5 years ago, Techland and Ubisoft released Call of Juarez, a first person shooter set in the Wild West that focused on revenge and a search for a mythical cursed treasure. The thing that really stood out with the game was a memorable anti-hero in the form of Reverend Ray, a brimstone and hellfire preacher who wielded the bible and a six shooter with equal ease in battle. Clearly, there was much more to his personal story than gold and retribution. To capitalize on this, TechLand and Ubisoft reteamed for Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood, an origin story of Reverend Ray, his brothers and their quest for gold. More action packed than the first game, Bound in Blood is a solid title that's held back by technical issues and some repetitive gameplay sequences.
Bound in Blood is a rather complex tale that once again raises the specter of revenge and cursed treasure, amongst a backdrop of the western frontier; I'll try to summarize the story without providing any spoilers of any kind. Players are introduced to Ray and Thomas McCall, two brothers in the Confederate army that desert their posts to save their family home from Union soldiers. Seeing the destruction of their land and swearing that they'll rebuild their property one day, the McCalls head west to seek fortune and glory. However, going AWOL infuriates their former commander, who declares that he'll hunt them down to the ends of the earth for their abandonment of the Confederate cause. Fleeing both the Confederate troops on their heels and various lawmen from some of their illegal activities throughout the country, the McCall eventually connects with the Mexican bandit leader Juan and his concubine Marisa, who has information regarding the treasure of Cortez. The McCalls will also have to deal with the Apache, whose connection with the gold could potentially threaten the entire West.
It may sound convoluted, but the story is told rather well and all ties together in the end, providing a solid background for the events of the prior Call of Juarez game. Much of this is thanks to William, the youngest McCall, who narrates the story in between each chapter and fills the player in on the actions of his two siblings. Like the previous title, you'll play as either Ray or Thomas, and you'll have the option to choose which brother you'd like to play as for most of the game. As far as fighting is concerned, the two McCalls have completely different gunslinging styles. As the eldest brother, Ray is the tank of the duo, absorbing much more damage before falling in combat thanks to the piece of armor that he wears. He's also packs a heavier punch than his younger brother with shotguns in the midst of battle and the dynamite that he uses to blast through obstacles. Thanks to his strength, Ray can also pick up heavy items or smash through doors. Thomas, on the other hand, is a stealthier character as well, and can use knives, bows and arrows to eliminate his enemies. Thomas is also much more agile than Ray, and can easily climb structures or use a lasso to get to higher ground to pick off enemies. He's also a better shot, so he can use more precise aiming with rifles to eliminate targets.
For the most part, the selection of the brother is more of a player style choice; there are a few segments where the choice of character will open up a different pathway for you to take or will give you weapons that will be easier to use in some combat situations, but you won't need to be concerned about needing to select a particular McCall to get through one area or another. For example, you won't have to worry about selecting Ray and not be able to climb over certain obstacles, as Thomas will frequently climb a section and give you a hand to bypass the barrier. Similarly, as Thomas, the use of your lasso is frequently used as a way to help out or get to an area where you can help your brother gain access to new locations. It could've been a bit easier to use, if only because every now and then when you're trying to swing from the rope to a new location, it feels as though the game doesn't take the effects of motion or weight into account.
However, if you were expecting a lot of platforming elements within the game, you're going to be somewhat disappointed – the primary focus of the title is on fast paced battle sequences between the McCalls and a large number of enemies. In fact, each opponent that you gun down provides you with either ammunition for your guns, different weapons that you can pick up to replace your own firearms, or cash that can be pocketed to buy supplies and a more powerful arsenal. Even more important is that every enemy you kill adds to your concentration meter, which will allow Thomas and Ray to trigger a bullet time-like effect to quickly dispatch their targets. Each one feels rather in keeping with the style of the brothers, as you'll find Ray painting multiple targets and unleashing a hail of gunfire, while Thomas will perform a quick shot of anyone that's within his line of sight. Thomas' also requires faster reflexes, as you'll need to move the right analog stick (or the mouse) to cock the hammer and fire the weapon for each shot. While you can store these powerful moments, you only have a minute to trigger the ability before you lose it and have to start collecting kills all over again. This limitation is a wise decision because it doesn't allow characters to run rampant through the game, shredding enemies with stored concentration attacks.
