Monday, August 17, 2009

demo monday: call of juarez: bound in blood

SOMEONE let her son grow up to be a cowboy Slim pickings this week for demos – my recent tendency to play stuff that is current is sort of limiting my selection. Thus, my choice to play a demo for the sequel to a game that I never even read much about, let alone played.

I’ve also got this tendency lately to play big-name big-publisher games over more interesting indie titles, which highlights the unfortunate fact that AAA wallet-busters are much more common than interesting indie titles. This is not Call of Juarez’s fault. It’s just a Sad Fact.

Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood (publisher Ubisoft, developer Techland) is the sequel to 2007’s modestly reviewed Call of Juarez, but some cursory research suggests that the two are not bound together by any narrative threads. The first game was praised for its tongue-in-cheek take on the spaghetti western but rebuked for occasionally clunky gameplay, and its sequel seems poised to follow in its footsteps.

Like 97% of games these days, Bound in Blood is a first-person shooter. In this exciting new genre of games, you view events from a first-person perspective, as if through the character’s eyes. This is an exciting feature, and I think that more games should use it going forward.

Unlike 97% of first-person shooters, Juarez does not involve space marines, gritty-covered marines in a post-apocalyptic future who are fighting against their alien overlords, hired-gun marines fighting in an unspecified Middle Eastern country, or regular marines. Nope, this one takes place in cowboy times, and instead of mowing down aliens with an eighty-pound SMG, you’ll be popping caps in gunmen with your trusty six-shooter. This by itself is enough to make Juarez more interesting than half the shooters on the Xbox.

It plays just about as you would expect it to. The console first-person shooter has been fine-tuned enough in the last decade that messing it up is hard to do. What isn’t so solid is the way the game looks – the environments and character models are nice enough, but the whole thing suffers because of shadow effects gone awry – shadows are constantly moving, flickering in and out of existence everywhere, and it’s awfully distracting. At first I thought that they might be trying to go for a heat shimmer effect? But I quickly came to the conclusion that if they were trying to do that, they didn’t do it so well. At this point I would normally say that it’s just a demo and surely they’d work on this before the game’s release, but in this case the demo and the game came out nigh-simultaneously, meaning that anyone who buys this one is going to have to deal with shitty shadow shimmer.

Research suggests that Bound in Blood borrows its more interesting gameplay elements from its predecessor, but for newcomers to the series they’ll still be interesting enough to bear mentioning. Of them, the coolest is something the game dubs concentration mode – the closest analogy of which I can think is the slow-mo mode in F.E.A.R.. Basically, when you trigger this mode (there’s a gauge that fills as you dispatch enemies, and it also triggers automatically during some scripted encounters), the world slows down and baddies become vividly colored targets in the suddenly monochrome environment. Move your cursor over as many of them as possible in the allotted time, and when that time is out you’ll take them all out in a rapid burst of gunfire. It’s pretty satisfying, and the game doles them out sparingly enough that it’s not a crutch or an Easy Button just waiting to be pressed.

More awkward is a sequence that pits you against an end-of-level enemy in a quick-draw contest. The two of you circle each other, you using the left stick to move and keep your eye on the enemy and the right stick to move your hand to your holster. When the bell rings, you’d best draw quickly or you are liable to get yourself shot! It’s an interesting idea, but in practice it’s a gritty version of a Kirby’s Adventure mini-game. Also, your hovering right arm is evocative of Trespasser in that it moves in ways that no real arm would be able to.

I also should mention the swearing – it took me fifteen minutes to play that demo, and in that fifteen minutes the protagonists swore more times than in all of my other games combined. For cussing aficionados such as yours truly (or anyone who has ever watched about the same amount of HBO’s Deadwood) this is pretty unremarkable fare, but parents should be aware. But you wouldn’t buy an M-rated game for your eleven year old anyway, right?

Games like Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood and Army of Two really make me appreciate the 7.0 game, while at the same time highlighting one of the difficulties of the $60 price point. A 7.0 score from reviewers is seen as a “kiss of death” of sorts for major titles, but I think gamers just need to ratchet down their expectations a bit. There are scads of perfectly adequate games out there, many of them for $30 or less, that actually do some more interesting things than Gears of War 3 or the next Ratchet and Clank are going to do. These games deliver some solid gameplay, but just aren’t worth the $60. Amazon is currently selling Bound in Blood for $39.99 – if we could see more games like this for a price like that, I think you’d actually see some start to succeed at retail.

Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood is available now for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 platforms at a list price of $59.99, and for the PC at a list price of $49.99. As noted above, is currently it for well below that price. Played single-played Xbox 360 demo to completion.