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Andy Alderson travels to the 'New West' to sample Techland's Call of Juarez rethink...
The announcement of Call of Juarez: The Cartel came as quite a surprise to many in the industry. The traditionally Western shooter franchise, we discovered, has jettisoned its once-unique selling point (perhaps following the release of Red Dead Redemption) and moved the action into modern times; the New West, we’re told on the box. It seems like an odd decision – if the Juarez brand of Old-West shooter was no longer viable, why transport the franchise to a new setting rather than starting anew? And, one entire game later, I still can’t answer that question. If anything, it raises another question: at what point in the game’s development was the decision made? Because, sadly, The Cartel has a distinctly unfinished feel about it.
Set in modern day California and Mexico, The Cartel tells the story of an inter-agency task force formed in response to the bombing of the DEA office by the infamous Mendoza drugs cartel. Players are given the option of playing as one of three main protagonists: dirty DEA agent Eddie Guerra, FBI agent Kimberly Evans (whose brother is a gangland player) and gruff LAPD detective Ben McCall, one of the game’s few nods to its Old West predecessors (Reverend Ray McCall was a central character in both of The Cartel’s predecessors). This motley trio are tasked with smoking out the Mendoza Cartel by pitting LA’s gangs against each other and soon become embroiled in a *sigh* grand conspiracy that, you guessed it, goes all the way to the top of California’s law enforcement agencies.
The narrative is clearly designed as an homage to gritty cop dramas like The Shield, where the line between cops and bad guys is pretty blurred. However, Techland seems to have assumed that grittiness can only be achieved by excessive, bone-headed profanity and so you’re faced with a deluge of naughty words, none of which are used in a remotely creative context. Initially it’s pretty funny but it soon starts to grate as you realise you’re listening to (lots and lots of) dialogue that even adolescent boys would balk at. Big and/or clever, Techland? No. The story – minus the profanity – isn’t too bad, however, and at least provides reasonable context to the action although it’s hard not to argue that The Cartel has lost some of what made the Juarez series so popular. Techland has never been famed for story telling subtlety, but there were some stylish elements to the first two games (shooting people while quoting scripture, for instance, was pretty cool) which are largely absent from The Cartel.
In fact, for much of the game, The Cartel doesn’t feel much like a Juarez experience, at least not until later on when we venture across the border into Mexico and ultimately towards the familiar sprawling vistas of Juarez, now nothing more than a “ghost town”. A ghost town populated by many, many bad guys constantly trying to make your life a misery. So, a lot like Hull, you could argue.
This confused sense of identity could perhaps be overcome if the game had tight, exciting gameplay to fall back on. Well… do you really need me to finish? Ironically, by shifting the game to present times, the developer has highlighted just how dilapidated and creaky its proprietary Chrome Engine has become. The first two games in the series offered up some impressive, atmospheric panoramas of The Old West but it seems that the game engine struggles to replicate the achievement in The Cartel. The visuals are washed-out, blurry and pretty flat. It seems there’s just too much…well… ‘stuff’ in modern times, and the Chrome Engine doesn’t do ‘stuff’ particularly well. Perhaps if Techland had seen fit to base the action in some more creative venues, the visuals wouldn’t seem quite so lacking. But sadly, we get the standard warehouses, docks, and nightclubs that are so mystifyingly popular in mid-level shooters.
Unfortunately the gameplay doesn’t fare much better, either. The game engine feels a little sluggish, especially in comparison to other successful present day shooters. You’ll also have to deal with an inconsistent framerate (on the 360 version at least) and dodgy hitboxes, two things which combine to make The Cartel a pretty irksome experience at times. Strangely, however, you soon become accustomed to it and you can almost predict when and where the game is going to start chugging, You’ll also get used to the gameplay pretty quickly too as, it turns out, there’s not much in the way of variety.
On the surface it seems as if Techland has tried to mix things up a little by interspersing the shooting gameplay with driving sections and the occasional boss fight. “A boss fight in a shooter, you say? Oh, you mean a helicopter.” Yes. Yes I do. The problem is that these non-shooty sections play out in almost identical fashion each time and so you realise that the developer has made efforts to break up the repetition with… repetitive gameplay. An admirably homeopathic approach to gameplay, no doubt. But one that really doesn’t work.
As if the sub-par visuals and gameplay weren’t enough to keep The Cartel from bothering the upper echelons of the scoring scale, you then have the game’s wealth of glitches to consider. It seems as if level layout and scripting were created in different area codes as they often bear little relation to each other. All too often in The Cartel, you’ll wander off the beaten track and confuse the game into playing a line of dialogue you heard five minutes ago. Or, you’ll clear out all of the bad guys and wait (and wait and wait) for a checkpoint that never materialises, forcing you to reload the last one.
It’s amateurish stuff that smacks of a game being pushed for release before it has been adequately tested. The breaking point for this reviewer came when, in a gunfight in a Juarez saloon, supposed super-agent Eddie Guerra – scourge of drug lords everywhere – became irretrievably stuck behind a bar stool. Makes you wonder why the Cartel bothers to arm its guys with guns when apparently small items of furniture will suffice. In these times of economic strife, it’s surely something worth considering.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of The Cartel, however, is that it has some good ideas. The co-op system being one example. With three main characters on offer, The Cartel offers you the chance to play the entire game in co-op which, in itself, is nothing new. However, as well as the overall objective of shooting baddies, each player also has secret secondary objectives that they must complete without being spotted by their team-mates, lest they lose the XP reward to whoever spotted them. It’s an intriguing idea and adds a welcome level of intrigue and suspicion to the co-op experience. Or at least it would if it had been developed further – the secret objectives almost exclusively involve collecting an item from somewhere in the level. Which, it turns out, isn’t that thrilling. With more interesting objectives (silencing witnesses, hampering your team-mates efforts etc.) the competitive co-op concept could have been something special. However, this might seem like a churlish criticism when you compare the co-op to the competitive online game which, at the time of reviewing, was so crippled by lag that this reviewer was unable to join more than one functional game in two hour long sessions.
And so, with The Cartel proving to be the lowest point in a pretty decent franchise, it’s hard to see where Ubi and Techland can take Call of Juarez from here. Especially considering they’ve abandoned the one aspect of the series that stood it apart from the FPS competition: the Old West. With its new modern setting, the franchise now finds itself in a much more crowded marketplace and, despite threatening to explore some interesting new ideas, it struggles to compete.
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