The Western is something uniquely American, so it was surprising to see it brought to life by Polish developer Techland. Call of Juarez was a line in the sand as one of the first titles to utilize the now fairly standard DirectX 10. Utilizing a branching storyline to tell the story of Reverend Ray and Billy Candle, the game was received moderately well. Reverend Ray could utilize a dual-targeting system combined with slow motion to take out groups of enemies, and Billy could snipe, use a bow, and reach otherwise unreachable areas with his trusty whip. Another new element was the quick draw system that had players recreating Dirty Harry moments by drawing their gun at high noon to gun down their enemies. Any shortcomings of the game were technical, as the storyline was solid. The game was very worthy of a sequel, but we have been waiting empty handed since 2006. Well, the wait is over – let’s find out if it is worth the wait.
Reverend Ray had a checkered past. Given that he suffered mortal wounds at the end of Call of Juarez, this story of Ray McCall and his brother Thomas is obviously a prequel. The game begins with Ray and Thomas looking down the barrels of their guns at each other. Obviously something pretty severe has transpired to bring them to this point. Younger brother William hides behind Thomas as they shield a young Mexican girl from Ray’s wrath. Finding out what brought these three brothers to the bring of disaster is the majority of the story. From their involvement in the Civil War, the defense of their family home, and their eventual pursuit of the lost gold of Juarez, the storyline in Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood is even better than its predecessor. From start to the all-too-quick finish, Call of Juarez is compelling storytelling.
On the technical side of things, Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood utilizes and entirely new game engine. The Chrome 4 engine powers not only this title, but also Chrome 2, Dead Island, and Warhound. I’ve not seen how the other titles perform, but there are some fantastic eye candy bits to this new toybox. From motion blur, distance blurring, a healthy dose of Ansitropic Filtering, high dynamic range lighting, per pixel lighting, soft shadows, depth of field, awesome cloth simulation, and so much more come stock with this engine, and they are utilized to great effect on the title. There is no doubt that this is one of the best looking titles on the Xbox 360 to date. The only marks against Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood are the obvious bitmap backgrounds, and an occasional but infrequent framerate hitch during heavy firefights. The large playground feel is lost when you can see the obviously drawn edges, as well as that ‘hitch’ in your step.
To get the best looking games running on any platform, players will usually have to endure long load times. More recently, developers have been utilizing streaming to mask loading. Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood seems to utilize a streaming system, but also has a loading sequence prior to the level. To mask this loading sequence, Techland utilizes hand-drawn storyboarding coupled with narration to fill in the setup for the upcoming area. In the end, you’ll never even notice the loading.
Voice actor Marc Alaimo handed in a fantastic performance as Reverend Ray in the first Call of Juarez title, so it was awesome to see him return to the role as a young Ray McCall. Joined by Zach Hanks (he voiced Captain Macmillan in Call of Duty 4 in the flashback mission “One Shot, One Kill”), the voice work is pretty solid in this sequel. The only thing that was a little off-putting was a bit of repetition in the ‘filler’ voice work during firefights, and the occasional poorly-delivered bit of swearing.
As the game unfolds you’ll be given the option to play as either Ray or Thomas. Ray is the stronger brother, able to wield some of the larger weapons including the massive Gatling gun and sticks of dynamite, whereas Thomas has a more subtle approach, utilizing knives and bow for stealth, or his bullwhip to reach higher ground for sniping. This obviously creates a bit of replay value as both characters play significantly different, meaning a totally different experience on the second run. This is a good thing since the game is roughly 8 hours long on the single player side of things. What surprised me is how quickly the game fell into a familiar pattern.
By the second act of the game you’ll be able to see the pattern that’ll unfold for the bulk of the game. You’ll spend a short while exploring an area as Ray or Thomas, then you’ll have to do a few slow-motion dual-targeting sequences to empty a room, a touch more exploring, and then an inevitable duel. Every level plays out with this sequence, minus some ‘hub’ levels that offer some more free-form exploring and missions as well as the chance to buy some new weapons. Unfortunately these hub missions feel like they are ‘tacked on’ to break things up, which it does only to a small effect. Similarly, the gun upgrades feel so infrequent that they tend to pile up at the end instead of running a natural course throughout the game. This lack of variety is masked only slightly by the compelling storyline.
On the multiplayer side of things, there are several team-based modes as well as some objective based modes. These are fairly familiar in execution, but there are some twists. In most multiplayer games you get the same ‘points’ for killing a highly skilled player as you would for a newbie. In Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood you’ll actually earn more cash by taking out those skilled outlaws – a sort of bounty system that will compel players to work together to take down the top dogs. The multiplayer modes are fairly familiar if you’ve played any recent online shooters, but the way the game plays in modes like Wild West Legends requires cooperative work to seize, destroy, secure, etc. various objectives on the map. It’s not unlike CounterStrike, and that’s a high compliment. There are eight maps based loosely on legendary gunfights including the fabled O.K. Corral. Time will tell how well the modes hold up, but so far the Live community is latching on pretty tightly.
Overall Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood is a significant upgrade over it’s predecessor. From striking visuals to a great storyline, the positives outshine the few nuisances that pop up along the way. While the game can be torn through inside of a weekend, the multiplayer runs like a horse from a burning barn. For those who steer clear of the Wild West that is Xbox Live, you might want to let this one sit a spell and pick it up after the hot sun has worn off some of that price point.