Developer: Techland / Publisher: Ubisoft / Price: $59.99 / Played on: Xbox 360 / ESRB: Mature [Blood, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Sexual Content, Strong Language]
It’s an explosive start (a little reminiscent of The Darkness) as you careen in an SUV, hanging out of the window on occasion to shoot back at whomever the hell is chasing your vehicle. That’s a chase on a recognizable Los Angeles freeway, not a pursuit across cactus-dotted wild Western deserts. Yes, this is a Call of Juarez game, but it’s a reinvention in a modern setting, and in many ways loses its raison d’etre.
The U.S. is on the brink of war with Mexico. The drug cartels have so infested American cities that the right-wing TV commentators are demanding invasion to protect the youth (or something). It’s a whole bunch of pseudo-real world gibberish, but serves to establish the conflicted motives and backgrounds of the three equally dislikable protagonists. One, Ben McCall, is the close approximation to the bad-ass star of CoJ: Bound in Blood that owed plenty to family conflict, while working in disquieting situations (briefly) as a Confederate soldier. This Ben McCall is grizzled, foul-mouthed, and a bit of a dick. His cohorts are an agent maligned by gambling debts, and another conflicted by allegiances, and they’re all puppets of a regime preaching tolerance and practicing duplicity.
You can play any of the 15 missions as any of the characters, where each theoretically brings a slightly different skill (close combat, long range, medium ass-kicking), but ultimately play out how you want them to proceed in any given encounter. They collectively bicker through a campaign that traverses the back-alleys of LA to the wild West of Colorado, to the drug lord palaces of Mexico. Their stories intertwine in dialogue that is just too convoluted, like the developers tried super-duper-wuper hard to make it authentic, but instead stumbled into the ludicrous.
Now, while the dialogue can simply be muted, the gameplay processes that reinforce these storylines are more convoluted. But largely, that’s because playing The Cartel as a single-player game is clearly missing the developer focus. The most complete experience is earned with two buddies taking the other roles. Aside from making your two buddies more effective than their AI chumps, it also integrates a sub-game of personal and good-hearted enrichment where you can spy on your friends as they snag illicit loot. Pocketing secret items (and in the process leveling up to earn new gun unlocks) may undermine the moral goal of your goon-slaying, but between that and receiving pleading demands from your past captures, these side missions are more awkward distractions than considered queries about how you might proceed with the investigation. At least, in the end, you get a choice…
At its core, The Cartel is a by-the-numbers shooter. Whichever character you play, the action rolls out in methodical fashion as you slaughter hundreds of gang goons. At the start of each mission you choose a loadout of one rifle/shotgun and two handguns that can be dual-wielded for theoretical badassedness.
Choosing weapons can impact your approach, but I certainly found the MP5 and K419 most effective in the situations presented; picking off goons at a reasonable distance was rewarding with a couple pistols, but I always felt more at home behind the crosshairs of an SMG. But what makes no sense in this context was the Concentration Mode. This slow-mo mode could be brutally effective as it amped bullet power so cars exploded with impressively fewer shots, but is so anemically short that it barely warranted use.
Another slow-mo involves set piece door breaches where you chose a position, are switched to a pistol regardless of the weapon you were carrying, and your partner busts down the door and you charge in for some quick headshots. Honestly, they’re kinda’ fun, if predictable. And they serve to break up the general corridor run-and-gun.
If it’s a case of doing one part very well (like single-player) and forsaking back-of-box feature checkmarks (multiplayer) more games need to focus. It feels like for The Cartel this collection of features, including co-op and multiplayer modes, simply made the eyes bigger than the appetite. Though the co-op premise with the three combatants and their nefarious backgrounds holds some attention, it’s not so gripping that it can carry the rest of the game. If you play with friends it’s easy to mention they should look away as you snag the hidden bonus goodies, since doing so allows you to level up quicker, which ultimately benefits the team.
The regular multiplayer lobby is as much a ghost town as the dilapidated collection of shacks you fight through at one part of the game. I suspect the handful of players I encountered were there to collect the multiplayer specific Achievements. Situations where your teammates need to lay down covering fire while you advance to set cover points in order to flank a dangerous situation do add an element of strategy and communication.
On occasion the physical ugliness of the characters matches their unattractive personalities. In some cutscenes weird texture stretching turned the goons into rejects from any random zombie game. A few glitches and object pop-ins don’t do any favors to the experience. Some of the scenes are suitably gaudy, like the strip joint and nightclub, but even the slo-mo mode lacks a certain pizzazz.
Not that a pristine visual identity would save The Cartel, though the location hopping does keep each mission site fairly fresh.
First off, Call of Juarez: The Cartel feels like an odd modernization given that the previous games in the series were able to stand out for their period settings that have not been over-gamed like a modern drug story. As a result, it lands in far more competitive waters where even a bold three-player co-operative mode can’t prevent it drowning in its own over-ambition. Certain action scenes are fun, challenging, and explosively memorable. But the convoluted story is almost pretentious in its efforts at complex character development. You’ll beat it in about 10 hours, but will unlikely be willing to go back for more in co-op or multiplayer, and that makes this one a real tough sell.