One of the many sad things about being a grown-up is that it's no longer acceptable to run around school playgrounds with a stick in your hand. You still can, obviously - but if you do the police will show up and ask you to "help with their enquiries".... enquires that will probably lead to several weeks in the local hospital. I don't know about you, but to me that sounds like a heavy price to pay for a make-believe game of cowboys and Indians.
Under the circumstances, you'd most likely be better off playing Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood- a Western-themed FPS from Techland and Ubisoft. We've already had a fair bit of time spinning our pistols in the single-player campaign, but last week I saddled up to check out the multiplayer side of things in the violent and untamed scrublands of The Wild West (or more accurately, a swanky bar in London's Covent Garden).
While Bound in Blood's single-player game sees you following the turbulent exploits of Ray and Thomas McCall, multiplayer lets you pick a character class from a rather generous range of 13 gunslingers (although eight of these will need to be unlocked first). Initially it may seem a little hard to appreciate the differences between these load-outs, since there's far less variation than in something like Team Fortress 2. With the exception of the Native American (who gets a bow), everyone is armed with some combination or variation of pistols, shotguns and rifles. "Okay," you're thinking. "Guns are guns. You point the long end at someone and then you pull the trigger. How much variety can there be?"
As it happens, the somewhat contradictory answer is that there is lots of variety as a result of minor alterations. You see, there's a curiously small-scale focus to the action in BIB: this being the Old West, you won't find people running around with 50-round clips jammed into their laser-sighted machine guns. Most weapons will be able to fire no more than six shots before they need a reload, so you've got to make every bullet count. Under these circumstances, everything is centred on the nature of your gun - how it fires, and what it fires.
This situation became apparent within seconds of starting a free-for-all deathmatch - or a Shootout, as it's called here. Each of the thirteen classes is armed with one or two weapons and has a different running speed and health rating. Since most classes will take a dirt nap after one or two hits, and since your rate of fire is limited, it's essential to find a load-out that you're comfortable with. The Miner gets a shotgun and several sticks of dynamite to lob around (the nearest thing you'll get to a grenade), while The Spy is extremely quick but is only armed with a puny little Ladies Gun. The Hombre, meanwhile, is a badass Mexican who gets to run around with a sawn-off shotgun in each hand. This means he can fire up to four times between reloads, but his firepower is only effective from a relatively close range. To use him properly you'll have to use his speed to dash up to your enemies and unload in their face.
In the end, I found myself most at home with The Veteran - a Civil War soldier who uses a slow-firing but deadly rifle to take down his opponents with single shots. You can change your class between spawns, but once you've settled on one you're comfortable with it's a good idea to upgrade yourself. As you kill off other players you'll earn cash based on the bounty on their heads (i.e. better players give you more money). After a few kills you'll have enough to boost your stats. Levelling up improves your health and speed, as well as the amount of ammo you can carry, but it doesn't appear to unlock any new weapons. All the same, you'll certainly notice the changes - another case of small details going a long way. Class improvements only last for one round, so everyone starts from a clean slate at the start of a match.
The bounty system seems to have quite a significant presence in deathmatches where everyone competes to earn the most dosh. When you're at the top of the leaderboard you're the most valuable prize on the map, so everyone will be after your sorry hide - and when someone finally nails you, they'll get a significant bonus to their own standing. It's a nice feature that gives games a decent sense of balance and risk - but it plays less of an important role in the Wild West Legends mode, which is arguably where BIB's multiplayer really takes off. Here, in teams of up to six gunfighters, you'll re-enact some the most famous battles of Western history - including the gunfight at the OK Corral and the downfall of Billy the Kid.
These historical recreations take a similar form to the Conquest matches popularised by Unreal Tournament. One team attempts to capture a number of control points, while the other side tries to stop them. That sounds rather dry and technical, but in practice what this amounts to is a highly enjoyably game of cowboy cops and robbers. One map, titled "Frisco", sees a gang of bandits attempting to break into a small town so that they can kill the Elfego Baca, a renowned lawyer: the goons begin by blowing their way through the main gates, fight their way into the centre of town and then breach the doors on Baca's hideout. The second map I tried was even better - following the notorious High Fives gang as they robbed a bank in Nogales, Arizona. The thieves have to break into the bank and dynamite the safe, then head over to the stables to steal horses before finally escaping.
As you might guess, these scenarios are hugely enjoyable. Maybe it's just the vivid nature of the setting, but for some reason I found myself really getting into the narrative of what was going: this wasn't just another deathmatch in a Western skin, it was me and a group of buddies robbing a bank. I do have a rather over-active imagination, but I still imagine that a lot of people will find these matches to be rather involving. At one point I got shot in the head as I was mere steps away from escaping town, and this genuinely felt like a dramatic moment from a classic movie. The only real problem with this mode is that it's significantly more fun to play the bad guys, but after each match the teams swap over, so at least everyone gets a go.
All in all, I have to say that I rather enjoyed my time with Bound in Blood's multiplayer. I doubt that it's going to give Modern Warfare 2 a run for its money, but as a variation from the norm it should offer plenty of good times. It takes a little while to get used to the shooting - crosshairs seem to maintain a constant accuracy, no doubt to off-set the slower rate of fire - but on the whole I like the emphasis on making shots count. I also have to say that I find the cover system to be less awkward than Tom did on his last playtest; perhaps it's toned-down in multiplayer, or perhaps the higher pace of action makes it less important. The Wild West Legends mode is certainly worthy of a decent user base, so let's hope that the game does well enough to give it one.
Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood will be released on July 3 for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.