The Call Of Juarez series has always been inclined to the dramatic, casting players as tortured souls with unwelcome destinies: brothers torn apart by petty jealousies against the backdrop of the American Civil War, or a preacher hunting down a wrongly accused American Indian. Call Of Juarez: The Cartel is about three law-enforcement officials putting aside the inter-departmental bullshit to get the job done.
As if dragging a spaghetti-western series into the modern day wasn’t enough, such a slim setup leaves you wondering if The Cartel even remembers where it came from. The Old West is not all that’s lost. The contemporary drug wars in Mexico are the background, and the treatment isn’t realistic or sensitive: The Cartel uses a contemporary tragedy as little more than window dressing for an HBO-lite cop story.
The Mendoza Cartel, a nasty Mexican gang, is the target, and the game follows three protagonists from three law enforcement agencies working together to bring it down. The Cartel’s selling point is threeplayer co-op, or as developer Techland has unforgivably named it, ‘co-opetition’. While playing, on-the-fly challenges pop up (numbered headshots, melee kills, etc) and, more infrequently, individual players are given a dodgy side-objective. Pull this off without getting spotted and XP, which funds weapons, is the reward, but if someone sees you they get the boost.
You’re working together to complete a level, but every so often playing dirty, and it’s a nice touch – especially when teammates are focused on a gunfight and forget their surroundings. But The Cartel has a serious problem: its core shooting action simply isn’t very good. The weapons, unlocked by progression through the campaign and amassing XP, are as standard as they come, with no real snap to their impact. It’s what you’re shooting at, however, that’s the real killer.
The Cartel’s enemies are gangsters and more gangsters, with little in the way of charm or intelligent behaviour. Each gunfight begins with a group running into cover and staying there until the end of days, popping their heads out every so often. As opponents for a co-op shooter they’re deadly dull, and when all an increased difficulty level does is increase their damage output, it’s clear that the concept doesn’t have legs. To give credit where it’s due, The Cartel isn’t all about shooting: missions usually commence with the trio investigating an area on foot, and after a little exploration and exposition the gunfights begin. But there’s little to do in these sequences beyond keeping an eye on your partners, moving steadily towards the next beacon, and praying the transition into gunfighting doesn’t involve melee. These infrequent fistfights, via a rudimentary system with no challenge or bite to it, are absolutely terrible. Fortunately they’re short – not something that can be levelled at the game as a whole, with its 15 campaign missions.
The Cartel’s final stab at variety lies in its driving sections. While vehicle handling is nothing special, and later sections can be nightmarish, such sections do break through the mediocrity to hit some occasional high notes. The chases have a little imagination to them, a few great sights along the way, and are accompanied by the best Morricone imitation The Cartel can muster. The highway can be a blood-stirring sight with this soundtrack, and these freewheeling sections offer that little taste of continuity as your gunslinging band brings down the outlaws.
But the illusion never lasts long, and The Cartel could never be called a good game – or a polished one. The visuals aren’t in the same league as its competition, there’s re-use of assets everywhere, and glitches, such as enemies disappearing and bullets hitting invisible walls, are frequent. And movement’s far too restricted, too. In the ghost town shootout, we jumped down about four feet into a ditch, assuming it was cover. Our character stopped moving, then died. The environmental boundaries are unnecessarily strict, jerking you back almost as frequently as Black Ops – sometimes so quickly that the game-over screen is up before you can turn around.
The Cartel has many problems. The voice actors turn in heroically B-list performances, their chances hardly helped by a script that swears to the point of feeling like some kind of parody. “These assholes are starting to chap my ass” is one of the milder lines. At the other end of the scale? “You have the right to get your ass shot the fuck off by me.” Even when the profanity’s dialled down, clunky lines like “You’ve been spotted red-handed by Ben!” ensure that the game will steer well clear of a BAFTA nod.
FPS games, like action movies, can be sublime or ridiculous. This is aiming for the former, and often proves to be the latter. During one of The Cartel’s moments of high drama, an exchange goes wrong and the players are left looking at a desolate scene, which fades out. Then, just before the image disappears, comes an anguished scream of “motherfucker!” It’s times like this that it becomes easy to see The Cartel attracting cult-game status for all the wrong reasons.
If the Old West is anything, it’s a giant myth, and one that the Call Of Juarez games have always embodied. What The Cartel replaces this with – a mishmash of The Shield and conspiracy theories – is a much less substantial vision, played out within a world with no real resonance to it. In Call Of Juarez, Ray tore lunatic, half-crazed promises from the Bible, and questioned his faith as he hunted a killer. In The Cartel, Ben screams out the Biblical passages, and they’re followed by nothing more than empty cuss words.
Xbox 360 version tested.