I like to think of gaming as a highly refined and cerebral activity, but this assumption is often belied by how games with good ideas just don’t cut it sometimes if the execution falls flat. One such game is the new Call of Juarez, a game infused with some interesting mechanics that utterly fails at properly implementing them them. What you are left with is a generic shooting experience with a few new features thrown in that do little but baffle and confuse.
Those familiar with the previous CoJ titles will be expecting another affectionate Wild West shooter romp. Sadly, The Cartel attempts to break from this trend by setting itself in the modern day. I can understand an attempt to freshen up the series’ dynamics but, as the spaghetti western setting was one of the major draws to the Call of Juarez series, removing it has effectively shot the game in the foot from the get go. The packaging tries to fool you with promises of “the new wild west” but, aside from a character being descended from the McCalls and a brief venture through the now desolate town of Juarez, this game has little to do with its predecessors.
The story follows DEA investigator Eddie Guera, FBI agent Kim Evans and police investigator Ben McCall as they are thrown together as an inter-agency task force to investigate the recent bombings on a DEA building by the infamous Mendoza drug cartel. Other plot threads get introduced regarding on old feud during the Vietnam war and McCall’s search for personal vengeance. The plot is fairly average all the way through, with the few exciting moments throughout being let down by other sections of sheer narrative confusion. One thing that remained consistently awful throughout though was the game’s representation of Mexican culture. Being Caucasian and not a member of a gang I can’t corroborate the facts, but I’m almost certain that Mexican gang members know more words than “gringo,” “motherfucker” and “bitch.” You can tell a bunch of suits thought it would make the game hip if they included a billion expletives a second, so expect some pointlessly coarse language throughout.
One thing that really worked in the narrative was the interaction between the three protagonists. Though each one individually is a horrible stereotype, the drama created between them was enjoyable enough, especially when each one has their own agenda amongst the team’s supposedly unified activities. This also extends to a rather intriguing gameplay mechanic. Being in control of one member out of a three man team, your other two members can be controlled by your buddies in online co-op. What makes things interesting is the side missions introduced for each character. The protagonists all maintain contact with their respective superiors who then give them specific orders that must be carried out in secret. It may be collecting smuggled guns, contacting an informant or planting bugs, but all of these missions won’t reward players unless they are done without your teammates’ knowledge. Successfully doing these nets you points that unlock new weapons, but your allies will be actively trying to prevent you from completing these side missions.
It’s a great little idea, and one that is also used to fuel plot threads regarding each character’s personal agendas and motivations. It is rather limited though in the long run, with objectives being located in the same place each time a level is replayed. When it comes to online co-op with people who have played the game before, this means you’ll have very little chance of completing your side missions. If you aren’t playing online then you’ll find the remaining squad members replaced by AI. This does dumb down the experience though as, not only are your AI companions rather slow and unhelpful but, they also are very unaware of what the player is doing, making side missions all too easy to accomplish. I’d go as far as saying that easy is a word that is all too descriptive of The Cartel in general. Whilst previous Call of Juarez games offered a stern challenge, The Cartel is embarrassingly easy on all but the hardest mode. The enemies start to ramp up in number near the end of the game, but the flat enemy AI fails to introduce any kind of legitimate challenge.
As far as general gunplay is concerned, things are fairly old school in The Cartel. Speed is the name of the game, with fast movement, unlimited sprint and dual wield pistols being a favoured form of entry. Things feel quite smooth, and the swift pace keeps things fairly addictive. Whilst this no-frills structure can be refreshing though, it also leads to repetition. Some cool set pieces, fist fights, slow motion door entries and driving sections clean the palette here and there, but you still can’t shake the feeling of deja vu when you’ve mowed through yet another group of gang members with a rifle for the hundredth time.
The story mode offers enough explosions and large scale battles to feel cinematic, but it is really let down by sloppy production values. It really is the little things that spoil it, with subtitles not quite matching up, dodgy lip-synching and generally poor visuals taking the wind out of The Cartel’s proverbial sails. The graphics and sound are mediocre at best, but PS3 users get the worst of the brunt. The Xbox 360 version we got our hands on was relatively stable throughout, but the PS3 copy I received was plagued with inconsistencies. The sound regularly cutting out and a few texture glitches were about the worst of what I fared, but it certainly isn’t a good sign when my experience on Xbox 360 was relatively glitch free. If you’re lucky enough to have a choice of platform, I found the Xbox 360 version was the superior one during my time with The Cartel.
If you’re able to get over The Cartel’s flaws and enjoy the experience, you’ll find a fair bit going on under the hood. The main story mode is long enough, pushing in at around the ten hour mark if you don’t rush it. Though each character is meant to have a particular area of expertise, they all play in a practically identical manner. That said, each protagonists’ game offers different side missions and the odd bit of separate dialogue to warrant extra play-throughs. You also have a competitive multiplayer mode that serves as a nice distraction, though it generally feels quite derivative. You find a few new features worth noting, such as team based perks that only activate when you’re near your specified “buddy” on your team and the need to drive getaway vehicles in objective based multiplayer. There isn’t anything original enough to pull you away from the big hitters, but it could be a nice little multiplayer title provided it can maintain a stable community.
Call of Juarez: The Cartel, like many contemporary titles, has trouble distinguishing itself amongst an ever cluttered market. Having lost the wild west setting that once defined the series, The Cartel introduces some entertaining new gameplay concepts that aren’t executed well enough to act as proper compensation for the now generic thematic content of the game. We can only hope that Techland will take the series back to its roots for any future instalments, but in the meantime I’d think long and hard before investing your moolah into a copy of The Cartel. Though the game isn’t all bad, in a market full of high quality titles, Call of Juarez: The Cartel is difficult to wholeheartedly recommend to all but the most avid and belligerent of FPS players.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360.
Fast paced gunplay, Simple to pick up, Cool ideas for co-op side missions, Story has some good moments, Multiplayer is a nice distraction
Shoddy production values, Convoluted narrative, Horrible attempt at infusing “Mexican gang culture,” Very derivative, The good ideas are often poorly executed