Before Red Dead came along and standardized how a western game should be approached, there was very little choice of compelling games in the genre that were decent. The Call of Juarez series was one of the few western games that were entertaining and had its own charm. Before many shooters were trying to mimic Battlefield or Call of Duty, some had their own premise which made it unique; Call of Juarez (CoJ) was great at this (specifically Bound In Blood). While they werent blockbuster games by any right, they did have heart.
When I learned that there was going to be another Juarez game I was actually looking forward to it as I really enjoyed Bound In Blood for what it was. I then learn that the new CoJ was going to be set in a modern day time, but I remained hopeful thinking it might work with the proper setting. Like I mentioned above, it seems someone decided to turn a western based title into a modern day setting that is trying so hard to be something that resembles Call of Duty. Due to this, its completely lost all its heart and charm and is now just a bland (and broken) shooter that offers nothing unique at all. Im hoping that the wild success of Red Dead hasnt scared off the developers from the western genre because the series now has hit a serious low point. Now the only thing that Call of Juarez: The Cartel shares with the previous games in the series is the title.
The plotline for Call of Juarez: The Cartel is so absurd that its hardly worth mentioning for a few reasons. For starters its so completely ridiculous that its not even believable, its convoluted and extremely hard to follow when youre constantly struggling with the controls and lastly, you wont care about any of the characters rendering the narrative a moot point. To care about a story you need believable and interesting characters, instead we get stereotypes that swear constantly and that have no depth to their personalities.
But alas, there is a story to the game so Ill briefly go over the general idea so you can judge for yourselves on how preposterous it is. A US law enforcement agency is bombed by a group of unknown enemies (heres a hint, its in the title of the game itself) and this assault is apparently so heinous that a task force is made to find out who did this and to extract some much needed justice. The fantastic idea for this task force is a whopping three people from separate agencies. Ben McCall from the LAPD, Eddie Guerra from DEA and Kim Evans with the FBI are going to have to work together to find out whos behind the attack and why. There is more to the plot but its not very interesting and becomes a little convoluted near the end.
If you recognize Bens last name, thats because hes clearly a descendant of the McCall brothers from the previous game, I guess the McCall family has good genes though because Ben seems to look very similar to his long past family members (and decides to dress like them as well). Each of the three main characters will each have their own secret agendas they need to try and fulfill for themselves or their agency without the other members knowing. Ben will try and smuggle loot for his own reasons, Eddie need to pay off a gambling debt and Kim will nab items for evidence. Each of the characters has questionable backgrounds and seems very shady no matter their motives. Each of their personalities clash with each other which I guess was supposed to push the inner tension between them forward. Depending on whom of the three you decide to play as, thats whose side of the story youll play through, though because theyre always side by side, theres nothing too drastic aside from their motives and some phone calls that are placed that make their story unique from the others. By the end of the game, youll hate each of them because theyre all so clichéd and stereotypical.
In theory, each of the characters is supposed to be a specialist in specific weapons and their ideal distance to shoot at. Kim is the long range sniper, Eddie the medium range rifle expert and Ben the close range and shotgun master. This by no means you cant be Kim and use shotguns, and truthfully, I found no difference between the three when handling different types of weapons; making this mechanic completely untrue.
Youll answer your cell phone at predetermined times to get your secret mission. The problem with this is that while youre on the phone, you can still get shot and it almost happens at the worst opportune moments. If you succeed in completing your secret agendas in each mission without your comrades noticing youll gain some extra experience points which go towards unlocking bigger and better guns for the campaign. If youre caught and seen nabbing these items a big message pops up on the screen telling you you were caught red handed! and you wont get any bonus XP, though the reward is so small that it really doesnt matter if you do these side objectives or not. If youre playing online co-op with a friend and catch them, you actually get the bonus XP for seeing it happen. Its a neat idea on paper but it just wasnt done well enough to make it a compelling mechanic.
