Also available on: PS3, PC
Genre: First-person shooter
Ciudad Juárez is rapidly becoming the most violent place on Earth. Last year, the city in the Mexican state of Chihuahua racked up more than 3,000 homicides and it is already averaging eight killings a day this year. It's among the few places on the planet that could be said to retain the violent spirit of the Old American West. So it was unsurprising that Techland opted to reboot the Call of Juarez western series to the modern day, no doubt hoping for similar success as the all-conquering Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 4. Call of Juarez: The Cartel, which follows 2009's Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood, has all the right elements of a decent first-person shooter and the shift from Old West to New West has merit. Unfortunately, though, the game is shot down by bugs, poor design choices and dreary presentation.
The story in Call of Juarez: The Cartel, which can be played alone or via full co-op, focuses on the US war on drugs and gangs in neighbouring Mexico. The three main characters are the gruff LAPD cop Ben McCall, the feisty FBI agent Kim Evans and the sleazy DEA operative Eddie Guerra. They embark on a road trip from Los Angeles to Mexico in pursuit of the Mendoza cartel, a new criminal gang that seems to be backed by more powerful forces. The game's spark is a bombing on Independence Day 2011 at the LA justice department that killed seven Federal Agents, with the cartel believed to be behind it. To avert a full US invasion of Mexico, a special multi-agency task force of McCall, Evans and Guerra is brought together to wage a covert campaign against the cartel and bring whoever was behind the bombing to justice.
The premise is actually quite interesting and the way that the game mixes international political issues and the media's reporting of them is well handled. The three main characters are pretty paper-thin stereotypes, but there is a decent uneasy alliance between them, potentially encouraging players to try out the main campaign multiple times to view events differently. The weapons feel a bit tinny, but there is a reasonable amount of satisfaction to be had in dispatching the hordes of gangsters that stand in the way of success. Alongside the core FPS scenes, there are also various driving sequences, which are mostly okay. The main campaign is reasonably long and the co-op play is given an interesting twist in the suspicion between the three characters. Items can be 'picked up' in the levels to collect points (as long your partners do not see you steal them), while there are various side challenges available to unlock new weapons and equipment. Unfortunately, though, few recent first-person shooters have as many flaws as Call of Juarez: The Cartel.
The game starts with a bewildering chase inside a car down a motorway (which is picked up again later on) with people shooting at you from all angles. The lack of any sort of introduction to this section simply makes it an ordeal rather than a thrilling opening, as the player is left scrambling around trying to guess what they should be doing. There are just too many ideas in this game and most of them really don't work very well. At certain points, you are tasked with flanking a group of enemies by moving to certain designated cover points marked by ghost silhouettes. Rather than being a neat change of pace, it's a far too prescriptive approach that robs the free tactical options from the player. Likewise, the game relies a bit too heavily on its staged bullet-time sequences, while the activated bullet-time mechanic - triggered by acquiring points from kills - is welcome, but is irritably accompanied by the character spouting some odious and tiresome speech.
As with many games, your AI-controlled colleagues shout words of reaction to what you do in the game, but in Call of Juarez: The Cartel these comments feel completely out of step. For example, a computer-controlled character will shout 'try aiming' at you immediately after you have performed a headshot, or praise you after you drive into a wall. There are huge amounts of bugs in the game, such as characters sliding across the floor or running into walls. The hit detection is way off, while enemies seem to be able to hit you every time, even when firing from some 200 metres away with inaccurate weapons such as Uzis. The graphics look ugly and lack any sparkle, and the regenerative health recovery time is way too long, which makes certain sections a chore to get through.
Outside of the single-player and co-operative campaign, Call of Juarez: The Cartel also has a series of competitive multiplayer modes which are inoffensive but add little to the party. The focus of the multiplayer is players picking whether they want to join the criminals or the police. Up to 12 players are supported on a variety of maps dotted around the worst places of Los Angeles and Mexico. Alongside the standard Team Deathmatch, there is also a range of other challenges available. The Robbery mode bears similarities to the recent Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days, in that a team of criminals must raid a bank and then get out alive against a defending cop team. Star Witness involves players either getting a judge to safety or killing them, while Cartel Deal is basically a big no-holds-barred shootout. The game attempts something slightly different by using a 'partner up' system for revivals, but realistically all these ideas have been presented much better elsewhere.
Techland has taken the ambitious yet logical step with Call of Juarez: The Cartel of rebooting the western series to the modern day, but unfortunately it has fallen down on getting the basics right. It's a three-star game, but only just; despite being packed with ideas, indeed some of them good ones, the game lacks the sense of polish, presentation and impact that made Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 4 such a success. The main campaign is simply littered with bugs, design flaws and frustrations, while the multiplayer modes lack enough sparkle to lift the package. Ultimately, Call of Juarez: The Cartel fails in its mission of becoming a trailblazer for modern-day westerns by shooting itself in the foot.
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