It's a wonder any child of the 80's can tolerate even the passing mention of the Old West.
For as long as I care to remember, the only televisual representation of this otherwise fascinating period involved dreary Sunday black & white matinee features broadcast on TV1, which went on forever and always involved some cowboy called Butch who got shot in the back in the last scene. Possibly whilst being run over by a stagecoach driven by a fat Texan in a poncho smoking a cigar.
Because of this, I spent a decent proportion of my youth with the opinion that all Americans are loud dullards who dress in outrageous outfits and spit in the street. In the intervening years I learned that this isn't necessarily true - after all, they have "sidewalks" now - however as far as perceptions go, Hollywood did much to malign the Old West as it did to glorify it. Separating the obvious fiction from the less exciting fact was problematic for post-war Hollywood, and it must be difficult for game developers too, as it's a time period that hasn't necessarily been given as much digital attention over the years as it deserves.
2009 will likely provide us with two major gun-slinging titles, so while we're waiting for Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption, Techland and Ubisoft have released the prequel to the 2006 hit Call of Juarez, and fortunately, it's really rather good.
Sporting a heavily tweaked fourth-edition of the Chrome Engine (which rather handily gives us a look at what we can expect visually from the upcoming Dead Island) Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood features an admirably written back-story beginning around the time of the American Civil War. The erstwhile (and most likely insane) McCall Brothers are reluctantly performing their sworn duty as cannon fodder for the history books when the opportunity comes to escape the front line and protect their family home from the encroaching Union army.
After hotwiring a couple of horses and heading for the horizon, they make it back home in time to discover that the Union has kindly provided their stately residence with cannon-enhanced air conditioning, so with both the Union and their own army after them, it's Splitsville. Or to be more precise, Mexico. The story winds around the Old West and manages to include just about every stereotype you can possibly imagine. There's a solid eight to ten hours of entertainment on offer, and you don't need to have played the original to understand it, although a little knowledge of the first will see you nodding appreciatively in several places.
Each section of the game will typically require you to play as one of either of the McCall brothers. Thomas is more of the stealth option here, as he's proficient with bow and knife, and also pretty good at show-boating with a lasso as well. Ray, who many will recall from the original Call of Juarez, is more of the short-range tank, capable of absorbing lots of damage due to his use of armour, and dealing it back out with weapons such as a highly improbable portable Gatling gun.
Both brothers are equipped with a bullet-time mechanism that is acquired through killing foes. Upon activation, the immediate scene in front of you is frozen, allowing you to select as many targets as you can in a short period of time. Once the timer runs down, your targets are executed in a hail of gunfire from your weapons, which isn't nearly as satisfying as it sounds. The game alternates from using this as a novelty, to outright requiring it to give you a hope at progression, and it's not always immediately obvious which situation demands which resolution. Good on Techland for introducing a different mechanic this time around, but I suspect the time and effort in implementing this would have been better applied to keeping gameplay fluid and realistic, and perhaps spicing up the character development a little more. Think of Call of Juarez, and you think of Ray with a bible and a gun mercilessly shooting people down - Bound in Blood just doesn't seem to capture that romanticism, if mass murder can ever be described as that. Which it probably can't.
Bound in Blood has some of the most curiously rendered textures and colour palettes I've seen in a long time. At 1900x1200 with all details maxed, the draw distance is appropriate and the outdoor scenery is extensively detailed and really rather pretty. Throw in a little bit of rain and close the field of vision down to the width of a street however, and you'll experience pop-in and motion blur that can only be described as bizarre. What is even more unusual is that it doesn't seem to negatively impact on the gameplay whatsoever, almost providing the impression that this is some kind of stylised addition the developers left in to add some flair. It's either that or Ray ducked into an opium den while I was out of the room.
One area that is detrimental to the overall game however is the lack of variety in both NPC character attributes and the way in which you interact with them. The Union soldiers all look the same, and fail to scale well at range. Fire a cannon at a boatload of them and they'll shoot skywards, their long gangling legs flying in the air, giving you the unnerving impression that you've just blown up a shipment of clowns on stilts. Attempting to take down a foe during a gun duel isn't so much a matter of good skill and reflexes as to how you arbitrarily position your mouse, and on occasion the AI will just stand there and take whatever punishment you dish out.
You can just about forgive the game for its flaws once you hear it. The sound in general is superb, and the character acting really works hard to place you at the industrial birth of the West. The McCall's banter and critique of each other is entertaining, and although you'll suspect some of the more colourful characters are trying a bit hard to be authentic, you probably won't care.
Multiplayer too, is surprisingly good, with five modes available and several classes to unlock. The action is considerably improved over the original too - the Wild West Legends mode will have you participating in either aiding or preventing a robbery, depending on which side you choose, and fairly epic battles will ensue as you pitch back and forth through the map. The newly integrated Bounty system provides an incentive to team up to take out the best player, as the more kills you accumulate, the more dollars your eventual killer will receive when you're despatched. It's probably not the best FPS experience you'll have this year, but it's a refreshing change from generic alien worlds and sandy Iraq campaigns, and definitely adds longevity to the title.
There's DLC planned to expand the multiplayer modes too, so Ubisoft appear to want to support the series post-release. Who knows, perhaps we might get a third instalment at some stage in the future. With what they've done so far, they'd be crazy not to.
Bound in Blood isn't quite the open-world shooter it could have been, most sequences are fairly railed in and there's no requirement to kick over stones and closely examine the game world, but what is included is compelling, well presented and entirely within the realms of what you would expect from the series. Will you be playing it in a year? Probably not. But it has enough content to merit an extended stay in your game rotation, as while the story might arguably be over too quickly, the multiplayer props up what would otherwise be a short yet memorable saunter through the dust-filled streets of the Old West.