Friday, July 10, 2009

Nitpicking Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood

(Nitpicking is not meant to be a comprehensive review or synopsis of a game. It instead serves to discuss the design aspects that most contributed to my emotional response, or lack thereof, to a game. A general knowledge of the game is assumed and spoilers may be present.)

There is no question that popular culture is self-propagating. Comic books are adapted into films, films are adapted into videogames, videogames are adapted into novels, novels are adapted into films, films are adapted into toys, toys are adapted into cartoons, et cetera.

As videogaming became increasingly popular in the 1980s, science fiction and fantasy ruled entertainment media. A global empire was spawned from the early Star Wars trilogy, Orson Scott Card released Ender's Game, Dungeons & Dragons sales soared, and Star Trek returned to television. I suppose that’s why the science fiction and fantasy genres are so prevalent in videogaming today. In addition to the war genre, almost all modern first-person shooters can be categorized under the labels of science fiction or fantasy.

Despite the existence of some excellent first-person shooters in these categories, the dominance of science fiction and fantasy is unfortunate due to the negligence of a genre that is absolutely perfect for first-person shooters, the western. It is, however, not wholly unexpected given the diminished popularity of John Wayne films, Louis L’Amour novels, and television series such as Gunsmoke.

Every aspect of the western provides for an engaging first-person shooter experience. Men in the Wild West were tough, remorseless, and unyielding. They pursued their desires without regard to the consequences, and they protected what was theirs, be it family or property, with their lives. Compromise was a foreign concept, and diplomacy was achieved through the barrel of a gun. At least that’s how I perceive, and desire, the Wild West.

Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood exemplifies everything that makes a good western, and consequently is one of the most satisfying shooter experiences in recent memory. Despite its engaging characters, decently developed story, and wonderful setting, the game’s strongest aspect is the actual shooter experience.

The game does not provide players with silenced or laser-based weapons. Thousands of rounds of ammunition are not afforded or necessary in order to break through energy-based shields or armor. Pulling the trigger does not expend a mythical and dainty string of light meant to merely incapacitate an enemy.

Each weapon in Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood is real and carries weight. Pulling the trigger creates a gunpowder-based explosion in the barrel of your gun, propelling a small piece of metal meant to rip through an enemy’s organs. The kickback of the gun after every shot, the guttural cry each enemy makes as he falls to the ground, and the meticulous reloading of each individual bullet all serve to create this fantastic illusion of gunplay. I am hard-pressed to recall a first-person shooter in which clicking my left mouse button provided a more gratifying experience.

The rewarding shooter experience is extended with “concentration” events that offer the player the opportunity to easily dispatch multiple enemies. Essentially, once the player kills a certain number of enemies, he or she has the ability to kill even more enemies through an unnatural talent. Engaging in a concentration event slows time, allowing players to choose multiple targets that are very quickly and automatically dispatched. While there are several variations of concentration events in the game, the end result is always the same; where there were previously numerous opponents all bent on ending your life, only lifeless corpses remain. It is a very satisfying reward for engaging in an already satisfying shooter experience.

Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood’s strength as a shooter does not of course end with the shooting. Techland’s decision to make this a mostly cooperative game, providing the player with the option to choose between brothers Ray and Thomas McCall while affording the rejected brother as a computer-controlled partner, is brilliant.

Past first-person shooters that have forced a non-playable partner onto the player have usually failed in the endeavor, simply providing frustrating sequences due to poor AI. Computer-controlled partners have traditionally been prone to several immersion breaking characteristics, such as dying to enemies extremely quickly and easily, not knowing how to move past menial obstacles, and establishing themselves as obstacles that the player cannot travel past.

Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood provides none of these problems with its AI partner. For the most part, the computer-controlled character will remain in cover during combat, allowing the player to accrue most of the kills. Only occasionally did I see my in-game brother get a kill, though most of the time it was necessary to ensure my safety.

There also exist certain obstacles that only one of the brothers can get past. When playing as Ray McCall, the player is dependent on Thomas to help him get to higher areas or platforms. When playing as Thomas McCall, the player is dependent on Ray to kick down doors. Other such examples exist that all contribute to an experience in which the computer-controlled brother is established as an asset, as opposed to a hindrance.

Furthermore, the cooperative system really adds to the game as a whole with the simple brotherly bantering. Throughout combat the two brothers trade insults in an effort to establish themselves as the better gunslinger.

“You sure are wasting a lot of bullets,” Ray proclaimed when I emptied a full revolver clip into a single opponent.

“The fastest thing on you is your mouth,” declared Thomas during one engaging firefight.

Playing as Ray, my character responded with, “at least I hit what I’m aiming at.”

The playful bickering served to further immerse me in the game, adding substance to each of the characters and enforcing the setting. The overall dialogue and superb voice-acting established the McCall brothers as the type of men that I imagine thrived in the Wild West; those men that pursued their desires with their lives, uncaring and uncompromising towards those who stood in their way.

I even found myself attempting to improve my aim and speed throughout the game, due to the friendly competition established by the brotherly mocking.

Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood is a well executed first-person shooter, in a setting seemingly created for first-person shooters. Every design aspect serves to immerse and satisfy the player in a visceral and memorable experience. I only wish it had lasted longer, though the promise of downloadable content heartens me.

“Nice job brother,” states Thomas.

Ray replies, “No one messes with the McCalls.”

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