Coming away from Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood you realize just how much untapped opportunity there is for first-person shooters in exploring timelines earlier than World War II. The settings and gunplay feel novel, especially when compared to Futuristic-Space-Shooter Number IX; but for however much Spaghetti-Western essence is encapsulated in the game, it ultimately feels a bit malnourished.
Like their first 'next-gen' title, Techland's prequel-sequel uses the infamous ransom of Montezuma to drive its story. This time, Reverend Ray is just Ray McCall, and, along with his brother Thomas, is a deserter of the Confederate Army. Their defiance of direct orders is carried out under word that their family farm (plantation) has be sacked by the Yankees and they fear for their younger brother's and mother's lives. Upon arrival to their homestead the duo are witness to destruction and their mother's death. Before they're even able to comprehend what has happened, they're chased from Georgia, with their youngest brother in tow—a seminary pupil—by their former commanding officer who only has the worst of punishments in mind for their desertion.
As the brothers flee west, they vow to return one day to rebuild their home. Alas, as they move from Arkansas and farther westward, their actions and characters take on those of outlaws, stealing what they need and want—save for the righteous younger brother, William, who narrates the story and remains a vigilant preacher trying to save his brothers from damnation.
A pretty compelling Western, right? Southern gentlemen and Confederate heroes turned outlaws, paired with a preacher: it has conflict, gunplay and salvation written all over it. And for the most part, Bound in Blood delivers in its story and pacing. You develop a good sense of each character throughout the game and become engaged with the persona of each of the brothers. Unfortunately, things fall apart a bit as romance is introduced, with a woman who flip-flops her love between Ray and Thomas.
In what should have played out as a single event, the token love triangle is a forgettable vehicle for what drives the conflict later in the game. The only relationships worth caring about here are those of the brothers, which culminate in a scene that is severely glossed over.
While the story may be solid, its technical aspects are a mixed bag that bar this game from being a really great FPS. Though its execution and varied gameplay lend well to keeping things from getting stale, Bound in Blood feels a bit dated and unpolished. Throughout a campaign 15 chapters long, you get to choose to play as either Ray or Thomas: each has their strength (Ray is deadly with twin six-shooters and dynamite, and Thomas does well with ranged weapons and a lasso to reach certain places) and gameplay style, but neither nets you a significantly different experience as you progress through levels together.
Whomever you play as, you'll still experience sections of rail-shooter action aboard stagecoaches and canoes, as well as a couple of peculiarly instituted sandbox style sections midway through the game. Though offering a refreshing change of pace and unexpected, especially with large tracts of land to traverse, the odd jobs offered don't do much in the way of varied objectives and don't lend anything to the story—you're just a hired gun, meant to kill, kill, kill.
Whenever you're in a gunfight, however, an AI in need of fine-tuning can make the action hit or miss. Problems persist as open-field enemies and an imbalance of overly helpful or utterly useless friendly fire are prevalent throughout. Also hampering the shooter is the implementation of an auto-cover system that sucks you into corners or behind boxes. When it works, it works well, allowing you to barely poke around or over edges for easy kills; however, things become frustrating at times when you have to fight the mechanic just to line up a shot.
Though a bit flawed and at times underwhelming when compared to beefed up shooters, Bound in Blood does well in some unique gunplay. “Concentration Mode” makes a return with two distinct styles of picking off multiple targets for each brother. While Ray's able to pick out 12 different targets and unleash a volley of bullets from his pistols by controlling two reticles in slowed time, Thomas' attack forces you to reload a single pistol by imitating the act of cocking its hammer. The latter of the two's attack is a downright fun mechanic that deludes you into thinking you're a skillful quick-draw as you flick your palm over the joystick and pull the (Right) trigger.
To add to the sensation and Wild West gameplay, you also have to fight your way through a few showdown instances. Though nothing new to the Call of Juarez franchise, showdowns this time around have you pace from side to side using the Left Analog stick, to keep your opponent in your line of sight, while keeping your hand close to your gun with the Right stick. These moments are tense and are mini-games that should have been an option for multiplayer battles of reaction time, hands down.
While gameplay has its strengths, many more of the game's weaknesses come from graphical and audio shortcomings. Visually, the game produces some impressive textures and draw distances that can create some beautiful vistas and dead ghost towns. However, stiff, puppet-like animations leave characters hollow and lifeless both in-game and in cutscenes. Additionally, ugly environment destruction (or lack thereof) and low-res set pieces fail to create believability or compelling firefights.
Nearly overshadowing visual inconsistencies is voice-acting that feels completely separated from the characters themselves. The disconnection of the voice-overs is only made worse by the emotionless renders and, at times, a feeling of forced overacting. Luckily, things are held together by some good ambient noise and weapon effects, and a soundtrack that totally fits but is way too short.
Essentially, it's easy to finish the single player campaign in under seven hours and wanting to like the experience—fortunately, things get better once you go online. Though a bit sparse and not as addictive as some other shooters out there, the western theme does well as a multiplayer offering. There are your usual free-for-all Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch modes, as well as Assassination derivatives, but the main draw are Wild West Legends games. Based on historical events, these multi-objective matches pit attackers and defenders against each other in games that can become a battle of seconds.
To keep things interesting, there are 13 classes of characters to play as, with only five available from the start. Also, here, your dominance isn't measured so much in how many kills you have, but how much money you can accrue from bounties placed on higher ranking opponents. This setup allows for match-only upgrades as well as purses that allow you unlock the additional classes. The monetary system is a nice departure from kill-death ratios and allows even those with a little of luck a chance at opening up additional characters.
A major area of concern, however, are weapon imbalances. Nearly every type of shotgun has a ridiculous kill range, and the Sniper's rifle is sure to be the cause of many a flamewar with subject headings like: “Snipers r n00bz!!11!!1” While these strengths are meant to be offset by other stats and classes, it's hard to deny their superiority.
After stumbling through the campaign and enjoying some matches online, it's possible to see where the momentum came from to make this sequel. Though the Wild West may not be filled with flashy gadgets or big-boom weaponry, the setting is a brilliant change of pace for first-person shooters. It may have its hiccups with some technical and mechanical faults, but Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood shows that shooters don't need the above, and can thrive with a well-written script and thoughtfully paced action.
With detailed attention paid to its more lacking qualities, there's no reason why this couldn't burst into a full-fledged contender in the FPS genre. However, such was also the argument made for its predecessor.