The Call of Juarez franchise has always been a decidedly above average affair, taking players back in time to the old west, and revolving around a tale of family bonds and legendary treasure. While the previous title, bound in blood, didn’t exactly set the charts on fire, it was still a solid game with a strong storyline.
Now, The Cartel takes players away from the tumbleweeds and stage-coaches that have come before it, planting players smack dab in a high noon shootout set in the modern day, but can this new direction finally elevate Call of Juarez to lofty heights?
After a Mexican gang torches a federal building and kills several US citizens, a special task force is assembled in order to enact some form of payback, while disassembling the various gangs using any means possible. Comprised of a trio of dirty cops, FBI agent Kim Evans, DEA agent Eddie Guerra and LAPD cop Ben McCall, who is descended from previous COJ protagonists, the three crooked lawmen serve out the usual stereotypes of swearing and racial clichÃ©s, while pursuing their own agendas.
Each character is playable throughout the story, but the differences made to the plot from another viewpoint is minimal at best, resulting in players engaging in the same quest three times over. The only real reason to actually choose another character is for the differing gameplay styles, with each of the three being proficient in a particular firearms, that gives perks to their aiming and damage dispensing abilities.
COJ features the usual first person shooter standards, with cover playing an important role as always, in order to regenerate some health. Guns come in several varieties, from standard pistols and AK47 rifles to crowd clearing shotguns and missile launchers. Its a solid gameplay basis that suffers from some stiff controls, as aiming in and out is a slow experience, lacking the fluidity that is present in more successful FPS games.
In order to fund your armoury, you’ll have to level up, which can be achieved with the usual spilling of other peoples blood, or by achieving certain objectives that pertain to the sleazy nature of your chosen character. Steal a wallet or some drugs, and you’ll earn some EXP, but get caught by one of your partners while doing this, and they’ll suddenly sprout a halo and you’ll lose all that EXP.
Likewise with the mini-map, its insistence on only showing the positions of route markers is annoying, as the game could have benefited by highlighting enemy positions, as most of the generic gangbangers and cartel members have the disappearing and camouflage skills of a highly trained ninja, before they pop out to blast you away.
Rack enough kills, and you’ll build up your concentration meter, which when activated, gives you a quick dose of slow mo action that’s usually followed by a tirade where every single word is a swear word, effectively ruining classic western film quotes in the process.
While the levels seem to be a varied lot, from deep forests, strip clubs to Mexican shanty towns, the design is somewhat linear, prompting players to constantly go forward, duck, shoot and take cover in an endless cycle, making the stages repetitive and boring. Certain sections will require you to move in out of pre-determined cover positions while your partners shout awkward commands at you, or else you’ll wind up full of lead quicker than usual.
Another problem with the game is just how absolutely repulsive the three leads are, as they swear and insult their way through a level. It wont be long before you’re wishing a partner mute option was available, or if you could somehow tweak the game to enable you to murder your colleagues, so that you could go about your mission in peace.
Driving sections are scattered throughout the game, with the weak controls quickly making these segments a cursed and irritating experience. Its a good thing then that the online only co-op is present, as it manages to salvage some of the game, asking you to team up with a buddy, engage in the missions and earn some EXP while performing some actions in order to outshine your friends.
Multiplayer is also present, but its a rather plain experience, despite the idea of asking players to be either a cop or a crook. Team Deathmatch is available, as well as scenarios which task you to destroy buildings or objects, like an electricity meter box that requires several magazines of bullets before it is finally wrecked. Planting a bomb as a mission objective is also insanely difficult, as it takes around 2 minutes of uninterrupted gameplay to do so.
Visually, COJ isn’t a bad title. Provided the characters aren’t talking too much, you won’t really notice the bad lip-synching, and the levels are nicely detailed, with many a small flourish added to even the smallest of objects. Guns sound especially realistic, while the voice work features the usual suite of gravelly voiced anti-heroes and villains. What’s perplexing however, is that anytime a cutscene takes place inside a building, the audio is unbearably tinny and amateurishly processed. It may have been done in order to hammer home the idea of realism, but its sorely misplaced in this title.
The western soundtrack is a nice touch however, expertly blending slow guitar licks with some more hectic hip hop influences when the action heats up, and rounded off by some spicy Mexican beats.
While it has a solid foundation, COJ just never takes advantage of that architecture in order to present a smooth experience. Controls are stiff and slow, resulting in overly drawn out gunfights that could have benefitted from some more fluid gameplay design.
Design and Presentation: 7.5/10
There’s nothing to really complain about, visually. Characters move realistically, levels are nicely textured and guns have enough details on them to feel heavy and plausible. Its no Crysis, but at least COJ doesn’t look like a dogs breakfast.
As a single-player game, there’s not much to do after the main credits role, unless you’re really desperate to see what the other characters were up to during your missions. Multiplayer is a dull affair riddled with bugs, while co-op manages to slightly elevate the fun level overall.
At first glance, COJ has a lot going for it. The idea of branching storylines, a more modern day setting and the idea of playing as a less than honest cop sound like blockbuster entertainment. Unfortunately, COJ just never manages to capitalize on these ideas, presenting a mix of features that never truly gel together, and that relies on too many familiar stereotypes to hide its weaknesses.[Reviewed on X-Box 360, played on normal difficulty]
Last Updated: August 10, 2011