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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Late to the Party Reviews: Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood

Like virtually none of my peers, I was raised on John Wayne movies. Dear Old Dad is probably the Duke’s greatest fan. In the wee hours of the night, when I was just an mewling wet ball of need and remained inconsolable regardless of how many bottles, diapers or pacifiers I was presented with, Dear Old Dad turned on the TV and found John Wayne Presents: The War Movie. I was immediately calmed, so the story goes (I was kind of young at the time) and thus my status as a John Wayne Fan was cemented from an early age. I was raised on El Dorado, McLintock and The Comancheros. (Indeed, it is told that, when preparing to slide down a slide, my two year old self would bellow “Charge Mon-soor!” before riding down.)

When our first was born, those late inconsolable evenings were soothed in like fashion. North to Alaska, The Comancheros, Rio Bravo. These are movies that I soothed my daughter to sleep with when acid reflux made her cry.

If I wasn’t a fan of The Duke before, believe me I would be now.

In later years, I would go see westerns in the theatres. My father won tickets to the local premier of Unforgiven. When Tombstone came out, we were all over it; and I maintain to this day that Tombstone is the finest western ever made that didn’t have John Wayne in it. My father and I even went to see Wyatt Earp, which was Kevin Costner’s failed attempt to make a movie as awesome as Tombstone. (He knew he failed too—Tombstone was released by a small studio because Costner got the bigger studios to drop it so it wouldn’t provide so much competition).

So my history with the American Western goes way back. Way back before I was born, in fact. As you can imagine, the dearth of western based video games cuts me deeply. I’ll try just about anything with a cowboy hat on it (well, except Damnation. I still read reviews, after all.) I owned Outlaw on the Atari 2600. I’ve played Outlaws on the PC. I’ve played Mad Dog McCree in arcades. I’ve even owned Red Dead Revolver for the PS2. For the most part (Outlaw and Outlaws being two exceptions), they all disappointed.

I’m not sure why the Western is so hard to pull off in video games. I suspect it has something to do with the lack of variety in the environment. Designers of western games almost always fall back on the dusty, half-abandoned town with maybe a foray into a monument valley type environment. That’s a whole lot of brown, and there are only so many brothels/saloons/general stores a player is willing to tolerate.

The problem here is the games are almost always based on the works of Sergio Leone. Sure, we all love The Man with No Name and a Fistful of Dollars, but there isn’t a whole lot of stuff going on there, from an environment standpoint. The movies basically all use the same caricature of the American West as a backdrop. At the end of the day, that makes a serviceable demo, but not a full game.

An antidote might be to watch The Searchers. In that movie, the Duke’s quest to recover his stolen nieces spans snowy mountainous regions, desert flats, monument valley, and yes, the odd dusty town. It’s rare to see a pine tree; or indeed any kind of living tree at all; in a western game. Let alone a snowflake.

This is where Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood does something right. While the game spends a fair amount of time in dusty towns, the environments your characters will venture through include wheat farms, mining camps, mountainous regions, a monument-valley-esque region, and lush pine forests. At one point you even get to blow up a dam and ride down a river in a canoe whilst being pursued by American Aboriginals.

The enemies are likewise varied. A lot of western games shy away from injun fighting. Call of Juarez: BiB gets around the PC objections by having the whooping aboriginals motivated by being rivals to a tribe that you’re working with. You’ll also spend a little time fighting the war between the states; wearing grey, if you can believe it. The main characters are Confederate soldiers who desert to defend their family farm in Georgia as General Sherman makes his famous ride to the sea. The result of your desertion come back to haunt you years after Lee turned in his sword, and any qualms you have about shooting Billy Yanks should be salved by the fact you also get to shoot Johnny Rebs later in the game. Oh, and while you’re at it, you get to fight Mexican bandits.

So I think Call of Juarez does a serviceable job if cheesing off just about everybody, from a stereotype standpoint.

And while we’re on the topic of variety, I should mention the variety of weapons. In the game, you get to play as one of two brothers, each with his own style of combat. Ray, on the one hand, is brash and impetuous. He can dual wield revolvers, or hold a revolver in one hand and a stick of dynamite in the other, or use a long gun (rifle or shotgun). Ray’s brother, Thomas, takes a more measured approach. He only wields one weapon at a time, and while his brother might kick in a door and shoot everybody before they can stand up, he would rather find a good vantage point and pick the inhabitants of the room one by one. Be that with his revolver, his rifle, his throwing knife, or his bow. He also carries a lariat that can be used to scale buildings to get the drop on his foes. Throughout the game you’ll have the opportunity to replace the weapons in your inventory, either picking up new versions of what you already have, or buying better quality versions of them at a store. Weapons come in a variety of grades, from Rusty (not so good) to Superb (take out a hummingbird’s eye at thirty paces) and there are different versions of each. You have, for example, your standard revolver, your ranger (longer barrel, longer range) your quickshooter (lower accuracy, fast firing and reloading) your hybrid (sixshooter with a shotgun built in—and yes, they really made those) and your Derringer. For long guns you have your rifle, your sniper rifle (again, they did have them in those days) your shotgun and your sawed off shotgun.

Oh, and I should mention that you will have the opportunity to fire any and all of these weapons from horseback in the middle portion of the game. Horseback controls are handled rather like they were in Oblivion, only better. And if that means nothing to you, I don’t really have the patience to describe it better. (EDIT: Oh all right, Steering and movement are handled with one stick, looking is handled with the other so you can shoot the guy next to you without your horse trying to run through him.)

Also, you can ride your horse to death, so go easy on the spurs. You’ll rarely need to go anywhere at a full gallop.

The plot centers around three brothers: Ray, Thomas and William. William is a preacher who is trying unsuccessfully to save his brothers’ wayward souls. After their mother dies and General Sherman burns their family farm, Ray and Thomas vow to rebuild. But years later, not much progress has been made and the brothers are outlaws. They hear of a legend that tells of an ancient city buried underground and full of enough treasure to buy all of Georgia, let alone the family farm. So a prospecting they go, where Ray and Thomas share an uneasy truce regarding a woman. On the way they’ll fight bandits, aboriginals and their old commanding officer who refused to lay down his sword after the war and vowed to hang the deserters he believes cost the south the war.

I won’t spoil it more than that, but a lot of people get shot and/or blown up on the way.

The gameplay itself is your basic first person shooter. Nothing done wrong, but not a lot of standout moments. Unless you count the quickdraw boss battles. Which you really shouldn’t, because while they are interesting they aren’t all that fun. Basically, you and your foe circle each other, the camera stationed to keep your right hand and the revolver on your right hip in the foreground and your opponent in the background. With the left analog stick, you move your character’s right hand. When you hear a bell, move your hand to the revolver and shoot when the crosshair reticule moves over your opponent and turns red.

On paper it sounds good. In practice, your character’s hand moves too sluggishly and you’ll find yourself dying. A lot. Eventually you’ll catch a lucky break and take down your opponent, but this minigame really serves to break the illusion of your character as a western bad-a** outlaw.

Other than that, though, the game is a lot of fun. It’s unremarkable in a lot of ways, but the environments are well crafted, the hit detection is spot on, and all of the weapons feel exactly as powerful as they should given the technology of the era.

You won’t get the feeling you’re playing a John Wayne movie. But a game will never capture that, and I will beat anyone who tries it.

That includes you, Bethesda.

Yeah, I saw what you did with Dick Marcinko. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.