Techland and Ubisoft have teamed up once again to release the second title in the Call of Juarez series. Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood (CoJ: BiB) is a prequel to 2007's successful Call of Juarez. CoJ: BiB features a rich story complete with many familiar western themes such as the strength of family, betrayal, lust, love, violence, and greed. Throughout the five Act, fifteen chapter story, gamers will unravel the story of the McCall brothers, including Ray, who was one of the protagonists from the original Juarez game. While the experience may be relatively short -- on the order of six and a half hours for me on Medium difficulty -- there's a hell of a good time to be had, and some intriguing multiplayer options to boot.
The action begins during a Civil War battle in 1864; before getting into the actual story though, I'd like to talk about the two main characters. You first get to play as Thomas McCall, the younger brother of Ray. Thomas wasn't a playable character in CoJ, but his style is similar to that of Billy in that he is more of a agile, long range shooter as opposed to a 'tank' character, like Ray. Thomas and Ray have a few playable differences, but the experience is going to be very comparable no matter which you choose. With Thomas, you'll benefit from the ability to use a bow and arrow and throwing knives for quick stealth kills, and a rope that allows you to reach higher places and get over pits. Thomas can also take a sharper aim with a rifle; when you hold down the left trigger to take aim, his crosshair gets tighter than Ray's, although you have to hold it down just a second longer. Truthfully, you rarely need that extra bit of precision, but it's good to know it's there.
Ray on the other hand is able to sustain more damage, is better with close range, revolver combat, and can throw and use dynamite (and his stout leg muscles) to break down doors. Both players are well balanced and fun to use; depending on which McCall brother you are playing as, the gameplay changes slightly. For example, as Thomas, there are a few occasions where it's up to you to use your rope to navigate the environment to either get a better view on the enemy or unlock a gate, for example. Playing as Ray during these sequences, you are going to be tasked with protecting Thomas from the enemy. Alternatively, as Ray you may need to use your strength or your dynamite to create a path.
There are also plenty of times where the game calls for both brothers to team up. Examples include when Thomas hops up an obstruction and then turns to help up his brother Ray, who is less agile. Other times, Ray joins Thomas to help push an object. One of the coolest things the brothers do is double team a doorway breech. The CPU controlled brother will run up to a door and wait for you to come over, with your designated area being marked in red. When you get there, Ray and Thomas turn simultaneously, with Ray kicking the door in. Everytime this is done, there are always anywhere from three to six enemies on the other side of the door, but the game puts you in Concentration Mode, giving you an extended second temporarily use both brothers' guns to hit the targets.
Concentration Mode is cool gameplay element that you will use often; as you damage and kill enemies, you build up a circular meter in the upper right hand corner of your screen. When this is full, the screen flashes in Concentration mode for just a split second; in this flash, the world is dark, but any on screen enemies are highlighted and plainly visible. Depending on which brother you are using, you will have a different special ability, although the effect is the same: the ability to kill multiple enemies and clear the screen. With Thomas, you rapidly flick the right analog stick as though it were the hammer on your six shooter, and the game automatically moves your crosshair from target to target. You have about three seconds to hit as many guys as you can, and generally this is a perfect amount of time to tag everyone. With Ray, you move the crosshair around the screen and 'tag' all of the enemies that you want to shoot; when the three second meter expires, or if you press B before then, he rapidly shoots all of the enemies you targeted. Also, once you fill up the Concentration meter, you have sixty seconds to use the ability; if you don't when the timer expires, the meter goes down to half full. I thought this was a very fun and useful element to the game.
