You could argue that the Wild West is a tough sell for a videogame. It may have been the reliable staple of action-packed kids' entertainment for years, but those who grew up daydreaming of cowboys were doing so long before the joypad made an appearance. Kids today - and by kids, I refer to most people under the age of 40 - seemingly all grew up wanting to be tormented superheroes, homoerotic space marines or superstars of reality TV. Where's the room for a Western adventure in that?
Yet there's still enough love out there for the brutal tales of the Old West to ensure that developers return to its themes every couple of years. When you play a game like the original Call of Juarez, you understand why. Atmospheric, good-looking and innovative, it combined stealth and all-out action very neatly. Most importantly, it introduced us to Reverend Ray, the gloriously unhinged outlaw-turned-preacher who intoned fire and brimstone Bible verses in a voice that sounded like it was being produced by a bulldozer's engine while gun-slinging his way through wave after wave of hapless sinners.
You don't create a character like that and then just walk away. So, having shown us Ray as a Reverend, developer Techland is doing the logical thing next - a prequel, where we get to see Ray the Outlaw, playing through the events that turn him into God's instrument of slightly demented vengeance. What that means is that this is another opportunity to storm through the Old West, rendered even more lawless than usual by the devastation of the Civil War, with Ray's gravelly tones narrating you through the carnage. In this, the core appeal of the game appears to be broadly unchanged - and so, too, is the central conceit of its gunplay.
Westerns, after all, are all about the almost mythological status of the gunslinger, and Ray is no exception. Kill enough enemies through normal means, and you'll receive the ability to enter 'concentration mode', which stops time, allowing you to drag the crosshair over your enemies for a few seconds, and promptly shoot them all when the timer runs out. A second version of the ability, wielded by the game's other playable character, Thomas, is more like a rapid-fire heat-seeking attack. In both cases, once the ability has been charged up, you've got to use it within a set time or you lose it, preventing you from stockpiling it, and keeping the game's action flowing nicely.
Thomas, by the way, is Ray's brother - explaining the game's subtitle - and with a more tactical, long-distance fighting style, he provides a gameplay foil to Ray's death-dealing juggernaut. The plot set-up has them both serving in the American Civil War, but soon deserting for personal reasons and heading further west, fighting all manner of foes including their former army comrades. In the early levels I've played, Techland has made the most of the Civil War setting, with large-scale environments crisscrossed by trenches and defined by mud and rolling palls of smoke.
The game looks pretty fantastic in general, and it's equally at home in confined environments - such as some of the claustrophobic trenches - and in wide open vistas. The scenery was one of the high points of the original game, and it'll be interesting to see what new wonders Techland can pull off with its latest engine technology. The action winds its way down through Mexico and there's talk of Incan ziggurats and all sorts by the end - making it hard to imagine the developers resisting the urge to show off with some breathtaking vistas.
If there's one concern which niggles at me about Bound in Blood, it's that the game is telling an origin story for Reverend Ray, which by extension means that the Reverend Ray we know and love isn't here. He doesn't exist yet. So certainly, you're playing as Ray, and the concentration mode and wanton disregard for human life are present and correct, but the deranged, Bible-spouting madness of the first game isn't, which takes away some of the charm. It feels like a churlish criticism when in every other respect Bound in Blood is a better, more polished game than the original, but I'd hoped to spend more time with Reverend Ray, and his more mentally stable (albeit still talking like a rock crusher) younger self just isn't quite the same.
What may compensate for the lack of the good Reverend, however, is the addition of new multiplayer components. Acknowledging that the concentration mode wouldn't work in multiplayer, Techland has instead built a whole new multiplayer side which shares themes and some weapons with the main game, but that's about it.
In a variety of mostly team-focused modes (there's deathmatch there too, but it's clearly not the main event), you choose from a set of class archetypes and head off into the fray - capturing objectives, blowing up weapons caches, or whatever the objectives of the map demand. One team plays lawmen, the other plays bandits, with the sides generally switching after each encounter.
Familiar so far, perhaps, but the game does something rather clever with its points system. Each kill is rewarded in dollars, and as you build up kills, the bounty on your head grows. Thus, killing someone who's on a winning streak will award you vastly more dollars than plugging some poor spod who's only just spawned. Dollars aren't just your score, either - they can be used to upgrade the abilities of each character class, although the upgrades are reset at the end of each map.
The game modes hold together nicely, and a really nice touch is the custom maps the team has designed for multiplayer - many of which are directly inspired by famous scenes from Westerns or from the history of the Old West. If you're looking for a gunfight at the OK Corral, Bound in Blood is the right game for you.
Due to launch in early July, Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood is shaping up to be a pretty fine way to spend a wet British summer weekend - regardless of whether you grew up with cowboys or space marines. While borrowing liberally from some of the FPS genre's best for many of its touches, it's also not a series that's afraid to innovate - concentration mode is still great fun even in its second iteration, and a new dynamic cover system mixes elements more commonly found in third-person games like Metal Gear Solid or Gears of War into the FPS recipe. Besides, he may not have picked up his Bible yet, but I'm still enjoying a bit more time behind Ray's trusty six-shooters.
Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on 3rd July.