Call of Juarez Breaks Bad
The folks at Techland had some truly great ideas for Call of Juarez: The Cartel. In today’s shooter market, frankly, it’s a huge relief not to be shooting aliens or fighting in a full-scale military conflict. And besides avoiding those pitfalls, The Cartel abandons the series’ old-school Western roots—how could it compete with Red Dead Redemption?—and tells a story about the modern-day drug trade in Mexico and the southwestern U.S. Since the game is basically a covert road trip from L.A. to Juarez, it offers an interesting blend of shooting, stealth, and driving.
The innovation doesn’t end there. Instead of telling a single story, the game places you on a team of three law-enforcement officers tasked with invading Mexico and bringing down one of the cartels. Depending on which character you pick, you’ll have different weapon proficiencies, different cutscenes, different motives, and even different secret missions you have to perform without the other characters noticing. This is a great new storytelling method, an obvious opportunity for co-op multiplayer, and replayability, all rolled into one.
It’s too bad that nothing else in The Cartel quite clicks. Everything about the gameplay and presentation is acceptable, but none of it makes the game stand out from the competition. The developers took an amazing template and filled it in with pure blandness.
At the outset, you’re introduced to the trio of officers. First up is Ben McCall, an LAPD detective and Vietnam vet who comes off a little bit like Dog the Bounty Hunter and is, coincidentally, a descendant of Ray McCall, the protagonist from the last Call of Juarez game. Next is Kim Evans, an FBI agent who’d like her bureau to take over anti-drug duties from the Drug Enforcement Administration, which she thinks is incompetent. And third, of course, is a member of the DEA itself: Eddie Guerra, a crooked cop and compulsive gambler. After a brief action section and a few cutscenes, you choose a character, a decision that sticks with you through the whole game.
Your team is sent on a top-secret mission. Several federal agents were killed by a cartel’s bomb, and the government wants to retaliate—but invading Mexico officially is off the table. Instead, someone gets the bright idea of sending this LAPD/FBI/DEA alphabet-soup squad, with all its inter-agency squabbles, to take action by itself. Your projects will include burning the cartel’s drugs and making it look like a rival gang did it, and intercepting a shipment of trafficked women. As you make it closer to Juarez, the resistance only gets stronger.
Unfortunately, with this game, mediocrity is the rule. Take the driving. On the one hand, it can feel a lot more realistic than other games, with a first-person view that puts you in the driver’s seat, tires that bump and jerk on rough roads, and a touchy accelerator. But on the other hand, the turning and braking don’t feel right at all, which indicates a serious lack of polish.
The shooting could have used more polish as well. The controls are basically standard for an FPS, but they feel just slightly clunky. The enemy AI usually isn’t distractingly bad, but the bad guys very rarely do anything impressive on a tactical level—which might be a good thing, considering there’s no cover system beyond “find an object and crouch behind it.” There’s a good variety of guns—you unlock them by “leveling up,” which you do by completing your secret missions without being seen—but most of them don’t really seem lively or menacing. While your character’s particular abilities can matter in some situations, most of the time you’ll be just grabbing a machine gun no matter which agent you have. There’s a Max Payne–style slow-mo effect, but that’s not exactly a revelation: every Western shooter has that.
Whenever the developers try to change up the action, they end up with disappointment. For example, sometimes you have to advance from cover to cover to flank an enemy while your teammates lay down fire, but because the game tells you exactly where to go, it’s not much of a challenge. There are also some melee combat scenes, but they are truly awful; I usually just mashed buttons and waited for them to be over. And apparently, Techland are big fans of 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand—more than once, you have to fight a boss who’s in a helicopter.
Regarding presentation, the sound effects aren’t bad, per se, but they don’t live up to the gold standard set by loud, rattling shooters like Brink. Also, for some reason, the developers decided to present all the text in the game in a pixelated font, giving off an old-school video-game vibe like that of No More Heroes. Given that absolutely nothing else in the game shares this vibe, I find this choice confusing.
The graphics are occasionally impressive, but for the most part, they look noticeably dated, and the developers used too many filters that make the screen look blurry. Once in a while, the facial animations match the voice acting almost perfectly, but more often, the characters’ mouths flap around seemingly at random.
The voice acting itself is a mixed bag as well, with some decent performances brought down by some terrible ones (the news anchors who narrate during the cutscenes are particularly bad). The obnoxious statements the characters blurt out during combat get old before the first level is over.
In the end, even the storytelling, which should have been a great strength, falls short. The dialog is cheesy and awkward, weighed down by try-hard one-liners and way too much swearing. The plot twists are contrived, and while the option to play from different perspectives is a nice touch, it’s not clear why you’d want to trudge through this game three times. It’s not bad if you see it as an intentionally corny ’80s action flick, but it doesn’t live up to its potential as a complex tale with three main characters.
The online-only co-op multiplayer works fine, but aside from the aspect of sneaking around to fulfill secret missions, it doesn’t add a whole lot to the single-player experience. Competitive multiplayer is fun to mess around with for a while, but unless you (for some reason) really, really want to participate in drug-war shootouts, it won’t hold your attention for long. The developers tried to spice up deathmatch in a few ways—you get a bonus for staying close to your assigned partner, the teams are divided into cops and criminals, and there are “challenges” like racing to be the first partnership to get five melee kills—but in the end, it’s still just deathmatch. The mission mode, made up of cops-and-robbers-themed scenes like bank robberies, plays a little better, but it’s nothing earth-shattering.
One last note: Hopefully, this will be cleared up with a patch at some point, but when I played it, The Cartel was plagued by technical problems. Some were minor, like the enemy who managed to stand inside a solid object. Others were frustrating, like the time I managed to get my car stuck and had to restart from a checkpoint. And some were simply baffling, like the time I was leaning out the window shooting while an AI character drove the car—and instead of following the road, the driver smashed into the wall on the side of the highway at a 90 degree angle, and kept accelerating into it for several seconds before changing course.
It’s depressing to think that Techland took a popular franchise, came up with some brilliant ideas for a new entry, and then botched the execution—but that’s exactly what happened. If you just want to play a competent shooter that doesn’t put you in the military or make you fend off an alien invasion, The Cartel is your game. But if you want a title that makes good on its promise to push the genre forward, you can pass on this one.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 2.7 Graphics
There are some impressive moments, but overall it looks dated. 3.5 Control
It’s hard to screw up FPS controls, but these feel a little clunky. 3.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The sound effects could have been more jarring, and the voice acting ranges from okay to awful. 3.2 Play Value
The replayability is a nice touch, but it’s unclear who would want to go through this more than once. 3.1 Overall Rating – Fair
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best