...With A Great Story
Getting back to the actual story of the Story mode, gamers control Thomas to begin with and are tasked with helping CPU controlled Confederate soldiers fend off a Yankee invasion. Meanwhile, your brother Ray is at another position and is under even more duress. As his brother, you fight your way to him, and together, stave off the Yankee invasion by using six shooters, lever action rifles, dynamite, an emplaced gatling gun, and even a cannon. Immediately afterwards, and still very early into the Story, the brothers learn of the impending danger to their home as Sherman's March continues South. The two decide to desert the Confederate Army, disobeying direct orders. Upon arriving home, they find dozens of Yankees to kill and their home nearly destroyed. Inside the home is their youngest brother William, an NPC, and an extremely important character. After saving him and killing all of the unvited guests, the brothers vow to get enough wealth together to rebuild their home someday -- but for now, the Lieutenant they deserted is hell bent on finding the McCalls and hanging them. Most of this narrative is explained in cutscenes, of which there are actually quite a few of (and you can skip them if you so desire). Cutscenes are usually shown at the start, end, and at times in the middle of a chapter.
In between chapters, during the load sequence, William's character acts as a narrator, with his words complimented by simple, but good looking sketches that help describe what he's talking about. We learn of William's growing concern for the lawlessness and ruthlessness of his brothers who are go further South into Mexico after they are continually thrown out of towns for their violent and sinful behavior. In Mexico, the brothers encounter a beautiful girl named Marissa and save her from a gunslinger known as The Rattler, much to the delight of Marissa's husband, Juarez. Juarez, the leader of a large group of bandits, appreciates the brothers' skill and wants their help in seeking out a long lost stockpile of Aztec treasure. Meanwhile, a band of Apache, who possess a medallion that is the key to finding the treasure get involved with Juarez who promises them hundreds of rifles in exchange for the medallion. This large middle part of the story has gamers running missions for Juarez and learning more about the curse surrounding the treasure and the Apache involvement. We also begin to see a rift grow between the brothers over Marissa, who wants desperately to get away from the abusive Juarez.
As you can already tell, there is a great deal of story in CoJ: BiB which may surprise most first person fans. It's not to say the story is as epic as an RPG, but it's very entertaining and interesting -- it's one of the strongest aspects of the entire game, and for an FPS, that's saying something. Indeed the themes of betrayal, family, lust, and love, and greed run strong in this tale and the mix of characters makes it just that much more intriguing.
Most plot advancements and twists take place in between chapters, or missions. Chapters can take anywhere from ten to sixty minutes to complete, and in about eight or nine cases, end with a duel. Duels act as a sort of boss fight; in fact, all of the primary antagonists are dispatched this way. In a duel, players are only able to walk in a circle, left and right, and use the right analog stick to get their hand close to their pistol. The view at this point is approximately third person, too. You can't draw before it's time, and you'll know when it's time when a bell tolls; immediately upon the toll, you simply push your right analog stick in such a way that it touches your pistol and then you fire whenever your cross hair grazes over any part of the enemy. The twenty seconds leading up to the bell toll are intense; you want to position yourself in such a way that as soon as your gun is out of its holster, you have a shot; sometimes you'll get this right on the first try, other times it takes five, even ten tries. Fortunately, the game drops in a checkpoint right before the duel, and the load times, which I'll discuss momentarily, are excellent. The last note I would make about the duels is that they, like several objectives within various chapters throughout the story, feel a bit contrived. On the one hand, the story portrays Thomas and Ray McCall as ruthless men who get the job done however they can, usually by shooting first and asking questions later. Most times, right before a duel, a cutscene clearly shows both brothers in the area of the duel; it's never really explained why the brothers suddenly have a surge of honor and play these duels legit, rather than the non-dueling brother simply shooting the bad guy.
A moment ago I mentioned the checkpoints and load times, and I wanted to elaborate on that. Techland did what I would call a superb job in checkpoint placement; checkpoints are plentiful and wisely placed, cutting down on the amount of times players have to replay a sequence if they or the CPU controlled brother dies, or if for whatever reason the current objective fails. Whenever that happens, the load time to start back at the last checkpoint was always less than five seconds for me. These frequent checkpoints and speedy load times make the experience more enjoyable and that's something I can always appreciate.
