When a Mexican drug cartel bombs a US law enforcement agency on US soil, a special task force is put together and begins a blood-soaked quest for justice. As you fight to dismantle the Cartel and unravel the mystery of the bombing, you'll embark on an epic, bloody road trip from the streets of Los Angeles to Ciudad Juarez. Although the game has dropped the Wild West setting, the idea is that you experience the lawlessness of today's Wild West equivalent as you hunt down the Cartel before the violence escalates north of the border.
The game allows you to choose from three main characters; Ben McCall is a brutal LAPD cop and descendant of Ray McCall (the main character from Bound in Blood), Eddie Guerra is a DEA agent with a chronic gambling habit and Kim Evans is a gang-affiliated street kid turned FBI agent. Each of the three has a preferred weapon range; McCall likes close-range and gets a bonus to his revolver reload speed, Guerra likes mid-range weapons and gets 'akimbo SMGs' as his bonus, while Evans prefers long-distance weapons and receives extra focus for aimed shooting.
The members of the taskforce form an uneasy alliance with trust thin on the ground thanks to the fact each member of the group works for a different agency, likely with their own agenda. The seeds of distrust grow further during missions when the characters receive phone calls the others aren't privy to. The half of the conversation the other two characters can hear is always iffy enough to raise eyebrows, but none of them ever demand answers from their partners. It is within this setting that one of the games primary features comes into play. During missions each of the characters is given their own secret objectives; to procure objects or evidence without the other members of the group witnessing it. For each object you nab without being spotted you earn points that go towards unlocking new and improved weapons. There is no penalty, other than not earning points, for being spotted picking up the objects.
The majority of the action plays just like any other first-person shooter, but Techland have made an effort to provide some variety in gameplay. At certain times during the campaign your group performs team entries' where the three of you burst into a room in super slow motion, mowing down as many enemies as you can before normal action resumes. You also have an individual concentration meter that's used to slow down time when it's maxed out. At other times you have to subdue enemies quietly, using nothing but your fists, and there are plenty of car-chase sections thrown into the mix. In single-player games you'll do the driving (except for one specific mission), while in multiplayer you get the opportunity to be a passenger, lean out the window and shoot at your enemies.
Team Deathmatch is the same as you find in just about every other shooting game out there and requires no explanation. Team Missions are a bit different, offering a bunch of different scenarios for teams of cops and robbers to take each other on. There's not a great variety to the missions and they mostly boil down to defending, obtaining or moving objects, i.e. defend the evidence from the opposition, or take the cash to the getaway car etc. One neat feature in these modes is the partner-system. The game automatically selects another member of your team and makes them your partner, gifting you increased abilities (such as increased health and durability) if you stick close together. Also, any enemies your partner can see show up as an icon on your screen giving you an advantage in dispatching them.
Unfortunately Call of Juarez: The Cartel suffers from a significant number of problems across all facets of the game. During normal gameplay the game often freezes for a second, which is very off-putting. In single-player the AI of your partners alternates between decent and deplorable at one stage in the middle of a firefight my partners turned their back on the action and walked around like nothing unusual was going on. Partner-AI is at its worst during car-chases, where it's possible to drive flawlessly but still die because your partners didn't shoot well enough.
The map also has problems. During one level the map-marker completely disappeared, leaving me to wander around in circles until I stumbled along the correct path and the map-marker returned. Perhaps even more annoying than that are the times where, both on foot and in car-chases, the game simply decides you've gone too far from the designated path and you die. You are given warning sometimes, but in other cases, like when a nearby car blew up knocking my car off-course by a meter or so, the only notice you get is when the game restarts.
Secret missions and agendas are announced via phone calls and text messages, but these messages can come onscreen in the middle of a gunfight and cannot be skipped or ignored, meaning you'll take a fair bit of damage in the process. It's not frequent, but it's still frustrating. The font used throughout the game also looks amateurish, and it's not helped by sub-titles that omit some words, and misspell others (e.g. Vietnam is spelt as two words - Viet Nam).
Lastly, all three of the characters are incredibly unlikeable. They all have the weaknesses and vulnerabilities that could give them a human edge, but the hide it behind incredibly gruff and obscenity-laced exteriors. This also takes a toll on the story it's hard to slog through a game where you secretly wish all of the characters would die in some horrible way. The story is largely unsatisfying too, and I've yet to come across an ending (there are two for each character) that justifies my trip through the game.
Most of the sound-effects are ok, with guns and explosions sounding reasonable enough. The music still has a Western feel in many parts of the game, with guitars twanging away. For me though, the sound department is irreparably damaged by a script that has the characters swearing with every other word. Generally speaking foul language doesn't annoy me, but in The Cartel about every second word is swearing. You get the impression that it's supposed to make the game 'grittier', but it simply doesn't work. The bad language isn't restricted to cut-scenes; your partners badger you with foul language relentlessly during missions, deriding your shooting skills. Their constant haranguing took its toll on me, compounding the frustration caused by the buggy gameplay.
First-person shooters are big business now and games that can't compete with the upper echelon shooters on a financial level need to find a way to stand out from the crowd. Unfortunately while Call of Juarez: The Cartel tries a number of different things, none of them are particularly successful. The one gameplay hook that of stealthily pocketing hidden items without your partners seeing is subject to abuse in single-player and broken in multiplayer. The shooting mechanics are decent enough but partner AI is too often shabby, while the driving sections are simply not up to scratch. The story is unsatisfying and the three main characters are among the most unlikeable ever assembled in a game. And we haven't even mentioned the bugs yet... At the end of the day Call of Juarez: The Cartel is a game that tries hard, but ultimately falls well short of a pass mark. My advice is to save your money for one of the blockbuster October releases and give Call of Juarez: The Cartel a wide berth.
Review By: Mike Allison