Call of Juarez: The Cartel Review

Call of Juarez: The Cartel is the latest in Ubisoft and Techlands former wild west shooter series.  The game trades the open vistas of the turn of the century frontier for the modern landscapes of LA and Mexico.  It swaps out its six shooters and single action rifles for desert eagles and automatic weaponry.  All these changes had fans of the original wild west adventure on edge, but I held out hope.  I defended this game, stating that a change of time and scenery wouldn’t be a nail in the coffin, that Techland had improved so much with Bound in Blood that we had no reason to doubt they would drop the ball here.  Techland… THIS HOW YOU DO ME DAWG?!

If he wanted to avoid his debts Eddie sure picked a poor disguise...

The story follows 3 agents stuck on an inter-departmental task force to look into a bombing of the DEA office supposedly by the cartel.  There is one witness to the bombing and she will only go to Ben McCall as he served with her father in Nam (who of course died in the bombing) and so it is up to him and Eddie Guerra of the DEA and Kim Evans of the FBI to protect the girl and capture the leaders of the cartel.  The interesting twist the story tries to create is by sowing doubt in your mind of the trustworthiness of your partners.  Eddie is suspected of being an inside man for the cartel in addition to his gambling problems, Ben steals money from crime scenes to pay for his hooker friends, and Kim has a younger brother who is caught up in gangs who she regularly protects from the police.  The problem here is the characters never grow past these clichés and become something interesting.  We never get any resolution to their personal issues, they just have them and do illegal things to keep the others from finding out about them, but that’s about it.  The story itself chugs along offering no real surprises or interesting twists, of course the main bad guys bodyguard served with Ben in Nam as well and there is a mole inside the offices that put these three characters together in the first place.  Nothing we haven’t seen before.

This is what a CoJ game SHOULD look like

On the storytelling side, Techland shows a great ineptitude in its technical abilities.  The previous 2 Call of Juarez games featured no cutscenes, but rather opted to use still images with a voiceover to explain and set up the levels and this worked somewhat well.  Here however they attempt their hand at in-game cutscenes that play out before and after each level, and the results are not pretty.  The dialogue, while completely flat and predictable, is delivered laughably poorly by actors who sound like they were recorded in a metal box.  Some scenes have better audio quality than others, but the opening cutscene is so horrendously bad it’s hard to overcome for the rest of the game.  The voice actors also are pretty poor, and the fact that you have to listen to them scream out your enemies directions (“LEFT!” “RIGHT!” “I THINK THAT’S ALL OF THEM!”) constantly will quickly begin to grate on you.

It'll be a balmy 1000 degrees as the sun hurtles into the Earth this afternoon

Unfortunately, the cutscenes aren’t the only place that Techland misses a step from their previous entry in the series.  The graphical power of the engine the game is running on (Chrome Engine 5) is seriously lacking.  The biggest mistake I believe they made was going COMPLETELY overboard with the bloom lighting and blur motion effects.  Everywhere you look will be a completely washed out, blurry, muddy mess of drab green and brown colors.  It’s so bad most of the time you won’t be able to see more than 5 feet in front of yourself, and when you add in the bullet and bleeding effects from getting hit by enemies the game becomes almost impossible to see and navigate through.  It is inexcusable how heavily these effects are abused, though it may have been an attempt to cover up the major amount of pop-in that the game suffers from.  Textures will load seconds after the objects appear, and even things like trees in the distance will pop in and out of existence without your character moving because the fog and bloom lighting filters are waving over them.  Bound in Blood was running on Chrome Engine 4, and it never looked this bad, I guess it’s a case where the new engine allowed the devs to play with these new toys, but rather than asking if they should they just went ahead and found out if they could.  This unfortunately will not bode well for their next CE5 game Dead Island.

Did I hit that guy? Uhh... Maybe...

As is always the case though, especially here at The Unplayables, good gameplay can ALWAYS overcome poor or outdated graphics, and I’m sorry to say there is really none here to be found.  Once again the game is actually a step backward from Bound in Blood.  While Call of Juarez was never known for its super tight gunplay The Cartel does suffer from the same floatiness in its aiming and shooting that was in previous entries.  However here the guns lack any sort of punch or weight to them.  At least the old west guns from the previous entries felt like they were firing properly and had a heft to them, here each gun fires with a half-hearted popping sound and little indication that you’re hitting anything.  Most of the time I didn’t even think I had hit my target but they fell over dead anyway.  The enemies you’ll be facing only resemble their real world gangbanger counterparts in how brainless they are.  Enemies will open fire immediately upon seeing you and that’s about it.  There’s about a 50/50 chance they’ll even attempt to find cover to shoot you from, most are happy to run around in the open battlefields firing at you from the middle of nowhere, I guess they realized that the bloom and blur effects will give them better cover than any chest high wall ever could.  The enemies are all the same however, the only real change is occasionally you’ll fight some helicopters or be shooting said enemies from a car.

