Call of Juarez: The Cartel isn't exactly what you would call subtle. This is a first-person shooter that revels in the grim sounds and imagery that you'd expect out of a conflict between law enforcement officers and the notorious Mexican drug cartels that they're perpetually battling. When you combine that with a presentation that's a bit, shall we say, rough around the edges, it's easy to be put off by the whole thing. But if there's one thing we learned from our recent jaunt through The Cartel's online multiplayer offerings, it's that you can squeeze some extra fun out of the game if you approach it with a sense of humor and a healthy imagination. In fact, you kind of can't help but do that.
The Cartel is split into two different online modes. The first we played was dubbed simply "Objective Mode," and it has one team of drug runners trying to commit an elaborate series of crimes, one after the other, as the other team of cops tries to thwart them. One of the missions we played may as well have been called "Capture the Cocaine" as our team of cartel thugs pulled off an attempt to break into a storage warehouse, load up our SUV with mountains of cocaine, and then drive off to our safe house a few blocks away. The game's fast pace and loose controls led to a chaotic number of deaths and respawns that were made more hectic by hilariously persistent torrent of swear words coming from the in-game criminals that made up our team. The cops didn't say much, but we enjoyed imagining those officers shouting something to the effect of, "No! Put that cocaine down! Don't make me kill you again! I will totally kill you again!"
After piling up enough bodies, we did manage to get all the drugs loaded into that SUV. At this point--jumping into a vehicle to tear through the city streets--The Cartel started to feel more interesting than just a coarse online shooter. The act of fluidly going from an on-foot objective to hopping into a getaway car for the next stage of the mission was a moderately exciting one, but there were some comical speed bumps that kept the whole gangster-movie scenario from feeling particularly dramatic. For example, once the criminals took off in their car, the cops began spawning along the route to their safe house in the most perfect of locations. The result was that any member of our team driving the getaway car only managed to stay alive for about three seconds before being shot through the windshield. Getting to the safe house became a hilariously slow process, literally, as we were never alive in the driver's seat long enough to accelerate the car to more than a steady crawl. Think musical chairs, only in a driver's seat, and with a lot more blood.
One thing we did like about The Cartel's Mission mode, however, was the way it immediately launched us from one objective to the other without so much as a loading screen. After eventually making it to our hideout with the drugs, the game immediately prompted us to head over to a nearby apartment complex to plant a bomb in the residence of a key witness. Here, we had to dash up some stairs on the outside of the building, steal some gas cans, and then assemble a makeshift bomb fixed to the target's kitchen stove. Once again, it was a slaughterfest as the two sides went at it, which became all the more entertaining if you imagine the street cops had to do all this hard work because the bomb squad truck got a flat tire on the way.
Finally, we also had a chance to play a little Team Deathmatch. With a limited selection of weaponry (think shotgun, submachine gun, and pistols), the core combat felt pretty run of the mill. But there were some interesting elements at play, like a partner system that rewards you with various perks for remaining close to your buddy and a downed player mechanic that lets you revive fallen teammates or "execute" enemies. But aside from that focus on teamwork and, well, potential for all-out sadism, the Team Deathmatch was pretty standard stuff.
Call of Juarez: The Cartel is going to be an interesting game when it comes out next month. It's trying very hard to establish a tough-as-nails crime-world tone, but a number of shortcomings take you out of the experience to the point where you pretty much can't help but find humor in it all. Certainly that sort of entertainment has its appeal, but it's not the sort of thing that'll keep you coming back for more. But who knows? Maybe that's just a symptom of the online multiplayer. Perhaps the story campaign will be compelling and wrap enough context around the whole thing to really sell the tone and setting. We'll find out when Call of Juarez: The Cartel is released on July 19.