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Call of Juarez: The Cartel

We’ve heard it before and we’ll hear it again. The Wild West no longer has the appeal it once had. Standoffs at noon and grizzled gunslingers have been replaced by more modern conventions, and videogames have followed this trend, preferring the new school over the old. Still, exceptions exist, and in the case of the Call of Juarez series, the Wild West has taken centre stage. Except, strangely, in this latest instalment. The Cartel opts for modern day Los Angeles, embarking on a tour of duty well removed from its forebears. Graffitied alleyways, drug-ridden neighbourhoods and even nightclubs have replaced the prairie lands of before, and with this shift come a series of issues. Without its niche setting, The Cartel opens up comparisons with a host of quality games, and despite a number of intriguing ideas, it fails to ever live down its budget feel and small, but not insignificant, flaws.

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A link between The Cartel and its predecessors is provided in the form of Ben McCall. Over a hundred and fifty years separates Ben from his elder relative Ray (a character of the previous games) but none of the gruff bravado has been lost along the way. Ray’s long gone (or as Ben might say: ‘Bit the fu***** dust’) but the McCall mantra of using guns to do the talking remains. Ben, clad in trench-coat and boots, champions the Wild West motif with a modern flair. He’s the punisher of our times, the man with the LAPD badge and a penchant for pistol-whipping the hell outta’ some nobody. He is not, however, a one man army.

In McCall’s quest to overthrow the Mendoza cartel (presumably a descendant of Juan Mendoza in the original game) he’s accompanied by DEA agent Eddie Guerra and FBI chick Kim Evans. Each has their preferred weaponry and you can play through the singleplayer story with any character of your choosing. Though The Cartel has lost much of its Wild West flavour, it does at least retain an interest in telling a story from different perspectives. McCall, Guerra and Evans all have their own agendas that run parallel to overthrowing Mendoza. McCall wants revenge, Guerra has mounting debts and Evans is looking out for a relative. These agendas come into play during the game proper, as your chosen character must fulfil side objectives by filching certain items throughout the fifteen chapters.

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Key to this is remaining unseen. For instance, playing as Guerra you need to steal drugs for extra cash on the side, but should you be seen by either McCall or Evans, you fail. In principle, it makes a certain amount of sense and falls neatly within the structure of the narrative, but there’s little riding on acquiring these untoward packages. Stealing contraband gives you points that help level your character up, but that essentially grants you more guns and not much else. Caught in the act of filching a walkie-talkie (as in the case of McCall) and you’re simply told off. There’s no game over sign, or anything to make you catch your breath. Still, it can be fun to play co-operatively and catch your friends in the act, but a solo excursion through the game largely loses this, since your AI team-mates never seem to be up to anything other than shooting.

As a first-person shooter, it sticks closely to the sort of run-and-gun gaming the genre has long been known for. Occasionally you’ll hop behind the wheel of an SUV and commandeer the car, and to the developer’s credit, these sequences play out well. But the game is crippled by a lack of creativity and midway through, falls into a depressing routine.

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The story itself has plenty of potential. Since the DEA, FBI and LAPD are brought together somewhat unwillingly, there’s plenty of distrust between the three protagonists. This tension comes to a head by the dénouement, but it’s difficult to connect with any of the characters (indeed, even your chosen avatar). As such, the ending feels like an inevitable conclusion to a rather tame experience rather than the intended moment of gravitas.

Ironically, The Cartel also suffers from being too long. A single romp through the game can take up to ten hours, and since the developers expect you to come back under the wing of the remaining characters (so as to sample new tidbits of story, and a somewhat different take on the tale) you’re looking at a thirty hour game. Few will respond to this offer, since the repetitive game design makes an initial playthrough feel like a marathon. In fact, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Call of Juarez: The Cartel; it suffers simply from a lack of genuine creativity.

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It certainly looks nice enough. There are examples of just how capable the Chrome Engine is of rendering large, open environments with impressively detailed vistas. But all too quickly the game leads you inside cramped and less pleasing locations. Moments of solid voice acting are quickly overshadowed by the ridiculous backing of rock music that turns up as yet another shootout unfolds. And there are other small niggles that grate. The font used in the game’s menu screens and during sub-titles is horrible. Some of the guns, such as the AK47 and shotguns, look small and pea-sized in-hand. Your character’s footsteps don’t match the steps you’re taking, no matter the terrain. Your AI teammates occasionally disappear and pop up at the next checkpoint. Or, worse still, they simply don’t follow at all. Straying too far from the pre-set path can result in you being instantly killed and transported back to the last checkpoint (and the game isn’t particularly generous with checkpoints either). These flaws add up, as small as they seem. Ultimately you’re left with the impression of a budget game. The Cartel is technically impressive at times, but under the surface, its imperfections are shakily masked.

There are some standout moments, such as picking out bad guys in a club filled with dim lighting and thumping music. Even the first mission, a trek through a national park, proves promising. And co-operatively, in small bursts, there are moments of fun. But the experience soon settles into an insipid routine. Forced to finish the game once and replay it for the sake of this review, I felt I was about to burst from the strain. Taking the series out of the Wild West has stripped The Cartel of character. While I understand Techland’s desire to move forward, its lost its edge. In a crowded genre, The Cartel is solid, at times fun, but ultimately uninspiring. Even its multiplayer mode, a variation on the Lawmen and Outlaws mode found in Bound in Blood, does little to excite. It’s unlikely an online audience will remain captivated for long.

Call of Juarez: The Cartel is a meaty experience, then; it’s just a pity there’s very little you’ll eagerly devour.

5 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in September 2010.

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