements is downright atrocious; for the record, we have yet to see a game do this better than Heavenly Sword. But if you can get past this latter drawback and simply focus on the gameplay graphics, you’ll likely be satisfied – and maybe even impressed – with the majority of your quest. There are almost no glitches of any kind and for the most part, Call of Juarez is both pretty and atmospheric.
The sound has its fair share of highlights as well, but it’s less consistent and the balance during intense firefights is questionable at best. The explosion of dynamite should sound like more than a dull “thud” and we kinda wanted more in the way of cries and threats; after all, we are in the appropriate time period, right? Our weapons always resound with sharp cracks and distant sound also appears to be of a high quality, but the soundtrack is almost non-existent and we didn’t always get the thrilling sensation of being involved in a massive do-or-die gunfight. Some sounds just didn’t take center-stage when they should’ve and we really could’ve used more music tracks. The voice acting is good, though, even if the voices are – again – out of balance with the sound effects during gameplay. We’d like to say that Bound in Blood sounds exactly as it should, but while it’s close, it’s notably lacking in several areas, which puts a bit of a damper on the overall experience. Still, we won’t get into a major twist over such moderate complaints.
Before you even take one step in this game, there’s something very important you should know: this isn’t a super fast-paced sci-fi FPS, and your characters are in no way superheroes. Hence, there are no massively destructive weapons, the weapons you do have aren’t absurdly fast or powerful, and jumping down from a height that would cause a regular human some pain will hurt you. Reloading can take a while, too many point-blank bullets will result in a quick death, and you won’t find some alien sniper rifle that can pick desperadoes off from three miles away. Therefore, while there will always be a certain amount of reckless abandon – as there should be – you should definitely approach each situation with a degree of caution, and the understanding that you are indeed human. Once you’ve got this through your head, you’ll be much better off. Of course, perhaps even the developers themselves thought this sounded a little bland, so they tossed in cool stuff like Concentration, scripted fast-firing techniques, and a little cooperation between the brothers. Oh, and let’s not forget the all-important one-on-one duels; this is a Western, remember?
The game plays like a straightforward FPS but there are a few significant mechanical and control alterations. For instance, the cover mechanic may take some getting used to- instead of hitting a button to dive into cover near a wall or behind a box, you simply use the right analog to duck. This unique method of taking cover is both beneficial and detrimental. See, by utilizing the right analog to slowly rise above that aforementioned box or peer around a wall, you have full control over how much of your body is prone to opposing fire. This works extremely well, especially when holding down L1 to zoom in; you just have to remember that you have to actively return to your position of cover. It isn’t like many third-person shooter mechanics where you simply press a button to snap out of cover and release it to return to safety. This leads us to the downside: because you can’t “snap” into cover, it can often take too long to really solidify your position, and we unfortunately found ourselves exposed when we didn’t realize we were exposed. Even so, once you’ve got a firm handle on it, the cover system shouldn’t prove to be too problematic.
We still think the standard cover mechanic would’ve worked a little better for this game, but that’s okay. Getting back to what we just said about obtaining a “firm handle” on that cover control, it’s a primary theme that runs throughout Call of Juarez. Take, for example, the Concentration moments: after gunning down enough enemies, you briefly get the option to use Concentration, which acts like an expanded version of the bullet-time feature in Max Payne. Basically, time slows allowing you to select your targets with the right analog stick, and when time kicks back in, your character lets loose with a deadly volley that takes down any enemies you targeted. There are other scripted fast-shot techniques, too. For instance, when escaping the town on a stagecoach, you’ll be asked to aim and fire at multiple targets with a pistol in each hand. This means you have to be ambidextrous; you have to aim with both the right and left analog sticks, and shoot with both the L1 and R1 buttons. It’s going to take some practice, but thankfully, you don’t have to be perfect in order to succeed. Now, we don’t mind a little in the way of learning, but the duels may take the idea just a bit too far…
The idea is fantastic: when entering a duel, the camera shifts to below your waist and you only see your right hand hovering near your pistol, and your opponent standing across from you. You control your hand with the right analog; bringing it in close to the gun will cause your fingers to wriggle in the “ready” position, and when the bell rings, you have to draw and fire (all with the right analog stick). But at the same time, you need to keep an eye on your opponent, who will move slowly back and forth in classic showdown fashion, and you have to move in the opposite direction to keep him clearly in your sights. If you don’t, he will become blurry and you don’t want to be in that position when it’s time to draw. The only problem is that Techland really shouldn’t have focused so heavily on the right analog stick for this, because not only do we have to control the hand and draw, we also have to aim with it in this mode. Fortunately, if you just leave Auto-Aim on, things will probably turn out all right if you manage to draw your weapon. But that’s the key: if you can draw. It’s just not a reliable mechanic and you will often fail to draw the gun at all, thereby resulting in your immediate death.
It just doesn’t work that great, plain and simple. The good news is that you can always try again right from the start of the duel, and you may stumble across a particular technique that works best for you. In our case, we kept the hand low and just to the right of the gun, then jabbed left quickly to draw the gun, then pushed up to aim. You could also have the hand hover closer to your body and just above the weapon, but then you’d have to push down on the analog to draw the gun, and then up to aim (too cumbersome, in our opinion). Even once we figured this out, though, we still needed several tries in most every duel. This being said, the game really is fun and flows along at a fantastic pace. You’ll be in the Civil War one moment and firing upon banditos and Indians the next; your adventure will include riding stagecoaches, using your lasso in true cowboy fashion, and even utilizing a wee bit of stealth via throwing knives. You will become involved in clichéd shootout locations, too; the saloon, the dusty, windblown town roads, the Southwest landscape, etc, etc, etc. You can duel wield several different kinds of pistols, utilize rifles and shotguns, and in general, wreak havoc.
There’s really nothing more invigorating than standing on one side of a door while your brother waits on the other side, then busting through and firing like mad on the enemies within. There’s just so much about this game that is vintage Western, and really, that’s the primary appeal, here. The controls are a little iffy and take some definite getting used to, there are a few technical slipups (that damn voice synching is just terrible), and dueling might frustrate the heck out of you, but the pluses definitely outweigh the negatives. It looks very good, the storyline isn’t bad at all, the characters are interesting (the fact that the two brothers are better at certain things definitely adds a lot to the experience), and best of all, the authenticity is what drives everything forward. It’s not a simulator, per se, but it always feels right, despite a few small frame rate hitches when big explosions rock the screen. If it isn’t worth the full price of admission, it’s close-
Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood is absolutely worth a look, especially considering the fact that July and August are looking pretty thin in terms of high-profile releases. It’s not long and it’s not the best shooter you’ll play in 2009, but it uses several unique concepts, presents us with a very enjoyable atmosphere, and remains mostly entertaining throughout. It just needed a bit more polish and refinement with the controls for us to wholeheartedly recommend it.
7/7/2009 Ben Dutka