While the game's emphasis on mindless action can be thrilling at times, a slew of technical mishaps lessen the appeal of the title's more bombastic moments.
Call Of Juarez: Bound In Blood was one of our favourite games of 2009. Despite releasing within the same twelve-month period as Uncharted 2 and Batman: Arkham Asylum, Techland's wild-west shooter left a lasting impression on us. A combination of well paced gameplay, a smart story-line and some innovative multiplayer modes culminated in a package we continue to recommend to this day. Bound In Blood felt like it was on the cusp of a breakthrough in an industry dominated by bigger franchises. Then Red Dead Redemption came out.
Someone at Techland must have desperately wanted to avoid comparisons with Rockstar's western opus, and so Call Of Juarez: The Cartel is not quite the sequel we'd anticipated. Set in a modern-day Los Angeles, The Cartel depicts the activities of three shady federal agents tasked with the objective of taking control of the US border against a variety of Mexican gangs.
The setting feels like a misstep. While Call Of Juarez: The Cartel is a functional and enjoyable shooter, it lacks the soul of its predecessor. Aside from a couple of missions set within the badlands of Mexico, much of the game is reserved for nightclub shootouts and city brawls. The game never really sells the notion of the "New West", and while a fleeting glimpse of the now dilapidated Juarez ties The Cartel to its predecessor, the game doesn't do enough to capture the personality that made Bound In Blood resonate with us.
Protagonist Ben McCall — a grizzled street-cop with a penchant for prostitutes — marks the only other connection to previous Call Of Juarez titles. Fans of the franchise will recognise that Ben is a descendant of the preacher from the original game. But outside of a blink-and-you'll-miss-it nod to the character's heritage, you'll be hard pushed to notice. This is in many ways a complete rethink for the franchise.
McCall is not the only playable character in The Cartel. Upon starting a new campaign you'll be given the option to choose from an additional two characters. There's the feisty FBI agent Kim Evans, whose resemblance to Halle Berry is uncanny (and presumably intentional). Then there's the suave DEA hotshot Eddie Guerra, a thick-skinned gambler with loose morals. All three characters fall on the wrong side of cliche, regularly ringing out eff-bomb endorsements for anything and everything that occurs in the game.
But beyond the cliche and nonsense surrounding the characters, Techland's actually been able to make the trio a likable bunch. It's a feat that bodes well for the developer's upcoming Dead Island — a title that's promised narrative density since its announcement. Like Bound In Blood, Techland's managed to craft an enjoyable tale here that tackles a number of subjects including betrayal, trust and deceit. The Cartel's unlikely to break any story-telling barriers between games and art, but the plot becomes more and more layered as the story begins to unfold, and there's a balance that keeps the game intriguing right through to its conclusion.
Impressively, Techland's managed to ground some of its story-telling devices into the gameplay. Playable with up to three-players in online co-op, The Cartel introduces some intelligent mechanics that see you completing objectives behind your associate's backs. The buzz-word for this is co-opetition. While you'll be working together to take down gang hooligans, you'll also receive individual phone-calls at specific moments during each mission. Sometimes you'll be asked to keep an eye on each, other times you'll be ordered to steal a key piece of evidence. The take-away is, that you never really know who to trust, and it all culminates in a final plot twist that sees all three agents pointing guns at each other, with you given the choice to decide the narrative's fate.
It's an outstanding idea that's let down by Techland's implementation. While the mechanic should keep you on your toes at all times, there's never enough at stake to make secrecy worthwhile. If you snatch something then you earn some points towards unlocking an extra weapon, but if you don't there's no big consequence. Furthermore, all of the items are located in the same place, so we can imagine a scenario after multiple playthroughs where everyone knows when to "spy" on their partner.
It kinda breaks what should have been The Cartel's defining feature. The idea itself is wonderful, but we can't help but feel it will be lifted and iterated on better now that Techland's squandered its opportunity.
Thankfully Call Of Juarez: The Cartel has solid if unspectacular combat to fall back on. The game's definitely been developed in the vein of Call Of Duty rather than Killzone, with weightless weaponry allowing you to whizz around the game's linear environments popping down into iron-sights and cracking skulls. Enemies are satisfyingly easy to kill, making your weapons feel super powerful in spite of tinny sound design and a lack of recoil.
Unfortunately, The Cartel is less successful at pacing its missions. Unlike Call Of Duty, there's very little variety on a mission-to-mission basis, with only brief driving sections breaking up the running and gunning. To be fair, The Cartel's driving sections are surprisingly neat, putting one player behind the wheel while two others point their weapons out of the vehicles window and pump bullets into pursuing SUVs.
But it's also during these driving sequences that The Cartel's sloppy production values come to haunt it. The game feels rushed. We played through multiple instances of the game simply locking up, audio cutting out, or textures failing to load properly, and these issues occurred both online and offline. Less noticeable glitches involved our team-mates screaming phrases that weren't contextual to the action. "Behind," our partner would shout, causing us to spin around only to face a brick wall. It's possible Techland will patch these problems, but for now they remain hugely detrimental to the experience. We're actually surprised the game got through QA.
Similar issues persist in competitive multiplayer too. Here you'll play as either a cop or a robber in a series of objective based multiplayer modes. Perhaps most exciting about The Cartel's multiplayer is the way it uniquely handles its lobby system, pairing you up with other players in your faction's HQ, and allowing you to mess around on shooting ranges before the next match starts. The objectives themselves are well designed too, with factions battling it out over vehicles and strong-holds in surprisingly open maps. If it wasn't for the game's frame-rate issues and general glitchiness, we could see ourselves spending a fair few hours with The Cartel's multiplayer.
But alas, Call Of Juarez: The Cartel lacks the execution to deliver on its great ideas. You'll get over the game's misguided setting eventually, largely because of Techland's decent narrative. But the undeveloped "Agenda" system and linearity of the action, coupled with the persistent bugs and glitches refrain The Cartel from reaching its full potential. There's some decent co-operative gunplay in here, but the game could and probably should have been so much more.