Call of Juarez: The Cartel Review

By Adam Ma on August 2, 2011

It's safe to say that no matter how long mankind endures, we'll always have a soft spot for Westerns. There's something about the cowboy that's almost timeless in a way. A lone man trying to make his way in an untamed and almost lawless world, dispensing justice governed not by a book or institution but by the laws written in his heart.

So who can blame Ubisoft for wanting to keep the Call of Juarez franchise alive and well when there's just so much to love about being a cowboy? Well, a cowboy in the old west perhaps. Call of Juarez: The Cartel looks to take the classic first person gunslinging to the modern era, and ironically falls prey to one of the major pitfalls of any classic western: taking itself too seriously.

Players start the game off by getting thrown into a situation which appears to have quite a bit of potential; gangs and drug cartels are causing terror for the normal hardworking American, and the bombing of a DEA office sets off a series of events that threatens to start a potential war between the US and Mexico. Three separate offices of the law (FBI, DEA, and LAPD) are pulled together to create the modern equivalent of a posse and that's about when your brain will simply turn itself off.

Call of Juarez: The Cartel

Perhaps this is a cruel double standard, but a Western game simply cannot be a Western game without a good plot, solid characterization, and tons of action. Most FPS games today don't slack on the action, but plot and memorable characters are a lot harder to find. The Cartel is no exception, as Techland feels the need to toss every single Western cliche in the book at us.

The main character, who is an LAPD detective, is simply handed control of the group because he has a duster and looks like a cowboy more than for any other realistic reason and because he happens to be a descendent of the previous title's main character. To the developers credit, the trio is at the very least entertaining, and they could be a lot more memorable if the game decided to either commit to being a little more serious or a little more humorous. As it is, the characters take the typical breakneck FPS pace: characters are swept in and out of the story before we're even given the time to care about who they are or what they're trying to do.Gameplay suffers some similar issues, a lot of really interesting ideas mashed together with some absolutely horrible execution. Players are allowed to choose between three different characters to play as, each with their own specialization. You would be crazy not to decide to play the obviously cowboy character in the cowboy video game, but for those who enjoy doing things that don't immediately involve pistols and revolvers, the developers were nice enough to feature characters that are also proficient in long range and mid range weapons. In addition each character has their own story and motives, which is woven into a character select that provides a little cinematic to fill a few gaps.

The controls are typical to the FPS genre, and it doesn't take very long to get the gist of the game. Picking up weapons, dual wielding, grabbing ammo, interacting with objects are all industry standard at this point, though the same can hardly be said for controlling an actual character. Much like any other title that forces players to hide behind objects in order to recover health the gameplay is fast paced, but is spread so far across levels that it never becomes engaging at any point. Players will find themselves clearing areas of all life like a locust only to run to the next objective and repeat the process over and over.

Call of Juarez: The Cartel 2

Enemies hardly put up a fight and the few that present any tactical challenge can be dealt with by either hiding until they inevitably just wander into stray fire from allies or until you use this games version of 'bullet time', which happens to be fuelled by killing enemies. Needless to say there were very few moments where I had to stop moving or even employ strategy, as just about every scenario can be handled by either standing behind a tree for a few seconds or holding down the trigger and spraying the area in front of you with bullets.

Being completely devoid of any kind of strategy, what players are left with is a hollow shell of an FPS. There's no real challenge, the storyline isn't very engaging, and even shooting enemies really doesn't give any kind of satisfaction. The Cartel makes mistakes that seem fairly obvious even from afar, it's simply not enough to litter a game with point-to-point objectives and hope that players will draw some sort of entertainment from killing everything in between. Perhaps if the game had some sort of unique mechanic to go alongside everything it would be a lot easier to forgive some of the flaws, but the fact of the matter is that there really isn't much to hold anyone's attention for very long.Equally boring would be the level design, which ranges from the typical urban locations to some generic forests. Well, generic in that the levels are almost needlessly open for players to wander. In one way it relates back to the N64 days of FPS development where three enemies would appear in a zone that was literally large enough to get lost in, and no doubt without the constant series of checkpoints that show up, getting lost would be pretty easy.

Graphically Call of Juarez is equally curious, as it ranges from some very pretty looking environment details to some absolutely horrifying facial features. Watching characters wear stupid grins while explaining how upset they are never really gets old in a way, but on the same page it doesn't really help The Cartel reach the level of seriousness it strives for.

Call of Juarez: The Cartel 3

Similarly the soundtrack is bland and forgettable while the sound effects in game are as lifeless as controlling the character. The voice acting isn't anything to get excited over either, but it's worth mentioning that whenever the player decides to unleash their slow-motion power, Techland felt the need to remind us that this in fact a mature cowboy related game, and thus the need to be pelted with a wave of semi-biblical references sewn together with as many applicable obscenities as possible.

It's like once every five minutes the writers for Bulletstorm somehow managed to get their say in the script, which is disappointing to think about because the game would be dramatically improved if it decided to commit to going down that path.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day Call of Juarez: The Cartel is an entirely forgettable experience, made worse by the fact that it's a Western shooter. Not that there's anything wrong with a Westerns per se, Red Dead Redemption was brilliant. Even fans of the series should probably give this one a pass, and go revisit another western game. Sunset Riders would be my personal suggestion, but like most Western fans I'm a sucker for the classics.

Characters are relatively entertaining.
Each character has their own weapon specialization.
Easy to pick up and play.
The game lacks any real substance or challenge.
Gameplay is a chore.
An easily forgettable experience.
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