Apart from the sizable numbers of gunmen that you'll shoot down, you'll also find yourself facing off against the leader of a town, outlaw band or lawman in a duel. While not every one of the duels will take place at high noon, you'll still be gauged on your reflexes against your opponent. You'll have to pace around your opponent, keeping him in front of you to ensure the best view at your target. What's more, you'll also have to wait until an unseen bell is struck, at which point both you and your opponent will reach for your gun. When you draw your weapon, a reticule will start to head towards your rival's body, at which point you pull the trigger when it would land on a section to inflict a lethal wound. Duels are fun, but can be tricky, particularly because you only have time to fire one shot. They can also be a bit infuriating because you're so restricted from pulling your weapon early that your hand can be pushed out of position by the game's camera to fire quickly. Also, based on where your enemy is on the screen, the targeting reticule can bounce or travel erratically, which can contribute to your death even if you managed to jump the call to draw. That's just not fair, especially when your survival is really down to timing and reflexes.
Now, while Bound in Blood did manage to abandon the annoying platforming sequences for the first game in favor of battle, the gunfight focus does highlight a couple of strange gameplay features. For one thing, you'll be fighting hordes of clones regardless of your location; for whatever reason, it appears that Techland decided that the West was populated by huge numbers of bald men with mutton chop sideburns, because you'll constantly shoot these opponents. In fact, with the exception of characters that you duel against, you'll find a grand total of three or four separate kinds of faces mass produced and sent against you in waves, which isn't particularly appealing. One other issue is that you'll find some enemies that will run in circles or will stand still while you shoot them in the face, which doesn't make any sense. Another issue that comes up is the fact that many of the chapters feel somewhat repetitive, even though they take place in different locations across the Southwest and Mexico. Even though you have specific objectives that you have to accomplish, gameplay within each chapter frequently turns into "Ray and Thomas ride to a location, blow away the inhabitants and move on." This can start to feel stale, even though the pace of the gameplay is constantly kept fast enough that the entire game can be fully completed in ten hours or less. There are some sequences where you are given the option to complete side missions, but they are few and far between. However, even these degenerate into fast battles and duels as you attempt to complete the tasks. It seems odd that Thomas and Ray wouldn't get into brawls or fist fights with citizens of a town, try to rob banks or a train, rustle cattle or other elements outside of riding into a location guns blazing. In fact, the one mission that has a hint of stealth quickly abandons this in favor of run and gun styled play.
The multiplayer of Bound in Blood is expanded from the original game, featuring thirteen character classes that you'll eventually be able to play when you unlock them by winning multiplayer matches. Each character class has a variety of weaponry, but also has different health and speed stats as they are deployed into battle. As you kill other players during a battle, you'll receive money during that match which can be spent to upgrade that character's stats. There are five game modes to be played across seven maps, which doesn't sound like much, although there are indications that the game will support downloadable maps. However, the gameplay modes are a lot of fun, with the true standout being the Wild West Legends mode that provides each side with different objectives to fulfill. While one side is tasked with breaking into a location, destroying a target or escaping from an area, the other is tasked with stopping them from accomplishing their objective. This frequently leads to massive battles over one location, with attackers testing the defensive skills of their opponents. It's lots of fun, and from what I could see online, was the most popular one currently being played.
Visually, Bound in Blood is decently presented but is overwhelmed by some of the visual issues presented within the game. For instance, at first glance, the rocky outcroppings and building details look rather striking. However, once you get closer, you'll notice that these objects frequently show bland texture work, and the amount of pop in is shocking, particularly when you're riding your horse from one area to another. There's also some significant screen tearing, clipping and aliasing that constantly pops up throughout the game. However, the animation of characters is pretty good, and death animations are pretty solid, especially if you've triggered a concentration attack and pump round after round into an enemy. There's also a solid frame rate, but that should be expected considering that there isn't much variety for the enemies you face. In fact, it only serves to highlight how strange the lack of variety is, because action isn't particularly taxing, so why the lack of different faces for your opponents? The only other issue that does stand out is that character faces, particularly during cutscenes, can look somewhat stiff, making their reactions seem canned and unrealistic. Particle work, however, is rather good, especially when you're tossing sticks of dynamite at barriers and watching them explode into shards of timber and dust.
The sound design for Bound in Blood, however, is particularly good. The score for the game feels like it could have been taken from any western film, and reflects the action of the game and the Southwestern feel perfectly. Voice acting within the game is, for the most part, pretty good as well. Every now and then, a line will fall flat, but for the most part, the distinct characters of Ray, Thomas and William, as well as the secondary personalities are well delivered. The banter back and forth between Ray and Thomas, particularly in battle, is rather amusing, particularly because it feels like the kind of arguments that brothers would get into. Having someone get called out for their accuracy, or lack thereof, is excellent. Just be aware that you'll have some conversations or comments that could be somewhat offensive.
As a prequel, Bound in Blood does a good job of presenting the characters, their storylines and what eventually leads back into the franchise history. It also packs in a ton of fast action, loads of explosions and a heavy dose of duels against opponents. Unfortunately, the repetitive nature of the missions, coupled with some technical issues, really keeps this title from standing out more.