Review: Call of Juarez: The Cartel

Call of Juarez: The Cartel is a modern take on a Wild West shooter; though not in the traditional sense. The game is set in the present-day equivalent of the Wild West, according to Polish developer Techland. Taking form as a first-person shooter like many popular titles in the present gaming climate, Call of Juarez: The Cartel tries to incorporate a number of different elements to maintain a fresh and exciting approach to what is arguably becoming an oversaturated genre.

My initial impressions from starting into the game were surprisingly negative, as I had grown interested in the game as I read more about it. When I started playing for myself rather than watching YouTube videos showing gameplay, I was rather disappointed with the introductory mission, and I was concerned that it might leave a sour aftertaste that may mar my experience with the rest of the game. However, this was not to be the case, as I found from playing.



Call of Juarez: The Cartel takes the concept of a Wild West shooter and brings it into the present day by using a real-world issue blended with a fictitious terrorist attack on American soil. The concept might appear uninspired, but it takes a twist when the perpetrators are revealed not to be Russian. Instead, they are tied to a Mexican drug cartel. In addition to this, an ex-Vietnam soldier is killed, prompting an investigation. It unwinds that the soldier's daughter, Jessica, might be in the sights of the drug cartels. And so sets the scene for the game's story, which is based on the real-world issue of drug trafficking across the border from Mexico into the United States and beyond. The three protagonists for the game's story are members of different authoritative bodies in the United States, though the three have been pulled into an inter-agency task force intended to destroy the drug trade in Mexico. In particular, a relatively new cartel that has exponentially increased its power is targeted as a prime enemy for the task force. All three members of the task force are part of it for a reason; They are all what society would deem to be 'bad cops'.

Each character has a slightly different slant on the game's story. With the character of Eddie Guerra, who I chose to play through the game as, I found that the story was punctuated with Eddie's personal issues. The same should hold true with both Kim Evans and Ben McCall, who are the other two protagonists. With Eddie's slant on the story being his issues with gambling and the debts he owes to shady organizations, the story has proven to be punctuated with phone calls from unscrupulous associates, such as a drug dealer known as 'Flaco'.

Eddie's approach to dealing with the debt is to steal drugs from crime scenes and use those to repay his debts... despite the fact he is part of the DEA. It provides an interesting tweak to the standard story that is shared by all three characters, and could encourage some players who have enjoyed their runs through the game to replay it and see the story through the eyes of another character. Then again, the story might be short enough to play through with all three characters before a loss of interest sets in. Different sources suggest that the campaign could be anywhere from four to six hours in length, which seems to be rapidly becoming the industry standard. From my own experience I would estimate that it could take six or seven hours on hard difficulty but could be rushed in four hours on either of the two lower settings.

Initially, the story does not seem particularly interesting, and feels almost like a simple vehicle for explaining why you are shooting everyone you seem to meet. However, towards the later part of the game it really does pick up and leaves an extremely tense ending. The main part of the ending is probably best seen through the eyes of Ben McCall initially for he is the character who has all the significant lines and actions relating to it. In a way this can be  slightly punishing to those who chose to play through the game as a different character first. As I watched a few videos of gameplay and saw a few of Ben's cutscenes, I had a rough idea of why he was so focused on getting vengeance towards the end of the story.



Gameplay in Call of Juarez: The Cartel is much the same as in other first-person shooters, as the genre does not really deviate from its core tenets of firing a gun and killing enemies. What is rather different about the gameplay in The Cartel is that it has a wider degree of interactivity with the game world. Abilities such as opening doors and other miscellaneous objects give the game world marginally more flavor, and they feel less like a backdrop for shooting people and more like an actual location in which the aforementioned shootings are happened.

At the same time, however, Call of Juarez manages to not do anything radically different. Everything in the game has been tried-and-tested to at least some extent, in another game. Shooting enemies feels much the same as shooting enemies in any other game, though this is not a major complaint, for it makes the game at least playable on its core mechanic. Guns in the game are pleasantly varied, containing the standard collection of pistols, rifles and sub-machine guns. Revolvers also make an appearance in the game as usable weapons that are comparable to pistols, and weapons are, in short, sufficiently varied.

