Version tested: Xbox 360
Once again - at least until Rockstar San Diego tries to bring the cows home with Red Dead Redemption - it falls to Europeans to keep the fine traditions of the Wild West squarely in the crosshairs of popular culture. Just as Italy and Spain did in the spaghetti western films of the sixties and seventies, now an unlikely collaboration between Poland and France - in the form of developer Techland and publisher Ubisoft - is turning out videogames that capture the grit, machismo and melancholy lyricism of the USA's creation myth better than any American studio seems able.
A couple of years ago, Call of Juarez delivered its mix of stealth, six-shooting and pioneer melodrama with bible-bashing, fire-and-brimstone fervour. Of its two leads, vigilante preacher Reverend Ray undoubtedly stole the show, with his "concentration mode" quick-draw skills and crazed, throaty admonishments from the scriptures. It was an uneven game, but had the authentic tang of frontier madness that made it a great western.
The sequel is more confident, but perhaps more conservative. Techland understands that Ray was the most interesting thing about Call of Juarez, but misunderstands what made him so, in a slightly worthy attempt to trace his roots and tell his origin story as a fighter in the civil war and then a bandit on the run with his two brothers. The majority of Bound in Blood is thus a straight-shooting tale of outlaw anti-heroes chasing after treasure and fighting over a woman, and although it's still a well-spun yarn with a fantastic sense of place and time, it doesn't quite have the same fire in its belly.
It also irons out most of the first game's quirks, and railroads the action straight into a set-piece-studded shooting gallery in the Call of Duty style. Rarely in recent memory has a game been so relentlessly focused on Shooting The Men Who Are Quite Far Away And Difficult To See. A few skilful gun-slinging flourishes aside, Bound in Blood is a supremely old-fashioned FPS, but that's not necessarily a problem, because this is old-fashioned country. Rifling enemies' bodies for ammo, squinting down your sights and grimacing at reload times while you hide behind a rock suits the weaponry and wild gunfights of the era, and goes with the untamed territory.
Bound in Blood still has two leads, and Ray's younger and smoother brother Thomas inherits some of the athleticism, stealthiness and sniping skill Billy Candle had in the first game - the ability to use bow and arrow, and a lasso to climb to hard-to-reach places, for example. Ray is still a close-range force of nature with his dual pistols and love of dynamite.
But both men now enjoy a Concentration Mode: Ray's is a slow-mo moment of multiple-target selection before he releases a flurry of shots, while Thomas's is more automatic and cathartic, the game picking targets for you while you hold the trigger down and flick the right thumb-stick like you're fanning the hammer of a revolver. You can also select either brother at the start of most chapters, not that it will make much difference beyond the odd detour. Whichever you choose, opportunities for genuine stealth will be few, and you'll be putting a dozen no-good sumbitches in their graves every 60 seconds. Bang! Bang! You're dead.
None of which should suggest for a second that Techland has lost its knack for Wild West wish-fulfilment. Bound in Blood canters unapologetically through every western cliché in the book, and does so with enough vigour and sense of style that you'll enjoy the ride. The first chapter tips the nod to Call of Duty with its depiction of a battle in the Civil War, but then the brothers promptly become deserters and outlaws; they burst into saloons both guns blazing, pull bars off a jail window with a horse, steal a stagecoach, fall in love with a Mexican bandita, recognise the honour and pride of the Native American, and shoot lots of other Native Americans - as well as lots of Mexicans, lawmen, outlaws, Yankees, rebels and prospectors. They shoot lots of everybody.
As well as the on-demand Concentration Mode, which you earn the right to through rapid and skilful killing, Techland drops in a few scripted moments of superhuman gun-slinging when everything goes slow-motion. In these, twin crosshairs converge on the centre of the screen and you squeeze off shots on left and right as they pass over enemies. It's a lot more effective than it sounds, especially when it's used in tandem with both brothers storming a wide doorway from either side.
A number of chapters also enjoy a neat quick-draw contest, when you face off against a famous antagonist. The camera drops to just behind your hip and you steer your gun-slinger in cautious steps to left or right, circling your opponent, and guide your hand towards your holster with the right stick. When a bell rings, slam the right stick in to draw your gun and squeeze the trigger to kill. Not a fun game in itself - you either die or win, instantly - but a tense and superbly evocative bit of interactive cinema. There's also a decent, natural attempt at an FPS cover system that doesn't use any button-presses, just proximity and a slight modification to the way your look works. This works much better vertically than horizontally, though.
The majority of the game is entirely linear, but Techland has dropped a couple of free-roaming interludes into the middle. In each of these, you can explore a fairly wide-open expanse of first Mexico and then Arizona, picking up side-missions for extra cash, and buying new weapons at a gun store. They're a pleasant change of pace but feel very underdeveloped; the wilderness is largely empty, missions are few, and those there are aren't significantly different from the mildly objective-driven slaughter of the main story.
You sense that these episodes are primarily there to give you a moment of quiet to drink in the scenery. And although the dustbowls of Mexico and Arizona aren't the most interesting locations in Call Bound in Blood - those honours going to the misty, rain-soaked backwoods of Georgia and Arkansas early in the game - they are, like every setting in the game, subtly handled, starkly beautiful, and profoundly atmospheric. Techland's evocation of the frighteningly untamed expanse of the Old West, and the seedy desperation of a life spent clinging to it, is second to none in games.
Its storytelling isn't bad, either, although it is mostly quarantined from the endless, crackling gunfights of actual gameplay. Bound in Blood's tale is a little more grounded than the first game's, but has an epic sweep, and handles the filial tensions, the historical context, and the earthy dialogue quite well, managing a few surprises along the way. The cut-scenes are dignified by decent voice acting and let down by awkward animation; more effective, perhaps, are the expressive drawings in between chapters, with voice-overs by the third brother and conscience of the game, seminary student William. Only a weak collapse into novelty-videogame-boss-fight and pat, hurried coda undermines its authenticity.
Finally, it's well worth mentioning the multiplayer, which I wasn't able to test on this review version, but which we had already sampled at a preview event and came away impressed by. As well as adding the lovely scoring concept of "bounty" - a price on your head which mounts with your success as a player - to some fairly standard game-types, Bound in Blood also has objective-driven "Wild West Heroes" contests worked out for every map, which pit teams of lawmen and outlaws against each other, as well as a suite of unlockable character classes, and custom maps replicating famous moments in frontier history. It may not take the FPS multiplayer world by storm, but it's a solid, craftsmanlike effort with a strong sense of what western fans want.
All of which can be said of Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood as a whole. It's far too unvaried and unrelenting a shooting gallery to earn an unhesitating recommendation; although the internal pacing of each chapter is good, they're all the same, and when you find yourself taking potshots at distant, silhouetted, Stetsoned heads 10 seconds into the umpteenth level, your heart can sink. It's a little rough and old-school in some places, but that suits its cantankerous, revisionist mood and down-and-dirty subject matter. But above all, it's a proper western, set in a tangibly real Wild West, with proper, honest-to-goodness cowboys, Indians and bandits in it. Experience tells us that's harder to pull off in videogames than you might think, and it counts for a lot, no matter where it comes from.
7 / 10