Ride 'em cowboy!

These driving segments are used often and to little useful effect.  To replace the horseback segments of the previous games we now get boring ponderous SUV driving segments.  To players not driving the car these are simply on rails shooting segments where you just shoot any cars following you.  For the driver however you have to follow the roads as you chase down vehicles or attempt to flee pursuing enemies.  The driving is completely first person, but the dashboard and steering column take up nearly half of your view and the motion effects and bloom take up the other half so good luck seeing where you’re supposed to be going.  Also, the driver has no way to defend themselves so you basically just have to keep driving forward constantly getting shot and hoping you don’t die.  Usually you will and you’ll have to start over again, but eventually you’ll make it through.  Maybe there was some mechanic where you had to back off from whoever you’re chasing, but every time I tried to do that the enemy would just get away and I’d fail anyway.

Don't worry, you'll still kick in a ton of doors

Speaking of checkpoints, they present a real problem with the single player campaign.  If you are playing co-op then this is likely not going to be an issue, however alone it happened quite frequently.  The game will put marked objectives on the screen for you to follow, however it allows you speed past these faster than your AI partners can keep up, and oftentimes doesn’t even register that you passed the checkpoint at all.  When this occurs your AI partners simply stand by the dot and wait there.  No enemies will spawn in front of you and your partners will not advance towards you until you walk all the way back to them and walk over the white dot.  It happened constantly as I played through the game and was annoying every time I had to walk back and pick up my partners.

Pictured: The Games One Good Idea

I’m sad to say that there is really nothing worthy of your time in this game, but that isn’t to say it doesn’t have some good ideas.  The collectibles in this game are actually rather well implemented.  As I mentioned before each of the characters has a vice that they must handle by picking up contraband throughout the levels.  It is up to the player then to collect items without being seen by their partners.  In co-op this works well and becomes a fun meta game of hide and seek as you try to avoid being seen doing secret objectives that are given only to you.  However, in single player this system is completely broken.  The AI allies will NEVER attempt to pick up any collectibles, nor will they try to complete their secret objectives.  Furthermore, for you to complete your tasks you simply have to walk them forward to the next white checkpoint and leave them there as they will not backtrack with you, leaving you free to pick up all the drugs and money your heart desires.  This system carries over into multiplayer as well and it does work there.  Players are paired up with a partner and receive extra points for protecting their partners, saving them, killing enemies marked by their partners, and really just sticking together and working as a team in general.  This makes team based gameplay much more interesting than in your average Call of Duty or Battlefield match where there can be too many lone wolves.  Unfortunately the multiplayer is rather standard and won’t attract a large enough audience to keep this game in your system for any length of time.

An artists rendition of what happened to this series

I’m sorry to say that there is simply nothing here worth recommending.  The story is as basic as it gets and doesn’t do anything surprising.  The characters are unlikable and flawed, never gaining any kind of development to make the game worth going through.  The technical presentation is amateurish at best.  It’s almost impossible to believe the team behind the great Bound in Blood developed this game.  It’s not even the new setting that is the problem here, had this game been set in the old west it would still be a weak shooter with poor gunplay and a boring plot.  In no way does this game compete with the other modern FPS shooters available today or even some available yesterday.  If you are going to find any enjoyment from this game it will be in the multiplayer, but even then it is only worthy of a weekend rental and not a full purchase.  Going through the story mode practically requires a co-op partner to stave off the boredom and technical issues the game presents.  My advice for The Cartel is the same I had for the original Call of Juarez: “Just play Bound in Blood and forget this one ever existed”.

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One Response to Call of Juarez: The Cartel Review

  1. Pat says:

    I put in about 3 hours on this game. I rented it from Redbox, to where it was promptly returned the following morning. Ps2 graphics and the worst voice acting I’ve ever heard. This is shameful from Ubisoft.

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