Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood

Ubisoft and Techland's outlaw FPS shoots straight, but could have aimed higher.

360 (PS3, PC)

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By Edwin Evans-Thirlwell

Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood is a hell of a lot more entertaining than it has a right to be. Playing it isn't so much like time-warping back to the Wild West as time-warping back to 1997, when opening a door was the bleeding edge of non-linear exploration, wooden crates still bore a torn veil of credibility and all we really expected of AI henchmen was to face us when we shot at them. Not once in the campaign's six and a half-hours of stage coach getaways, mountainside escort missions and dust-blown main street face-offs did I glimpse anything that belonged in the same decade as Half-Life 2 or Metroid Prime, and yet somehow the closing credits left me wanting more.

The story probably bears most responsibility for this. It's absolutely cracking - a classic Spaghetti-western yarn of fraternal strife, revenge and redemption with all the cackling Mexicans, drawling mercenaries and noble redmen you could ask for, stirred into a cocktail of in-engine cut scenes and hand-inked storyboard sequences. Bound in Blood is a prequel to the original Call of Juarez, and while completion of the latter isn't necessary to enjoy the former, the skill with which Techland's writers have stitched together the two epochs of the McCall family is worth appreciating.

You step into the rawhide boots of either gimlet-eyed duellist Ray or the marginally less threatening Thomas McCall, alternating between them from mission to mission as you choose, but much of the narrative exposition arrives care of youngest brother William, a preacher-in-training with a tremendously irritating fringe. As the curtain goes up (after a teasing introductory flash-forward, anyway), the older two are fighting for the pro-slavery Confederacy (a provocative bit of characterisation which the script promptly forgets about thereafter) in the death throes of the American Civil War.

The explosive chain of trench battles and mounted-gun set-pieces which ensues introduces you to the brothers' complementary capabilities: Ray is tougher, has a pocketful of dynamite and takes to close quarters action like a piranha to a paddling pool, while Thomas is agile, handy with knives, bows and rifles, and (whenever you can be bothered) reasonably stealthy. On the few occasions the bullets stop flying, you'll have a chance to marvel at the McCalls' wondrous kinship with their environment: Thomas can climb onto low roofs or lasso beams, branches and the like to hoist himself aloft (only those preselected by the designers, mind) while Ray gets to kick down doors. Both characters can toss lanterns, buckets and chairs around for light relief. Not exactly InFamous, then.

Each brother packs colour-desaturating freeze-time ability, triggered by tapping B and refuelled by stuffing somebody's vitals with lead: while playing Ray, you get a few seconds to queue up insta-kill shots at multiple enemies with the right stick, before unleashing them all simultaneously; as Thomas, you'll auto-lock and head-shoot merrily by palming the stick like a revolver hammer. Once fully charged, you've got a minute to make use of these abilities before the "adrenaline" fades, which lends Bound in Blood's otherwise blandly competent hiding, peeking and blasting a mild tactical after-taste. At heart, though, it's just the top-down shooter's smart bomb wearing some fancy 19th century breeches.

After blowing away pretty much the entire Union army on their lonesomes, Ray and Thomas are ordered to rejoin the main Confederate force elsewhere. Neither takes very kindly to the idea, as this would give the Yankees a clear run at their family ranch. Abandoning their positions, the brothers return home to find their mother dead, their property ransacked and William deeply concerned for the state of their souls. The plot winds its way through dessicated Mexican townships and Injun-infested woodlands to a climatic encounter with a vengeful Confederate general in the depths of an Aztec treasure-house. It's colourful, well-produced material, the pacing is dead on, and the voice-acting playfully over-the-top.

After Ray and Thomas shrug off their uniforms you're introduced to the concept of duelling, an edge-of-your-seat mini-game which stylishly rounds out many of the missions. Here you join a prominent enemy for a spot of classic "high noon" quick-draw. The camera hunkers down behind your denim cowboy tush, and you must sidle left and right to keep your opponent in view while holding your hand close to your holster. Once the town bell tolls you've got a split second to draw, aim and fire. Duelling doesn't really evolve as a mechanic over the course of the game - the baddies just get faster - but it makes for some engrossing finales.

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