The manner in which guns are unlocked by players, however, does leave a little to be desired. Players must complete secret objectives given to them through the form of a phone call in order to gain XP. When certain XP milestones are reached the game rewards the player with a new gun, or in some cases, several new guns. The system forces players to partake in completing objectives that they may not want to. An example of this occurs at the start of the first mission involving Jessica as a character. Should the player be playing as Eddie Guerra, as I was, then they will be prompted to place a bug under the vehicle they will be traveling in. Their reasoning for doing so is to continue to pay off the debts owed to the various shady organizations he has affiliated himself with. But, should players decide that this is something they would rather not do, then they miss out on a large amount of XP. If players want to unlock the higher tier guns available in the game then they are almost forced to complete 'optional' objectives that may go against their own method of playing.

The three main characters of the story: Kim Evans, Ben McCall, and Eddie Guerra

To give the game credit, however, it does a surprisingly good job of making each of the available characters feel slightly different from each other. Ben McCall is the standard character choice, and specializes in close-range combat with pistols and revolvers. Kim Evans specializes in long-range combat with rifles, and Eddie Guerra is ideal for mid-range combat. By forcing players to stick to the one character throughout an individual playthrough of the story, Techland have managed to make the game feel more strategic. Because not all combat comes at your character's preferred range, you're forced to always be looking for a way to bring the combat to your preferred distance. Whether that means blindly rushing forwards as Ben or Eddie, or running in the opposite direction as Kim, the game forces you to adapt to the urban combat that will be experienced across Los Angeles, and later, in Mexico. While each character handles identically apart from these small tweaks, the game does enough to make them feel at least slightly different from each other.

It is quite clear that Call of Juarez: The Cartel was designed to incorporate co-operative play from the ground up, and at times this means the game feels disjointed during single-player. Single-player gameplay is fine, but at times there is a nagging sense of a feature existing, not for the player's benefit, but for the benefit of other players who are not present. A prime example of this comes from the 'lobby' system at the start of a mission. Players start off either in a hotel room with a weapons bag to choose their load-out from, or beside an SUV from which they can select their weapon loadout. Its online intentions are immediately clear because of the transparent window on-screen during this where player names and their characters are listed. The feature is entirely unneeded during single-player, as the only person playing the game will be yourself.

One key gripe I had with the AI partners was their weapon loadouts. For some reason, the game deems it acceptable for my AI allies to be using a pistol during a gunfight involving enemies toting automatic weaponry. It would be ideal if players were able to modify their AI allies' loadouts to prevent situations like this, where the game somehow deems a pistol more useful. This problem still remains during some of the 'boss fights', where you're asked to shoot down a helicopter. Conveniently there are almost always three M60 light machine guns, meaning each person could take one and gun down the helicopter. But it appears the AI prefer using a pistol for this, somehow. This issue almost removes the team aspect depending on when your team mates are a help or a hindrance. Most of the time, their contributions aren't incredibly helpful, and they serve only to act as cannon fodder. Even with allies who can't contribute, the game is not overly difficult. Even on its Hard difficulty I found myself able to progress through at a decent pace, save for a few moments where there are a large number of enemies.

When you're swamped with enemies though, the game does include a feature to guide you through. Named 'Concentration Mode', it acts almost like 'Bullet Time' from the Max Payne games. Enemies grow slower while your character grows faster. Weapons fire and reload more quickly, meaning you can often take on a large number of enemies even when backed into a corner, simply by charging the ability via going on the offense. The one issue with this ability is that the amount of time it lasts for is often insufficient. It allows you to progress a little further but as often as not, you'll still be in immediate danger due to your time in Concentration Mode simply running out.

Another issue I have with the characters in the game is the fact they grow incredibly immoral throughout the story. While the game is trying to remind players that these are bad cops, it could do so in a better manner than it does at times. Even early in the game, there is an objective to find a woman who knows something about what is happening between the cartels. As a result, the player character - through no interaction of the player - chokes the woman in an attempt to find information. This scene felt incredibly unneeded due to the fact that voice acting does not suggest any major anger from the character. It was completely unexpected, as well as unnecessary. Other scenes such as this happen during the game, but in the interest of not spoiling the experience for others it would be better not to explain them.



