History Lessons: Call Of Juarez: Bound In Blood

If you haven’t yet, you should read my History Lessons post about the original Call of Juarez first. Other History Lessons posts (including my Introduction) can be found here. Lastly, and as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

Back when I wrote my History Lessons post about the original Call of Juarez, it was already a bit of a stretch; the game was only seven years old at the time. But that game was fascinating in how it straddled different eras of first-person shooter design, so I found myself interested in its historical context as much as anything else.

I did not originally intend for my post about the prequel, Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood, to be another History Lessons post, even though I took so long to get around to it that the prequel, itself, is now seven years old. As I played it, however, I realized it’s a perfect illustration of all the design tenets that have become commonplace in first-person shooters since the original game, making it an excellent counterpoint. In short, I was once again interested in its historical context, so here we are.

Before I continue, I should restate that this piece will be making numerous comparisons to the original Call of Juarez, so you really should read my History Lessons post on that game first.

Finished? Read on.

When I played the original Call of Juarez, I was surprised to find that was released for PC only, with a nine month wait before the Xbox 360 port appeared. These days, games from the big, AAA publishers (like Ubisoft, publisher of the Call of Juarez series) tend to target consoles (e.g. Xbox, Playstation) right out of the gate, since that’s a more profitable channel for these high-budget games. These games come to PC too, but they are typically designed with a console gamepad in mind, and do not always translate well to more traditional PC control devices like the mouse and keyboard. One can always use a gamepad on PC, of course, but I was pleased to find that Call of Juarez was designed to take advantage of the precise aiming offered by my mouse, as well as other details traditionally associated with PC games, such as the ability to lean to the side (useful for dodging bullets while in slow motion).

Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood, on the other hand, was clearly aimed at consoles first, a fact that was evident the moment I started the game and saw the changes to the engine. Developer Techland’s proprietary Chrome Engine was another pleasant surprise in the first Call of Juarez, giving the game it’s own tactility and providing some still-impressive visuals via its support for the then-brand-new DirectX 10. That was the third iteration of the Chrome Engine; Bound in Blood uses the fourth, and the differences are striking. DirectX 10 support is gone, leaving DirectX 9 as the only option. The major consoles couldn’t take advantage of DirectX 10, and PC players had largely shunned Windows Vista and therefore couldn’t use DirectX 10 either (the more warmly received Windows 7, which supports DirectX 10 and 11, wouldn’t be released for another month), so I can understand why. But it means that in some ways, Bound in Blood actually looks worse than the original Call of Juarez did with DirectX 10 enabled. Lighting is the most obvious. The sunshine across the iconic Western landscapes looks artificial by comparison, and the artistic choice to mute the colors, such that everything looks like it’s being viewed through sunglasses, doesn’t help. As such, my initial impression of the game was a poor one, although I later came to realize that nearly everything else in the visual department is improved, from the texture mapping to the character models.

This initial impression was not helped by the small default field of view (usually abbreviated as FOV). This setting determines how much of the game’s world is viewable at any given time. Imagine one’s screen is a window into the world of the game. If one is sitting on a couch a short distance away from this window, one would only be able to see a small portion of the scene at any given time. But if one were standing right next to the window, one could take in a wide vista all at once. For a game to feel natural, the FOV setting needs to be matched to one’s distance from the screen in this way; otherwise, panning the game’s “camera” around can look really strange (like tunnel vision, or a fisheye effect) and can even induce nausea. Console games, which are designed to be played on a television several feet away, tend to have a small FOV setting, whereas PC games played on a monitor very close to one’s face, feel natural with a much larger FOV setting. In Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood, as soon as I took a look around the game’s introductory chapter I felt the telltale tunnel vision of a console-optimized FOV setting.

I checked the in-game options menu but did not find any option to change the FOV. This is not uncommon. So I poked around some of the game’s .ini files and searched online to find where I could adjust the FOV that way. But I was confounded once again. After more searching I discovered an unfortunate peculiarity of the Chrome Engine: the FOV setting is baked into the game’s levels themselves, and cannot be easily adjusted as a global property as it can in other games. In order to change it, I had to install a user-made mod that is actually intended to adjust the guns and levels in the game for improved realism. While working on the levels, the mod creator discovered how to change the FOV, and decided to offer altered FOV versions of every level in the game. I would have preferred to have left the guns and levels as the designers originally made them, but this mod is the only way to adjust the FOV, so I decided it was worth it. The changes seem relatively minor, mostly related to which weapons enemies carry and which ones are available for purchase in shops.

