The Western has got to be one of the best, most under-used settings for a game ever. I mean, it’s full of guns being toted by testosterone filled men; lawlessness, murder, and romance abound; and gorgeous settings – far-reaching plains, gold filled mountains, and rickety old towns - waiting to be shot to pieces. Surely all these tasty ingredients amalgamate into a recipe rich in gaming goodness? Why so few gun-slinging games, then?
I can’t answer that, but I thanked the Lord the day Call of Juarez came out. Cowboys, Injuns, rusty Sherriff’s badges, and six-shooters galore - all my gaming prayers answered. And guess what? Now there’s more of it. Praise be!
Call of Juarez - Bound in Blood is the prequel to 2005’s Wild West FPS, and tells the tale of brothers Ray, William and Thomas McCall. You don’t get to play as holy man William – he’s just a plot device (and excellent narrator) – but you do get to pick which of the other two brothers to play each mission as. Naturally they both have strengths and weaknesses: Thomas is nimbler and good at long range, whereas Ray is hard as nails and enjoys nothing better than dual-wielding six shooters at point blank range. Both are hugely enjoyable killing machines.
And a-killing you most certainly will go – the Brothers McCall are practically made of bullets and the story sets itself up for constant rucks. From the opening chapters of the Civil War to the later battles with Native Americans and loopy ex-Generals, there are excuses galore for slaughter. Hell, there are even plenty of Wild Bunch moments where you get to mow down entire towns with a Gatling gun. Along the way there’ll be gold, girls, treachery, and righteousness, but the overriding factor is that of two men in chaps on an absolute rampage.
You even have a form of bullet time at your disposal, although it’s known as ‘Concentration Mode’ in the Wild West. Both characters concentrate differently but both modes result in stacks of gun smoke and bodies, and are incredibly satisfying and very useful.
Let’s step away from the bloodshed for a moment, though, and look at those other rum elements I mentioned. The gold in question is the lost treasure of Juarez – the McCalls set off to find it after deserting from the Confederacy and having their family home destroyed. Along the way they meet the girl and with her comes the treachery. The righteousness is constantly provided by NPC William in the name of the Lord.
The tale is spread over fifteen levels. Only 3 levels are open to completely explore – these give you a moderate sized level to roam around in, with a handful of missions to complete. The rest are all linear, although the pacing is great.
Every now and again you’ll encounter a boss character. These result in the classic cowboy duel. You know – a stand-off, facing your opponent and slowly circling him all the time, hand twitching next to your holstered gun. A bell tolls and you have to grab you gun, by dragging the mouse down and then up again, and shoot your opponent before he shoots you. These duels can be hardware-shatteringly frustrating at the harder settings, especially if you’re lacking in mouse space. I frequently found myself face down in the dust thanks to my miniscule desk. A touch unfair (OK, so I almost smashed everything I could see in a fit of rage), but practice makes perfect and later duels became easier.
It’s all very Western and entirely satisfying. The developers, Techland, clearly have a deep love for the genre, and this love also shows through in the settings and the sound. The backdrops to the gun-slingin’ are truly astonishing. The graphics in the main are fantastic and really capture the feel of the Wild West and are only let down by character close-ups and some bland textures. The architecture and atmosphere are nailed: step out of the saloon onto the dusty main street, and you’re there – every boyhood dream realised! The music suits the action and the voice acting is spot on - the drawls drawl in the right way and the southern twang is perfect.
Multiplayer is also present and correct. Well, I say correct but it was plagued by lag and connection issues when I tried it out. Still, it looked like it could be a lot of fun, with varying and interesting game modes. It’s currently badly in need of a patch and some dedicated servers though.
What we have here is the best Western shooter on the PC, and for that fact alone it’s going to rate highly. Yes, there’s repetition in a lot of the missions – they’re mainly just over the top slaughterfests. However, the setting more than makes up for this – give me this kind of atmosphere in which to kill thousands of moustachioed men in Stetsons, over a regurgitated Call of Duty-style shooter any day of the week. Actually, the biggest downer for me was the lack of the first game’s bible – quoting our Saviour whilst blasting away with a rusty piece is one of gaming’s highlights and is sadly missed here. Still, that’s a petty point. Bound in Blood is a fine piece of work, and the promised DLC can’t come fast enough for me.