Review: Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood (360)
July 22, 2009 Leave a comment
First off, it’s an entry into that oh so tiny brotherhood of games set in the wild west. I can’t for the life of me think of a setting that is in need of more exploration. Its influence on popular culture is endless and there is a massive bounty of material to plumb for inspiration. Rockstar’s forthcoming Red Dead Redemption looks to be the most ambitious, and if I had to venture a guess will be the best, Western game ever produced (if you haven’t watched the incredibly promising debut trailer, please do so now), but for now I’ll have to settle for Juarez.
Next, it benefits from its unique origin. Like the classic Spaghetti Westerns of the 60s and 70s, Juarez is a European interpretation of the American old west. It appears that Polish developer Techland has taken the tropes of those films to heart. It glorifies all the dirty and most fun parts of the wild west—guns, dynamite, banditos, treasure hunting, and loose women to name a few—but more importantly the developers cribbed a certain flare for the dramatic that is far more present in the films of Sergio Leone and his ilk than their American counterparts.
By far the best parts of Juarez are the dueling scenes, which take place at the end of most chapters and sidequests. The camera pulls out of first person and focuses on your gun hand as your chosen character and his opponent circle around each other waiting for a church bell to ring. It’s incredibly tense, just as a mano a mano showdown should be. You have to worry about controlling your itchy trigger finger with the right stick while slowly circle strafing with the left, attempting to always keep your opponent square in the middle of your view. The bell rings at random intervals and can take what feels like an eternity to sound, forcing you to be constantly on your toes. It’s engaging and novel, but can be a bit frustrating. Wrapping your head around controlling both your character’s ever moving gun hand and his view of his enemy may take a few fights, but it is certainly something I would like to see done in a similar manner in other Western games.
Novel seems to be a good way of describing many of the things I enjoyed about Juarez. It forgoes simple quicktime events which could have been easily substituted for the delicate controls of the duels for something a little more immersing. It’s really the simple things like flicking the right stick to fan the hammer of your revolver during brother Thomas’s slow motion killing sprees that stick with me. How no one has thought of that particular move before I don’t know.
As a straight first person shooter it’s strictly nothing more than competent. The scenarios can be a bit uninspired, ranging from the terrible and unnecessary stealth segment in a cornfield to the classic scurrying about to find a lever to lower an elevator for your companions. These crappy situations mostly come up when playing as Thomas, the more agile and range based fighter of the brothers McCall. Playing as Ray is a completely different game.
Choose Ray, the duel revolver toting tough guy, and the game can suddenly feel like a rail shooter. You’re always in control of his movement, but running into a group of enemies evokes visions of Time Crisis as they appear out of thin air from behind cover and run around the screen. There’s an unparalleled amount of aim assist when dual wielding as your reticule will even split in two to track a second enemy. Some people might be turned off by this, but I ate it up. Walking into a fire fight and taking down 5 guys with 5 shots and minimal effort instills a feeling of badassery entirely appropriate to the setting and character. Playing as Thomas never brought these moments. It’s always “use your lasso to climb this tree,” or “use your lasso to climb this fence,” or “cover Ray while he does something awesome.”
Thomas definitely isn’t as fun to play as Ray, but the narrative wouldn’t be nearly as well crafted as it is without him. The characters are far more complex and their conflicts more compelling than in most shooters. It’s not Shakespeare, but it’s far closer than most games come and the relationship between the brothers is really the lynchpin.
The art direction on the other hand is pretty bland. There is such a limited color pallet that I often lost enemies among the many shades of brown in the environment. This is actually a huge problem. When I have to rely solely on my reticule turning red to know that I’m aiming at a guy that’s shooting me and not a bush, something is wrong.
Complaints aside, Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood is worth renting if only to experience the thrill of the showdowns and a few of its other unique mechanics. Between the Ennio Morricone like score and the attention given to evoking a sense of what makes Westerns such a beloved genre, it’s a step in the right direction for games in the setting, but one that’s not entirely backed up by the rest of the game.