Editor’s Note: As some of you know, I’m on staff as a game reviewer for the electronic entertainment site, Avault.com. I intend to publish all of my reviews on these pages to insure I have a full record of everything I’ve written. If you haven’t read this before, enjoy!!!
Westerns – those tall tales of the Wild West – are solely an American invention yet some of the best myth building has come from outside eyes. It was Sergio Leone, the Italian director, who placed Clint Eastwood on the map and embellished the legend of The Man with No Name in his series of blood-drenched Spaghetti Westerns that flickered on screens in the Sixties. While Americans took these oaters for granted and after awhile rolled their eyes at the creaky conventions that defined the form, it took an outsider to really spy the core attraction inherent in these tales of the good, the bad and the ugly deeds men do and pump them up to operatic majesty.
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 title that ushered in this current generation of video games. Taking a page from Leone’s playbook, it was a niche that Polish developer Techland exploited a couple years back with their original release, Call of Juarez. That title, a first person shooter, benefited immensely from Techland’s insistence on building a strong narrative around this aging archetype and by following Leone’s lead in crafting a hero shaded in gray – the memorable Reverand Ray. Well, Ray is back, toting along his brothers’ McCall in the recently released Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood.
The new title, a prequel to the original, casts the player in the role 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 looking to seek fortune and glory – a desperate, winding path that eventually puts them in league with the Mexican outlaw Juan and his obsession 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 while a group of fierce Apache warriors stand determined to prevent anyone from obtaining this treasure.
The dense narrative crafted by Techland sets the stage for a heavily scripted, yet thrilling, FPS adventure where the player can choose to take control of either Ray or his brother Thomas, each of whom come equipped with character specific abilities, 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 will slow down and afford the player the option to pursue side quests in a bid to earn extra cash by taking on bounty missions. The cash can then be used to upgrade or purchase new weapons that can then be utilized in the multiplayer modes. On the online front, Call of Juarez offers a decent variety of deathmatch and objective based modes – most notably the Wild West Legends skirmishes that place teams of Outlaws against Lawmen – tasking the Outlaws with perpetuating a series of crimes (i.e. rob the town bank then blow up a barrier to escape the village while the lawmen seek to carry out their frontier justice and prevent the baddies from leaving with the loot.)
Ubisoft has really emerged in the last few years as a great publishing house that rewards some risky development choices and encourages pushing 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, and here they follow a similar path in promoting Techland’s tale of vengeance. Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood, while providing a challenging game play experience also tells a compelling story – one of the better Western tales to be told in the last few years. The characters of Ray and Thomas are surprisingly well-defined and the complexity of their relationship as the game progresses provides for some surprising payoff later in the title. It really pushes the player to soldier through the thrilling encounters in order to see where the tale will turn next.
That said, we’re here for the game and Call of Juraez: Bound in Blood doesn’t disappoint. It’s a real improvement over its cult hit predecessor, no doubt buoyed by the killer visuals afforded by Techland’s proprietary Chrome Engine 4 which allows for some realistic character animations and impressive draw distance – an important feature that helps extend these dusty desert vistas for miles. As mentioned, players have the choice before each chapter of playing as Ray and Thomas – each of whom have slightly differing abilities (Thomas is best with a rifle while Ray packs a punch with both his fists and dynamite). The fact that you play alongside the 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 its something that really would have benefited this title.
There are so many first person shooters on the market that it really takes something special to merit must play status for any new adventure. While I’m a firm proponent that serious game players typically find a favorite online shooter and stick with it until the next installment arrives (see the Halo and Call of Duty series for a perfect example), titles like 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 us his tortured back story – allowing the players to guide he and his brother through a grand adventure. Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood is a tale worth listening to and more importantly… playing.