While the foul-mouthed outlaws and frantic shootouts of the Old West are prime subject matter for action games, few titles have saddled up for the ride. 2007's Call of Juarez made a pass at the setting, garnering a middling reception, but now the franchise is back with another tale and a more refined and enjoyable experience.
Bound in Blood is a prequel, but the story stands on its own merits. Ray and Thomas McCall desert the Confederate army to defend their family home and flee west with their brother William, a priest troubled by his brothers' declining morals. The McCalls hear of buried treasure near Juarez and make some unsavory alliances, but the biggest threat facing the brothers lies with a shady two-timing woman.
It's an enjoyable tale of double-crosses, treasure-hunting, and adventure, but William's concern for his brothers can get tiresome at times. There's also far too much focus on the vengeful Confederate colonel who relentlessly pursues the McCalls, which distracts from more important matters long after his role should have ended.
Bound in Blood's single player adventure lasts through 15 chapters and keeps a varied pace through Civil War battles, back alley shootouts, and stagecoach chases. Before each level, you choose to play as either the stronger brother Ray or the more agile Thomas, giving you access to unique abilities and slightly differing pathways. Most chapters are built around straightforward objectives, with defense and on-rails sections breaking up the standard gunplay. However, two levels take a more open-world approach, with wanted posters advertising side-quests you can pursue for extra cash.
In addition to the eight-hour single player game, Bound in Blood features five online multiplayer modes, pitting lawmen against outlaws. The most distinctive of the bunch is Wild West legends, which tasks players with completing objectives loosely based on historical events. In one scenario, a team of outlaws has to plant dynamite charges to rob a bank, gain access to the stables, and ditch town on horseback. Meanwhile, the lawmen have to do everything they can to hamper them until the timer runs out.
Rather than counting raw kills, the game assigns a bounty to each player, based on experience and skill level, rewarding players for targeting tougher opponents instead of respawning newcomers. There are five different classes to choose from at first, ranging from riflemen, snipers, and bow-wielders. As you save up cash, you unlock additional classes, and you can purchase temporary class upgrades if you earn enough dough within a match.
Missing from Bound in Blood is any form of co-op play, which is odd since the game often feels like it was designed for the feature. Thomas sometimes needs to lasso his way over a gap to lower a bridge for Ray, or the two might storm through a door together, but there's no opportunity to experience this teamwork with another player. However, there's still plenty to do with the fleshed-out multiplayer mode and a single player adventure that's fun to replay as a second character.
Bound in Blood's campaign successfully captures the feel of classic Western shootouts, as you duck behind crates, and eliminate scoundrels popping out of barns, balconies, and rooftops. There is a cover system that lets you stick to objects and peek around corners, but it isn't very useful due to the limited perspective. Reload times for the period weapons ensure that you won't be spraying bullets too liberally, but you'll find superior arms on enemy corpses or for sale in shops as you advance.
The brothers can each carry two pistols and a rifle or shotgun at all times, but each has specialties that favor distinct play styles. Ray is more of a brute, tossing dynamite like hand-grenades, dual-wielding pistols, and carrying Gatling guns if you can find them. Thomas is more subtle with silent weapons like the bow and throwing knives, and a lasso he can use to climb to higher locations. And if you're indoors, either brother can grab a chair and bust it over someone's head.
Quickly racking up kills lets you activate concentration mode, which freezes time so you can pick off any enemies in view. The mechanics are specific to each McCall, and there are also pre-scripted moments where you'll bust into rooms for surprise attacks, with the brothers competing to clear the room in the blink of an eye.
Now if you're going to prove you aren't a yellow-bellied sapsucker, you're going to have to face off man-to-man in a few duels. With the left stick keeping your focus on the sorry fool in front of you, and the right stick keeping your hand near the widowmaker, you listen for the bell's toll to draw before you take a face full of lead. In a sense, duels are little more than quick-time events, with all the associated trial and error, but at least the game gives you a second chance if you fail.
Bound in Blood gives you enough tools to make you feel like a bad-to-the-bone outlaw, but even with all the assists and slow-mo effects, the enemies still put up a fair fight.
Bound in Blood's presentation is a major case of give and take. Detailed character models are often paired with stiff animations. Riding on horseback doesn't look right at all, and the voice acting for minor characters can be pretty poor. Plus, shoddy engine performance delivers screen tearing and shimmering effects whenever the camera is in motion, marring much of the art and visual fidelity.
Despite all this, Bound in Blood still manages to come across fairly well as a whole. It's great to hear the McCall brothers' ornery personalities and taunting one-liners. There are moments of striking beauty as you travel downstream through Arizona forests or look up from a withering Georgia cornfield, and the varied environments do a great job of staving off dry gulch fatigue.
Overall, Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood is a big step up from the previous title. It delivers on the classic Western setting, provides lots of gameplay options, and even lets you pull off bank heists with friends online. And without a single assault rifle to be found, it's a welcome change of pace from the standard shooter fare.
Reviewed on Microsoft Xbox 360.