Happy trails

Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood slings past its many faults
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Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood

(Techland, Ubisoft; PC, XBOX360, PS3)

GAMER Though the cowboy is a quintessentially American hero, the Western genre has flourished in the hands of foreigners. Famous for his "Dollars" trilogy, Italian director Sergio Leone was one of the many European filmmakers who reinvented and preserved the form, even as it became unfashionable in the U.S. With this in mind, the efforts of Polish developers Techland in creating Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood are impressive, but less surprising. Replicating the distinctive look and tone of many gun-slinging classics, the team tiptoes the split-rail fence separating homage from imitation, crafting a first-person shooter with enough escapist, six-gun fun to counterbalance its many faults.

The game is a prequel to 2006's uneven Call of Juarez, providing back-story for the original's two protagonists — Billy Candle, a kid with a knack for getting trapped in nigh-unplayable Thief (1998) — style stealth levels, and Ray McCall, a Bible-toting psychopath who could harangue his enemies with scripture at the press of a button.

Ray is back, swapping his good book for a brace of Colts, and he's joined by his brother Thomas, who favors a long rifle, a lasso, and a waistcoat full of throwing knives. Each sibling has a distinct playstyle, and you choose to control one or the other at the beginning of most levels. This is a welcome elaboration on the first game's alternating setup, in which players would clear each level twice, first as Billy, then as Ray, hot in pursuit. Having the choice in Bound in Blood adds some needed variety, and invests the player in the brothers' increasingly fierce rivalry.

Their enmity revolves around Marisa, the femme fatale astride a convoluted plot that draws on a number of Western tropes. Buried gold, rogue Confederates, angry Apaches, wisecracking banditos — it's all there. Ray and Thomas blast their way through reverent, set-piece shootouts, trading gruff jibes as competition for Marisa's affections heats up. With two playable characters, the lack of split-screen or online co-op is a glaring oversight, as irksome as the aggressive auto-aim or the brain-dead, shooting-gallery AI. Pistol-duel boss fights comprise the game's best moments, switching the camera to holster-eye third-person and requiring the player to slowly circle their opponent before quick-drawing and firing at the toll of a bell.

Class-based multiplayer will keep some cowpokes coming back, but this seven-hour game is probably better as a rental. Though it's not bad, and certainly not ugly, "good" would be too kind.

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