Call of Juarez: The Cartel
In attempting to connect the modern day climate of drug trafficking and warfare on the borders of California and Mexico to the style of cult Westerns, Call of Juarez: The Cartel doesn’t do justice to either theme. It is a dry corridor shooter in the vein of Call of Duty, without any of the polish. That ultimately puts what has otherwise been a fairly competent – perhaps even respected – franchise one foot into the grave.
The main problem is in this shift to modern day. The Cartel’s written with a slant for the coarse lingo of the street – it comes across so abrasive and heavy-handed, it’d make the writers of The Wire and Deadwood blush. That’s not necessarily a compliment – this isn’t quite the videogame equivalent of those top-tier programs, although the subject matter falls unsatisfactorily between the two.
If one were to go from Red Dead Redemption to The Cartel, they’d likely get the bends coming down from what’s essentially a Clint Eastwood film in game form to something more grotesque. The thing is, The Cartel lacks character and shuns tradition in a way that’s atypical for a product looking to capture the ‘Wild West’. It’s not a very good way of moving the franchise forward, and has likely removed much of the good will previously surrounding the brand.
One thing that hasn’t changed, for better or worse, are the hardnosed character archetypes of the series. There are three playable characters in this outing, and while none are particularly memorable or well-conceived, they allow for an interesting mix-up with unique objectives that add a fragment of depth to co-op play and maybe even some replay value.
During each mission, the characters will receive calls detailing secret goals that the player must carry out while their compadres are busy working their way down the corridor-like level designs. This presents a somewhat interesting mechanic, calling the team’s comradery into question as players try and prevent one another from accomplishing goals by catching them in the act. It’s counter-intuitive in a way and doesn’t quite work as well as the similar mechanics in Kane & Lynch’s multi-player and flies in the face of what companies like Valve are striving for with the co-op found in their Left 4 Dead and Portal franchises.
It’s unfortunate that the path design punishes the player for exploring, and thus prevent this mechanic from being fully realized. Rather than designing literal corridors, most of the time you’re pitched into a suggestively open area that raises invisible boundaries around the playfield. It’s a wholly inelegant way of handling things, and often finds the player unintentionally having to reset their game as they accidentally run out of bounds. Additionally, checkpoints don’t always register, furthering the feeling things haven’t been fully fleshed out.
There’s a kind of looseness informing every aspect of The Cartel, from its inconsistent single-player design to a flimsy competitive multi-player that comes across like an online game from early last generation. It’s all a bit disheartening, a reminder that Western motifs are often poorly handled in games, suggesting that Red Dead Redemption’s the exception and Red Dead Revolver’s closer to the rule.
What’s most disappointing about The Cartel is that it feels like a point of no return for what was once a promising franchise. It has really dropped the ball on the whole Western motif in favor of mostly grim urban environments and an almost actively disengaging plot.
If Rockstar San Diego taught us anything it’s that hope should never be lost on a franchise and that greatness can come out of a brand’s untapped potential through positive iteration. That potential’s still in here somewhere, but it’s lingering far beneath the surface, buried under a slew of problems ranging from technical deficiencies to the poorly conceived move to the modern day.