While I’m mentioning graphical troubles, I should also point out that I had some really bad tearing in the game. I tried to turn on vertical sync (the usual fix for this) in the options menu, but it wouldn’t actually engage, nor would it when trying to force it in my graphics drivers. This problem may have been related to my specific hardware. I ended up using my trusty backup solution, procured back when I first played The Witcher: a little program called D3DOverrider that runs in the system tray and forces vertical sync. Worked like a charm.

Having finally sorted that out, I was able to start playing, and was further discouraged. The moment-to-moment gunplay in the game is significantly different than in the first Call of Juarez, wherein I spent most of my time using Reverend Ray’s awesome quick draw slow-motion ability to gun down multiple foes before ducking behind cover to reload. There are still slow-motion abilities in Bound in Blood, but they are different and used far less often (more on that later). Instead, the focus has shifted to firing from cover. I understand that this has been the design used in many modern first-person shooter games, including the hugely popular Call of Duty series, but I haven’t actually played a first-person game with this type of design before. Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood’s “adaptive cover system”, which lets players “stick” to cover and peek around its edges to fire at enemies certainly took some getting used to. It can be switched off in the options menu, but with the game’s strong focus on hiding behind cover, it seems silly to do so. Besides, it generally works well — except when trying to hide behind a tree or pillar, which leads to inadvertently circling around into the open and promptly getting shot. No, my discouragement came from another design decision: the implementation of regenerating health.

I’ve played other games with regenerating health and had a fine time. Here, however, it was maddening. A typical gunfight in Bound in Blood saw me behind a crate or rock, peeking over the top to fire at some enemies, and quickly getting shot myself. The only remedy for this situation is to crouch completely behind cover and wait for several seconds, while AI-controlled allies get to shoot most of the enemies for you. Continuing to attack after getting shot is out of the question: the screen is covered by a red smear and blurring effect so I can’t see my enemies, aim is shaken and unreliable, allies shout to get behind cover, and taking another hit means death. Often I would get shot just as I’d gotten a bead on an enemy, so I’d have to hide for a bit, then re-emerge to find the enemies had moved to new positions, and before I could spot them I’d get shot again. This pattern repeats for the entire game, and it’s not fun at all.

In the original Call of Juarez, if Reverend Ray or Billy Candle got shot, they’d have to keep fighting on in the hope of nabbing some health-restoring whiskey from a downed foe. Taking a few bullets and getting low on health became tense and exciting, as I had to eliminate the opposition without taking any more hits. In Bound in Blood, getting shot just means a time out for a while, before re-joining the fight with no idea what had happened in the intervening moments. In all likelihood, the enemy who shot me is already dead, gunned down by one of my allies, and new enemies may have entered the fray. It really breaks the flow of combat; I’d have much preferred a system where my own health could only be restored by successfully gunning down my aggressors.

All of this is a remarkably large shift in design, given that only two years passed between the release of the original game and the prequel. To play both games is to experience a generational shift in first-person shooters, from a run-and-gun style filled with a ton of crazy ideas (enough of which work to make the game a lot of fun) to a streamlined, cover-based design filled with set pieces and a strong story focus. The latter could easily describe any number of hugely successful games in recent years, so it’s no wonder that Techland went down this path for Bound in Blood, but as I haven’t played many of these games I felt awkward and confused at first. As I played more, however, I began to learn how to handle the gunfights, and realized there’s actually a lot to like in the game.

As a prequel to the original game, Bound in Blood tells the origin story of Reverend Ray, the absolute star of the original. There, he is an old preacher who long ago put away his guns in favor of a bible, but digs them out again to seek holy vengeance when his brother is killed. Here, we learn of his gunslinging younger days, and see firsthand the story of his two brothers and how he came to the Lord. For most of the game, players can choose between controlling Ray McCall or his younger brother Thomas, with the other under computer control for any given chapter. The two brothers play very differently; Ray is slower and tougher, and great at close range with his dual-wielded pistols, whereas Thomas is more agile, better at climbing, and good at long range with a rifle or bow.

The youngest McCall, William, is a seminary student forced to abandon his studies as the game opens, as the family home in Georgia is threatened by General Sherman’s troops in the American Civil War. He acts as narrator and moral center for the story, telling us how his brothers deserted the Confederate army to defend their family home, an act that left the three of them on the run. The war and its aftermath change his older brothers, who become violent outlaws seeking the fabled Aztec gold buried near Juarez, as William tries in vain to turn them back to the path of righteousness.