At the heart of a FPS is obviously the shooting mechanics and controls. The immediate problem with The Cartel is that you feel like youre constantly skating on ice with the movement and the iron sights when looking down the barrel of your guns are so large that you cant see anything other than whats directly in front of you. It feels as though you have zero peripheral vision and locating your enemies other than the muzzle flash from their guns is near impossible. Ironically, youre team mates will constantly be yelling at you to try aiming!. It almost seems unfair that there isnt a button I can press to tell them how much they suck as AI.
On top of the terrible controls you have repeated and poor level design as well. Sometimes youll get a useless car driving section (that youll always be close to dying as your partners cant seem to shoot anything from the car and you will always have to drive aside from one section) then into a large open area with a dozen or so enemies to kill that brings you to a close quarter indoor shootout. Youll get to a door that you and one of your partners will kick in and go into a slow-mo section to see how many you can shoot (though youre forced to you your pistol for some reason) before the bullet time wears out. Clear this room and a few more shoot outs and youll finally get to your boss fight (which is not really a boss fight in the traditional sense for most sections). Repeat this for all fifteen chapters and that is your flow of level design for the whole campaign.
With three main characters, The Cartel screams co-op gameplay, and while it does say that it has it on the box, getting it to work is near impossible. Cant figure out how to play co-op? Neither could I at first. As you are about to start a mission youll need to press start and open a public game for others to join. How you can just join a random game without an invite Ive still yet to figure out. The problem is that you cant join anyones game if they are further along in the story than you are. In my whole play through I only had one person join me for a single chapter. Theres no game browser to easily choose someones game to join, you need to pick the chapter you want yourself, open it as a public game and hope that someone else is doing the same thing so that youll be merged into one game (provided youre not playing the same character). Its a horrible broken system and essentially makes it so co-op doesnt exists contrary to what the box says.
If you do manage to get a co-op game going youll play the chapter as normal but youll have a slightly competitive aspect to certain sections. Sometimes youll see who has better accuracy or who can hit the Helicopter boss more times. Its an interesting mechanic if you can ever get a co-op game going.
There is also competitive multiplayer as well but its just as bland as the campaign. First you pick if you want to be police or a criminal then youll go into a hub while people join before the match starts. If youre lucky and a game actually begins (because it seems everyone wants to play criminals and it wont auto balance teams, so you might have a full team of criminals and zero police waiting for more to join) youll notice that the sloppy controls from single play carry over, making hitting a moving target near impossible. As you gain kills youll get XP which will unlock new weapons as you level up, youre able to revive downed team mates, and theres a partner system in place that gives you both a bonus if you stay near one another. If youre unlucky enough to have a bad partner or one that isnt playing, youre essentially out of luck as you can only request a new partner when youre in the lobby. Theres nothing really else to mention here, the multiplayer isnt compelling or enjoyable at all due to the controls and mechanics.
On top of all these big flaws, there are also many minor issues that stood out that need mentioning as well. Because theres so many Ill just list them off so you can get an idea of how bug ridden The Cartel is. Lines your partners say will be used over and over throughout the campaign. The Skip Movie message is always present during cutscenes) almost as if its taunting you to press it the whole time), horrible screen tearing and texturing and for how often you drive I find its odd theres no mirrors at all (rear view and side). Youll probably become disorientated at time in the corridor sections because you know where you are in relation to your partners, that is until they warp ahead of you at are waiting at the checkpoint as if youre the slow one. My biggest pet peeve though was the numerous spelling mistakes in the subtitles that just make it feel unprofessional and cheap.
The constant bickering between Ben, Kim and Eddie becomes stale quite quickly and really becomes a distraction more than anything else. While youll eventually learn about how this ties in with the previous Juarez games (aside from Ben), its not the big revelation I think it was meant to be. Its a shame the Wild West setting was swapped for what its become now. For how open the game looks, its quite linear and doesnt let you stray off the path very far. With only a handful of enemy outfits, youll be shooting the same bad guys throughout the whole campaign and not enjoying any of it. Call of Juarez has been downgraded and is disappointing in every aspect of gameplay and design. A game like this is why a series gets canned for good. I for one hope they can bounce back and bring back the series to its former glory that actually had some heart and tried to set itself apart from every other shooter rather than trying to fit into a mold. With a game like this, the treasure of Juarez will never be found.