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Review: ‘Call of Juarez’ Worth a Try (XBox 360)

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What's Hot: Detailed story; Great voice acting; Solid cover system and showdowns

What's Not: Lousy AI; Too-forgiving accuracy; Poor free-roaming areas

Crispy Gamer Says: Try

Decades ago, Italian and Japanese influences helped revitalize the film Western. Now, as the genre lays fallow on game consoles, Polish development team Techland is trying to bring the Wild West back to life. Its resuscitation plan is ripped not so much from the Western canon, but from Quentin Tarantino -- as "Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood" tries to inject a load of adrenaline into the stagnant genre.

Though it follows the 2007 "Call of Juarez" (also developed by Techland), this is actually a prequel telling how that game's Reverend Ray came to be. Here he's in cahoots with his brother Thomas, and shadowed by their other brother William. Ray and Thomas have deserted the Confederate army to defend their Georgia home -- but when it is destroyed, they seek out a fortune in gold to rebuild their family plantation.

Playing solo, you can be either Ray or Thomas. The former is more powerful; he uses dual pistols and dynamite, and can tote a Gatling gun like a water pistol. Thomas is lighter on his feet and a killer with a rifle; he's the explorer and can use a lasso to reach out-of-the-way points. Thomas' accuracy is pushed to the point of absurdity -- even with a rusty old rifle he can hit a bandit hiding behind a boulder at a hundred yards.

Not that "Bound in Blood" much wants to hit a target as small as realism. Like Sergio Leone's Western films, you'll see more explosive set pieces and hats shot into the dust than you will realistic rifle shots. Just check the returning slow-motion Concentration system, which is slightly different for each character. Using Concentration, Ray gets to quickly line up a series of shots and then fire 'em off all at once. Thomas has to choose targets individually and use a little right-stick action to simulate working the hammer on his pistol, but the result is the same: a bunch of guaranteed kills.

There's also a revamped mini-game for showdowns, where you'll slowly circle back and forth to keep an opponent in your sights, slowly inching your right hand down toward a holstered pistol. When a bell sounds, you've got to grab the pistol, line up the sights, and fire before the other guy does. If your reflexes aren't quite good, be prepared to use the first few plays of each duel as a practice run to get the timing down.

When the story mode is in full swing, "Bound in Blood" develops a good momentum. Comparisons to "Call of Duty" are inevitable: You're propelled through straight-up first-person shooter segments into midsize battle set pieces, as well as occasional segments in which you shoot enemy riders from within a wagon or take out a large riverboat with cannon on the shore. The constant push forward helps disguise the fact that the artificial intelligence is dumber than a retarded ranch hand, and that -- even with the two characters and set-piece variety -- the gameplay is quite standard.

About halfway through the game you'll finally be able to check out some side missions. Suddenly, the breakneck pace of the previous few hours makes a lot more sense. When you're free to roam this desert, it seems awfully empty. You won't live the Western life so much as follow a mission marker to a point somewhere in the scrub and foothills, kill a few guys, have a showdown with their leader, then ride back to town. The only advantage to the open-world areas is that you can finally roam with no tether to your brother. In most missions, the game's godlike hand prevents you from wandering too far from your sibling.

That's the point where "Bound in Blood" started to feel like it had been left out in the sun too long, and turned pale and dry. I felt like I'd gone to an Old West town and realized the buildings were just cheap facades. The overly game-y elements caught up then, too -- like the fact that certain boss characters can take a ridiculous amount of lead before instigating a duel. Horseback riding is poorly conceived; these mounts are more like the mechanical animals once found in front of Kmart than genuine horses. There's no sensation of being on a real animal. When average and lousy games like "Dynasty Warriors 6" and "Golden Axe: Beast Rider" can provide that feeling, why not "Juarez"?

But "Bound in Blood" is still a better game than its predecessor. The terrible platforming elements from the first game are mostly gone (though as Thomas you'll still have to do some climbing and jumping), and Techland has implemented a cover system that forces you to move slowly. You can't just dive behind a crate and immediately fire off accurate shots from cover. The mechanic is aided by a mostly great depth-of-field focus system that emulates the CinemaScope presentation of the classic Spaghetti Westerns.

Techland put a lot of effort into the story, as well, and this tale stacks up well against "Gun," my previous favorite game Western narrative. There is the central familial trio; a Native American clan trying to broker a deal for rifles; a minor warlord named Mendoza and his girl, who becomes the object of the brothers' affections; and a lot more details to fill out the canvas. Marc Alaimo, reprising his voice-acting role as Ray, does a great job; and Zach Hanks is equally good as Thomas. In fact, the entire cast performs to a standard much higher than most games deliver.

And "Bound in Blood" generally looks quite lovely. Long shots are painted and gorgeous; more than once you'll get a beautiful view of a town from atop a cliff or hillside. It falls apart while you're on horseback, however, as scrub and rocks are constantly being drawn in by the engine as you ride forward. In that respect, "Bound in Blood" definitely behaves like a turn-of-the-century Model T rather than a modern engine.

The story and presentation kept me going more than the actual gameplay. This is mostly a standard action game, re-skinned to look like a Western. Better, more interesting AI would help change that, as would more complete free-roaming areas.

And, really, do I have to get all Shakespearian and offer up my kingdom for a decent damned videogame horse? It's starting to feel like it.

This review is based on a review build of the Xbox 360 game provided by the publisher.

COPYRIGHT (C) 2009 CRISPY GAMER. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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