Head to your local game store looking for WWII shooters and you'll find bucket loads. If you like sci-fi first-person shooters you are probably already balls deep in them. If you fancy playing a game set in the old, wild-west, a little searching will be required to uncover the handful that exist for current-gen systems. Call of Juarez: Bound In Blood can now make a strong claim to be one of the best games set in that period.
The story follows brothers Ray and Thomas McCall who desert the Confederate army during the American civil war to protect their homestead and their youngest brother William. Now fugitives, they live as gunslingers outside the law and their quest to rebuild their home goes down the old chasing-Aztec-gold route.
Developers are clearly very confident in their story-telling ability, there is no shortage of cut-scenes and spoken narrative. Although the story is nothing to write home about the narration of the youngest brother and clergyman William was quality enough to keep me away from the 'skip scene' button. It might lose its way round about the murdering native Americans section, but the ambitious tale of love, betrayal and brotherly values is a refreshing antidote to the sound of chainsaws meeting aliens.
Made with a love and respect for both the western genre, and modern FPSs such as Call of Duty, Bound In Blood does a good job of applying an instantly familiar mechanic to a relatively underused setting. The pace of gun fights is dictated by slow fire rates, reload times and the need to duck into cover to replenish your time-based health system. This shifts combat style away from run-and-gun chaos and towards finding effective cover and picking your targets accurately. Firing classic rifles is consistently satisfying and concentration mode allows for some bullet-time, quick-shooting heroics for those cinematic western moments.
Single player story mode paces the action well and throws plenty of enjoyable set-pieces, on-rails sections and showdowns your way. A few horseback moments handle strangely and don't really work out well, but a wagon-mounted Gatling gun makes for a memorable chase scene. I can't think of another game where procedural physics is applied to the mowing down of horses at speed. Side-quests for bounty may exist only to tick boxes but they are an entertaining distraction for completionists. Unfortunately some levels rely too heavily on blindly following the arrow to reach your next fire fight and eventually gunning down henchmen with a limited weapon set gets repetitive.
Dusty western environments are well-structured, generally linear but with enough breadth to allow for alternative approaches. Although, at times scorched sands, hazy cliffs and circling vultures make impressive, isolated surroundings, they fail to draw you into their world quite like the Fallout 3 wastelands.
Subtle differences between the two main playable characters Ray and Thomas allows for variation and an element of re playability. Ray is the stronger of the brothers, takes more damage and is able to handle dynamite and the gatling gun. Thomas is a more agile, lasso-wielding climber who can use the silent weapons: bows and throwing knives. Each chapter lets you select who you will play as, and the computer AI assumes control of the other brother. For what seems like a game custom-made for great co-op, omitting the option for a buddy to jump in, off- or on-line seems a grave mistake.
Online multiplayer has various outlaws versus law men team battles. Objective-based game modes include looting towns, destroying gang's hide-outs against the clock and team deathmatch. A class-system lets you choose one of 13 different classes with differing weapon sets and stats. To unlock all the different classes cash must be earned by completing games and racking up kills. Each player has a reward on their head; the more kills to a player's name, the bigger the bounty. As one shot kills are possible and the whereabouts of opposing players are not always obvious; sneaking around dusty towns, backstabbing and making sure every shot counts is the order of the day.
Like many first person shooters, Bound In Blood doesn't pretend to have many surprises in its holster but the 6-7 hour story mode is consistently entertaining if a little short. The amount of screen-time devoted to character development and reflecting their emotional states is unusual for such a testosterone-fuelled shooter, as are the religious references. These features are probably apt for a genre that undoubtedly draws inspiration from its big-screen counterparts. Bound In Blood hasn't broken new gameplay grounds, but it has raised the bar for shooters in a wild-west setting, and for that it deserves attention.