Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood (PC, X360, PS3) (2009)
Review by Faididi and Co.
Bros before hoes
As fans of his first game know, Ray McCall hasn't always been a man of the cloth. This prequel covers the span of his life some twenty years earlier, when he was little more than a bad man roaming the frontier with his then-living younger brothers. There is very little in the plot here that will surprise those who've heard him reveal everything in the earlier installment. The cheesy treatment of the Native American characters and the stereotypical Southern aristocrat crap for the final villain aren't helping, either. (Simplistically referring to the native ally as "Indian" if he gets killed is stupid.)
Gameplay: Below Average
Techland's Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood is the follow-up to the original Call of Juarez. Throwing out another 15 chapters, it's a FPS where the heroes must make do with their period's weaponry and quirks with ammo capacities. Gotta love them six-shooters, right?
This prequel has its improvements, but they can be counted on one hand. Top on the list is the option to play almost all the scenes from the perspective of either Ray or his fellow gunslinger brother, Thomas. (The youngest of the trio, William, doesn't fight and isn't playable.) This is possible, because Ray and Thomas travel together most of the time. Thanks to Bound in Blood's greater emphasis on computer-controlled allies, the other brother acts as dependable back-up, helping to mow down enemies and guiding your character forward. As expected, Ray and Thomas play differently. The grouchy elder brother can dual-wield handguns and suck up more pain, while Thomas has a zooming bonus with rifles and can use throwing knives. Both have access to another of the game's new features, the dynamic cover system, which lets the heroes lean around corners to reduce their own exposure. On the multiplayer front, there are additional character classes and scenarios, and these build upon what's been started in the first game.
If there's reason to be less than enthusiastic, though, that's because Bound in Blood takes out much more than it adds. The number-one offender is the reduction of fine manual control. Ray and Thomas each have their own version of the slow-motion super-draw ability, but both involve heavily automated, incredibly arcade-like targeting, instead of the free-form controls from the first game. (In other words, the super-draw feels less like a clever gunslinging skill and more like some anime lock-on junk from Sega's Panzer Dragoon.) The manual kicking and punching attacks are gone, and the horse-riding controls are simplified to the point of preventing the heroes from galloping at full speed while aiming in any direction. The lasso also sucks compared to the first game's whip, due to the removal of the free-swinging moves and the option to lash out with it as a secondary attack.
The dueling mode has always felt incongruous and weakly incorporated in the first game, and that's even more the case here. In Bound in Blood, the characters must reach for their guns at the sound of a magical bell that rings out of nowhere. For inexplicable reasons, the heroes also need to circle their opponents to keep them lined up in their sights, while the opponents cheat by always having perfect accuracy. The side-to-side evasive move is no more, and everyone now dies with a single hit while dueling, too, so there's no reason to aim for the head or the heart when your character can win by scratching the bad guy on the boots.
The level design sees some questionable changes. The stealth scenes (which have helped to mix up the action in the past) are tossed out, being replaced by a few rail-guided vehicle scenes that involve stagecoaches or wagons. What's really annoying, however, is the need to remain in proximity to computer-controlled allies, or else it's Game Over. This takes the fun out of searching the environments for spare ammo, not to mention subjecting your character to his whiny brothers' never-ending calls to haul ass. Two of the chapters are open-ended in the sense that the heroes can complete optional tasks or simply skip to the next scene. This certainly isn't an adventure like Gun; all the optional tasks merely involve killing the indicated enemies, and they form such a small part of the game that they could've been left out with little detrimental effect.
Perhaps the work for the open-ended scenes should've been spent in creating a side story. Those interested in the original game's hidden third protagonist will be disappointed to know that Bound in Blood fails to include extra missions that continue the tale of the unnamed sheriff.
Bound in Blood can do better in terms of controls. The earlier installment's inventory system provides quick and exact control over which weapon goes into which hand. That's no longer the case, as you're stuck with a menu system that forces the characters to equip weapons according to predetermined combinations, even interrupting their movement while they change guns. This prequel cuts out the manual weapon-drop option, too. As for the dynamic cover system, the fact that your view is always locked in the first person means you can't accurately gauge how much of your character is exposed while leaning out, making it a bigger hassle than it should be. Considering how overly automated the super-draw is, one wonders why the game should let the associated slow-motion effects block the inclusion of cooperative 2-Player support for the story mode.
At least this game makes its predecessor look like a bland cartoon by comparison. The characters as well as the environments are heavily detailed, and the elaborate water and smoke effects look even more natural. Equally important, the old muzzle flash issue is finally addressed. There may be some small draw distance issues for the very minor details, such as ground plants popping up within a certain range, but all in all that's nothing to complain about.
Equally impressive are the audio effects. The sounds are flawless, be they the cracking of gunfire, the explosions of dynamite, the rumbling of carriages, the pattering of raindrops, or the crunching of shattered glass. Aside from the stereotypical speech for certain characters in the early parts of the game, the voice acting leans on the strong side, particularly the passionate performances for two of the McCalls and maybe one of the villains. Another strong point is the music, because the fuller, richer score does a grander job of building up suspense. The tunes discard the cheesy spaghetti Western tones in favor of a more serious dramatic style, blended with a few rock elements.
As a FPS prequel, Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood turns out to be weaker than its predecessor in many ways. Upgrading the graphics is fine, but not at the cost of forcing in computer allies who are annoying half of the time, cutting out numerous old moves, and eliminating the fine control in everything from the super-draw ability to the equipment-wielding system to even the crappy dueling mode.