Now that said, CoJ: BiB is actually one of the easier FPS games I have played in a good while. Playing on Medium (default) difficulty, it wasn't hard for this seasoned FPS player to roll through most chapters. The duels were honestly the hardest part, but when you're not engaged in duels you are fighting off steady waves of enemies who pop up on roof tops, from behind supply crates, or inside of buildings. The health system is that Call of Duty 3 style whereby you simply take cover and avoid damage to heal. You also have your trusty CPU controlled brother to help you, and he can hold his own -- I actually never had the brother character die, although if you wonder off too far from him or don't help him against enemies, the mission ends. This is rarely an issue, but there were several times where I felt rushed to continue running forward when I really wanted to stop and look around for Secrets, of which there are eighty-nine to find. These Secrets look like rolled up pieces of paper; and while they don't do anything for you in the game, you can view the unlocked historical images and concept art from the Main Menu.
I'd also like to mention that CoJ:BiB uses a currency system for players to purchase weapon upgrades and ammo. In multiplayer, money is used to unlock other character classes, more on that shortly. Throughout the Story, players will encounter a few different store fronts from which players can buy improved versions of their pistol, rifle, or shotgun. Dead enemies also drop different guns, but you will only ever need to trade up to a better gun two or three times. These stores also sell ammo as well as a bow and arrow if you're currently playing as Thomas. Since you can't sell any items, it's up to you to bring in cash. If you keep an eye out in the environment, you can find sacks of money, usually containing about $10 (with guns costing around $300-$1000). There are also optional side missions available at the store. These are presented as Wanted posters; completing these side quests earns you the posted reward. One thing I really liked about the side quests was that they were clearly defined, quick, fun, and integrated very well into the main game. When you select a mission, you don't have to travel very far (by horse) to get into the mission area; and, there are no load times. When you're done, you simply ride back to the store front to either purchase something, take on another mission, or talk to your brother to get back to the main story.
As far as presentation quality goes, CoJ:BiB impresses. Techland's new Chrome Engine 4 powers CoJ: BiB (and is the first game to do so). The visuals are crisp, vibrant, and visceral. Most locations are brown and beige, but you will also see plenty of nice water, lush green trees, and gray mountains. The only complaints that come to mind are very minor, and include some rare clipping and out of sync cutscenes (where the audio doesn't match the mouth animations). Obviously, these small faults are far outweighed by the otherwise very slick visual presentation. I thought the heat effect of the gatling gun was particularly cool, on a side note. CoJ:BiB does a great job with its audio, too. I especially like the sound of the lever action rifle firing, but the voiceovers are great and the overall effects are nice. The score was kind of quiet but that's forgivable.
CoJ:BiB includes a significant multiplayer component to it as well. Unfortunately, no co-op play is supported, which is a shame as this would make for a great split screen experience. That said, twelve player online support is included along with five modes of play and thirteen available player classes, although only five player classes are available at the outset. You unlock others by earning money and spending it. Money is gotten through killing others online and completing team based objectives, similar to many other multiplayer games like Killzone 2 or Call of Duty. Modes include Shootout (standard deathmatch, everyone for themselves) and Posse (team vs team, where the winning team kills all of the opposing team). Another mode is Wanted, whereby one player is Wanted and earns points by killing everyone else; when the Wanted is killed, he who killed him takes over as the Wanted. The last two modes are Manhunt and Wild West Legends. Manhunt is similar to Assassination from Killzone 2; there are two teams, and on one team the highest ranked player is marked as Wanted; if he can survive for sixty seconds, that team scores. If not, the opposing team gets a Wanted member and they are given the chance to score. Wild West Legends is likely going to be the most popular mode; the missions in this mode are based off of historical events and have one team trying to complete a list of objectives against the opposing (defending) team. Some of these objectives are optional, others aren't.
While it's still very early in its release, CoJ:BiB is likely to garner a solid multiplayer community and I wouldn't be surprised to see some DLC later this year. What I have played thus far online has been fun and without any technical issues.
With that, let's get to the summary...