Call of Juarez: The Cartel takes the redeeming qualities of previous games in the series, locks them in a big black SUV and rolls them off a cliff. Previously in the series, a lack of polish and presentation could be excused because of the entertaining setting, interesting characters and general over-the-top action-filled fun. That is not the case with The Cartel.
The latest in Ubisoft’s wild west saga moves out of the old-times setting with its wooden saloon doors, bestubbled rogues and six-shooters and into a modern version of the wild west in which an inter-agency task force, mired in mutual suspicion, sets about tackling a drug cartel. What once had charm and quirkiness is now a kind of misfired propaganda piece for the war on drugs.[drop]The characters are all clichéd, one-dimensional bumbling caricatures that could have fallen out of any second rate mid-90s action movie script. Ben, Eddie and Kim are the three playable characters from different branches of the US law enforcement family. Ben is perhaps the most interesting due to his cowboy stylings and propensity towards old fashioned weaponry. Eddie and Kim are identikit renditions which could have been made up from ideas for TV cops that were abandoned for being too generic. Each protagonist has their own little boost, for example, Kim has better zoom aiming and Ben is a bit tougher to kill.
None of the characters ever give you a reason to like or even empathise with them. Each line of dialogue seems to be desperately trying to be cheesier than the last and the storyline these instantly forgettable try hards are propelled through is less than engaging too.
The narrative is about as original as it is entertaining. That is to say: not at all. It is perhaps an inevitable side-effect of the contemptible protagonists that Techland have filled the game with but the attempts to drive the story fall flat because there’s simply nothing to make you care about the characters. On top of that, it’s an over laboured point that none of the characters like each other either so you know there’s no sense of attachment inside the game, never mind that missing bond between player and protagonist.
The characters aren’t the only generic thing in The Cartel though, it’s packed to the rafters with elements which seem like they were copy and pasted from any other second rate action game that was available five years ago. A time period when the visuals on display would have been acceptable and the environment design might have been forgivable.
This game is ugly and lazy in its design to the point where it would be amusing, if it wasn’t so counter-productive to actually playing the game. Textures are basic and seem to keep their own schedule for when they should appear on a surface. Non playable characters are bland and seem to reuse models with far too much regularity. Although they do have an uncanny ability to deliver lines of dialogue, even after they’ve been dead for a while. That’s a talent, of sorts.
The Cartel also suffers from some of the least forgiving default controls in recent memory. Each gentle manipulation of the right analogue stick results in a sharp and immediate jerk of your crosshairs. This is something which can be rectified by turning the stick sensitivity way down and the look dead zone all the way up but you will need to spend ten minutes setting and testing before you find the sweet spot.
I found that setting the controls up to be usable made them slightly counter intuitive to the frantic pace of the gameplay, where enemies are often difficult to see against the backgrounds and arrive in numbers. This meant that every tightly waypointed shooting gallery became a death run of pray and spray frustration that often left me wishing for death because then I’d have an excuse to turn the game off.[drop2]It’s not all bad though, The Cartel features three player online cooperative play for the entire campaign. Something which would be a welcome addition if inviting your friends to play through this game with you wasn’t more akin to an insult than an act of camaraderie. In the co-op mode, you can play any level as long as everyone playing has already unlocked it so there’s no chance of letting your friend jump into your play through if you’re a few stages ahead of them.
Luckily, for those without the most understanding friends in the world, the squad-mate AI is actually pretty impressive. When your allies aren’t clipping into objects or magically appearing twenty feet further ahead of you than they were half a second ago, they’re remarkably adept with a gun and prove tricky opponents for the less-than-intelligent enemies. Featuring three playable characters also allows for the opportunity to play through the game three separate times and see things from a slightly different point of view. I’m not sure anybody will feel compelled to struggle through this egregious mess of a game more than once though.
Likewise with the multiplayer. There is the option to play it but it offers nothing that isn’t available, and much better accomplished, in many other games. There are classes and upgrades and unlockables, just like in every other online multiplayer shooter, but none of it is interesting enough to pull players away from the big multiplayer games like CoD and Halo.
There are no clearly defined modes, just one big circus of same-old mediocrity. It’s totally bland and uninteresting, to the point where it actually feels very much unfinished. The problems with setting up the controls are amplified when playing against other humans too. It’s just very difficult to imagine anyone finding any joy in the multiplayer of this game.
Perhaps the best feature is another that feels horrendously underdeveloped. In some missions you are given a kind of secret side quest in which you have to nip off and grab some hidden intel, plant a bug or complete some other interesting mission in discordance with the team’s goal. These are delivered via whispered phone calls and must be completed out of sight of your team mates. So at times, you will have to shuffle off and secretively complete some additional quest. Unfortunately, when playing on your own, the AI has a tendency to follow you so sneaking away isn’t always possible. When playing in co-op mode, the collectibles always appear in the same places so after a few play-throughs it becomes abundantly clear what that member of the team is sloping off for because you all know where the secret mission’s goal is located.
- Allied AI seems reasonably good.
- Three player online co-op has novelty value.
- Secret side missions are an interesting idea.
- Ugly visuals that already look outdated.
- Asinine protagonists with awful dialogue.
- Multiplayer that feels unfinished and uninteresting.
- Poor environment design.
- It all just feels rushed, unfinished and half-hearted.
Call of Juarez: The Cartel feels like it was developed into a corner by Techland. I get the impression that a few bad decisions were made in the early planning stages and before anyone had a chance to rectify them, too much progress was made to justify writing off that budget and scrapping development. The end result is a game which feels like it was seeded from a bad idea and, once it had begun to grow into a fairly poor game, was rushed out the door, with barely any testing or editing, in order to get the project off the books. It’s a contemptible step back for a series which always had the fun factor on its side and it might just be enough to kill the entire franchise. This is a perfect example of why it’s not always a bad thing when games get cancelled.
Screenshots are from Ubisoft and, I assume, from the PC version.
Version reviewed: Xbox 360