There are tried-and-true themes running throughout, so it won’t win any originality points, but as a whole the story is told confidently and well. As with the first game, however, the opening is not the strongest point. The first chapter puts players in control of Ray and introduces his abilities and strengths, but it’s set during a Civil War battle and is full of special events and set pieces that don’t represent what the rest of the game will be like. The voices also seem a bit off here, with long pauses between lines in what should be urgent conversations. Ray’s voice also seemed strange to me. I absolutely loved Marc Alaimo’s voice acting as Ray in the original game, but there Ray is an old man. Bound in Blood takes place about twenty years earlier, so at first Marc’s voice felt out of place for Ray. This didn’t last long; Alaimo is in excellent form here, and plays Ray differently enough that I was soon completely convinced. In fact, the voice work is high quality throughout, not just for the McCall brothers, but the supporting cast as well (barring a few dodgy Mexican accents).

The Civil War setting for the opening is interesting. In many ways, it’s the perfect starting point, as it provides exactly the motivation needed to set the McCall’s onto a new path that will eventually sever their strong family ties. General Sherman was famous for his “total war” strategy, laying waste to farms and homesteads in addition to military targets. Those whose homes were caught in his warpath would be understandably motivated to become outlaws, and many of the most famous outlaws of the period were former Confederate soldiers, like Jesse James and the Younger Gang. On the other hand, the Confederacy is strongly associated with slavery, with many explicit mentions of slavery in the Confederate Constitution, and a famous speech from Confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens in which he asserts that the Confederacy is founded upon the idea that “negros” are inferior to white men. Needless to say, the writers of Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood did not want to be seen to condone this racist ideology.

The result, however, is awkward. I don’t think that the writers wished to get into the issue of slavery at all, being more interested in the war as a motivating factor for their protagonists. No black people, slaves or otherwise, appear in the game, but to completely ignore the issue would clearly be seen as insensitive, especially for a non-American development studio. During the introductory wartime chapters, Thomas and Ray occasionally wonder if the destruction they witness was wrought by slaves, but it always turns out to be the Union army instead. The McCalls carefully avoid expressing any opinion on slavery, but their former army commander, who becomes one of the game’s antagonists, is wont to speak his racist beliefs aloud. By associating these ideas with a villain, the writers are able to pass judgment upon them decisively, but the execution is a bit heavy-handed and obvious.

Once the Civil War portion of the story is done and the McCalls find themselves in more familiar Western territory, the game seems to relax a bit, able to be what it set out to be: a story about outlaw gunslingers searching for buried treasure. As in the first game, developers Techland were eager to include all sorts of Western staples, and the adventure sees the McCall brothers deal with border-town sheriffs, Mexican bandits, strong-arm mining barons, railroad companies, and no fewer than three Native American tribes (although, disappointingly, they are all presented the same in the playable sections). But all these adventures mean that the main story suffers from pacing issues. The seeds of the eventual schism between Ray and Thomas are sown early, but take too long to bear fruit, as the brothers face one wild west adventure after another in the meantime. Plus, players already know how it’s all going to end, so what should have been an interesting finale falls a little flat. It’s still a good story with mostly great acting, however, and it made me appreciate the courage displayed in the original game, in which players are almost bystanders in the overdue conclusion of a story that started long ago. Some clumsiness in execution hindered the full impact of that in the original Call of Juarez, but playing through that backstory in Bound in Blood gave me a new appreciation for what Techland were aiming for with their first entry in the series.

The supporting cast in Bound in Blood are much better than in the original as well. The Confederate soldiers, Mexicans, and Native Americans that the McCalls meet are all well acted in the game’s many cutscenes. I found the character of Marisa especially interesting. In the first game, women were relegated to damsels in distress (with the exception of one prostitute). Marisa is the only woman in Bound in Blood, and while she fits into many common tropes for female characters, including the damsel in distress, the helpless victim, and a participant in a love triangle, the writers at least spent time discussing her motivations and attempted to make her a believable and sympathetic character. I think she suffers from literally being the only woman in the game, but her character is definitely an improvement compared to women in the original Call of Juarez.

Being a fan of Reverend Ray, I chose to play as Ray McCall every chance I got. As mentioned above, he plays differently this time, unable to rely on his quick draw slow-motion ability like he could in the original. Instead he must do battle in real-time, although he’s still deadly with his fast-firing dual pistols. Given that he’s constantly fighting alongside his brother Thomas, however, I felt compelled to constantly move forward and help my brother out, rather than being able to take my time and explore the levels. There was almost always something urgent happening, which can be exciting but also felt restrictive. But I soon acclimated, and really started to enjoy myself. The regenerating health design aside, the gunfights in Bound in Blood are well designed and satisfying once one knows how to approach them. And I soon got used to Ray’s new slow motion ability, which can be activated after charging it up by dispatching enough enemies. It’s a fitting one, slowing time to a crawl and letting Ray haphazardly paint his foes with targets before gunning them all down in a hail of bullets. Thomas, always more of a sharpshooter, instead gets a mode that fully freezes time and auto-targets enemies while he fans the hammer on his pistol to take them out with precision. Ray’s quick draw ability from the original game does make an appearance at certain set points, when both brothers burst through a door in tandem and take out a group of enemies with slow motion precision. These moments are the same whether one plays as Ray or Thomas, and lost most of their luster due to being limited to set points in each chapter.