From my experience with Call of Juarez: The Cartel, this is an area it does not excel in. Weapons all sound fine, but lines of dialogue are often repeated and grow tiresome to hear. Not only this, but The Cartel is definitely a competitor for having the most swearing in a game this year. Virtually every line uttered by a main character contains at least one expletive, and this makes dialogue even more tiresome. It feels almost like an attempt at being accepted as a more mature title. Some games, such as Bulletstorm, can almost pull off the "excessive swearing for entertainment" concept, but this game does not. It feels forced, and voice acting is barely alright. A lot of the time it seems to have a mild echo, or so I found when using a set of headphones. Many of the lines are delivered in a manner that suggests the character is shouting even when there is no reason to really be shouting. It's odd but it's very noticeable.

One issue I had with sounds was the fact they weren't always audible. During car chases, the vehicle's engine noise would simply cut out, or a line of dialogue would appear on-screen and then simply never be heard. Moments like this where you know you're meant to be hearing some dialogue, spoil the game, as it makes it difficult to proceed without stopping to read, often more easily said than done due to some of the car chases and their over-the-top nature.

Something I loved from the game's soundtrack was its usage of music. Admittedly, most of the music can be discarded with no real impact on the experience, but when it flows well with the game it's really something worth listening to. Unfortunately, not much of the soundtrack is available to listen to online, but during a few scenes it really stood out as one of the best parts of the game. For example, during one of the 'defend' objectives that appear later in the game, one of the tracks began to play. The way in which it fitted with the gameplay was quite astounding, because it felt almost like a movie. The music also distorts as you sustain damage, which is a nice touch.



Graphically, Call of Juarez: The Cartel is a mixed bag. The game switches between being an excellent looking title to being rather poor. This drags the entire game down a notch in this respect because a clear contrast can be drawn between the good and the bad. Some of the cutscenes in particular display inconsistencies, for they can look excellent at one point and then look like something from a budget PlayStation 2 game immediately after. This may not be as obvious with the title on other platforms but with the Xbox 360 version, clear inconsistencies can be seen during cutscenes. The game runs on Techland's own in-house engine, named "Chrome Engine 5", so hopefully this is simply a first game on the engine rather than its maximum capabilities. Chrome Engine 5 is also the engine being used for Dead Island, so it will be interesting to see whether or not it varies between the two.

The graphical issue also makes the first mission of the game surprisingly difficult to enjoy, which was what gave me a rather negative first impression. The mission is set in a national park, meaning dense forestry in which enemies can hide. The draw distance meant that enemies could hide even more easily, and the only indication I would have that I was being shot would be the momentary flash as the enemy fired. This made the first mission less enjoyable than any other mission I have experienced so far. It added an unneeded complexity, which is not a good thing whenever I am coming to the game with no clue about the controls. The national park used in the first mission is far removed from the later missions of the game, for they are nothing alike. It doesn't make for a good first impression in any case, though. The mission relies almost constantly on fog to cover up draw distance issues with enemies who simply appear from nowhere. As a result, it can be extremely difficult for players unless they are prepared to repeat a few sections in order to get a grip on how the game plays.



Call of Juarez: The Cartel is not a bad game by any means. It ticks all the boxes that make a good first-person shooter, and it includes some great ideas of its own. The game just never feels particularly polished, and scarcely tries to become more than just average. Nothing really sets it apart from any other shooter on the market, and it doesn't really have much of an allure unless you're a fan of the franchise or you're looking for some quick achievements to boost your Gamerscore/trophy count. When things work for The Cartel, they work really well. When they don't, you're left playing what feels like a budget shooter. I would suggest a rental, or buying the game for as low a price as possible. It's sad to say but, unfortunately, Call of Juarez: The Cartel doesn't manage to achieve its full potential. A few small features drag the game up past the line of average, but the game could have done so much more for itself.


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