The standard chapters are fun, but the real highlights come midway through the game, when the brothers are set loose in a wide open exapnse, free to explore and tackle some side missions for extra cash (which can be spent to purchase ammo and higher quality weapons). No doubt inspired by a similar standout section in the original game that saw Billy Candle let loose in a wide wilderness, these chapters let one of the McCall brothers set off on his own, without constantly having to cover for the other. I loved the sense of freedom these chapters provided, and hoped to see more in this style. In practice, there are only a few points of interest and only a few contracts to pursue, but I loved the idea and hope to see Techland do something more in this vein with the series at some point.

When I finished the game I intended to go back and try playing as Thomas, and was further encouraged to do so when I unlocked a new, even higher difficulty setting. Now that I’d grown accustomed to the game, I found the early sections to be much easier and enjoyed the stiff challenge offered by this new mode. I also decided to try to find all the secrets. There were secrets scattered around in the original game too, but I felt more inclined to find them this time, because they unlocked extra bits of dialogue from the McCall brothers’ journey. OK, some of them actually unlock some historical photography, illustrating just how much careful research went into the game, but for me the real treat was the extra dialogue. I’m always happy to hear more from Marc Alaimo, of course, but Zach Hanks and Carlos Alazraqui are also excellent as Thomas and William, respectively. Searching for these extra tidbits often meant going against the forced urgency of most of the chapters, and could be awkward in a few cases when only one of the two brothers could access them, or when it meant I had to hang back and risk letting my brother die while I poked around. But mostly I enjoyed the process, even though I could only find some of them on my own and had to resort to an online walkthrough to find the rest.

Having played as both brothers, I think the game would work best by playing a mix of the two throughout the story. Some chapters are more suited to one brother’s skills — although there’s little way of knowing this before choosing — and the brothers’ different styles help add variety to the game. This is needed as chapters in the game do start to feel similar, despite their different settings; there’s little else besides standard gunplay involved. Thomas’s introductory chapter explains how to use throwing knives to dispatch enemies stealthily, making me wonder if he would fill a role similar to Billy in the original game, who often sneaked through areas instead of fighting. But after that introduction stealth is forgotten, and Thomas engages in straight up gunfights just like his brother, never needing to use his throwing knives again. The original game had other crazy ideas besides stealth too, including a wonky fist fighting system, but Bound in Blood cuts most of these to focus on its core gunplay. One on one duels make a return, but they’re far less fiddly this time around, and feel more satisfying as a result. Other than that, it’s pretty much straight shooting.

Which isn’t a problem. Despite my early frustrations, by the end I had thoroughly enjoyed my time with Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood, which offers a well-written and well-acted tale along with some solid action once I was accustomed to how it all worked. I would definitely recommend it, with a warning that those coming from the original game should be ready for something different. There are enough improvements here to make me very excited for the latest entry in the series, Gunslinger (I am consciously pretending that the allegedly dreadful Call of Juarez: The Cartel, released between Bound in Blood and Gunslinger, does not exist). It leaves the McCalls behind in favor of new characters, which is probably the correct decision, and by all accounts it’s pretty great. Before that I need a bit of a break from Westerns, though, so I’ll play some other things in the meantime.

Before I finish I wanted to mention the music. Composer Paweł Błaszczak returns with another soundtrack that melds a traditional orchestral style with the recognizable Western soundtrack style of Ennio Morricone. While I found this nice enough in the original game, it really grew on me in Bound in Blood, giving the series its own distinct sound. It would have been easy to simply ape Morricone’s style, but instead Błaszczak provides a truly original score that nevertheless perfectly fits the adventures of outlaws in the wild west. Looking him up, I discovered he also co-wrote the score for The Witcher, which shouldn’t come as a surprise; that game also successfully blends a traditional orchestra with a more period-appropriate sound to create a memorable score. Błaszczak also scored Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, so I look forward to hearing his music there as well.

If you are interested in the Call of Juarez games, they’re both available from online retailers like Steam. May you be quick on the draw, compadre.

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