Call of Juarez: The Cartel proves that good ideas mean little when they don't have a solid foundation to support them.
- Secret agendas smartly link the gameplay with the story
- Challenges give co-op play a competitive edge
- Many levels offer room to maneuver.
- You miss out on the good stuff when you play on your own
- Low online population makes it hard to find co-op partners
- Unlikable characters that say and do unlikable things
- Lots of bugs and glitches
- Overdone, distracting blur effect.
It has been almost two months since Call of Juarez: The Cartel was released on consoles. In the time since, you may have hoped that developer Techland would have been busy fixing the problems that plagued those versions for the game's PC release. Instead, this first-person shooter is even more problematic than before. The bugs, the poor audio editing, the interruptions during combat scenarios: they're as inescapable as The Cartel's racial stereotypes and adoration of the F-word. Furthermore, a scant online community means that you may never see the best that The Cartel has to offer, though that doesn't mean you can't have fun with it. As one of three sleazy government agents, you thieve secret items hidden away in each level's nooks and crannies--and must do so without being caught by your curious comrades. It's an inspired notion in keeping with the innate distrust among these three slippery sorts. But what The Cartel needed wasn't inspiration--it was repair.
The Cartel also needed more likable leads and better dialogue, which isn't to say there isn't room for good antiheroes in game stories. (The original game's Reverend Ray is a shining example of an antihero done right.) But the three leads here--the LAPD's Ben, Kim with the FBI, and DEA agent Eddie--gush obscenities and sneer so often, you fear their faces may stay in that position permanently. There are a few attempts to deepen their personalities, such as a quiet scene in which Ben contemplates a taped message from an old friend. But most scenes involve a lot of yelling and racial stereotyping, with slimy gangsters calling each other "homes" and "ese" a lot, and the leads performing deeds so despicable that there's little to separate them from the goons they're fighting. Other cinematics are so dry as to lull you to sleep, such as an expository cutscene largely devoid of sound effects and music, in which government reps sit around a table and set up the game's premise. Audio difficulties also intrude. Characters speak over each other, and some scenes are so heavy with reverb they sound as if the actors were recorded in a public restroom. And it's hard to take a story seriously when the subtitles frequently don't match the recorded dialogue.
Both the boring and the obnoxious aspects come together in a scene in which the three partners bloody up a target in the median of a busy highway. When playing cooperatively, you and your buddies take turns delivering a violent punch or kick with a single key press--one after another after another. The scene goes on for so long you begin to feel sorry for the guy on the ground. Yet your character (and thus, the camera) stares at the ground instead of following the violent acts of your comrades. You remember the sight of the poor grass textures more than the violence your team visits upon this crook. It's an uncomfortable mix of aggression and monotony.
Nevertheless, uniting three untrustworthy agents from three different agencies is a worthy foundation, and The Cartel tries to make good on it by giving each of the three playable characters a unique point of view. The plot, in which this mismatched team attempts to disrupt a web of drug trafficking, is the same regardless of which character you play. But each character has a personal agenda. You and your companions receive phone calls from contacts, filling in story gaps and urging you to perform secret missions. When you play online with another player or two filling in for the AI, this narrative device adds an intriguing dimension that nicely parallels the escalating distrust among the team. When a teammate receives a call, you hear only his side of the conversation. And the cryptic one-sided dialogue means that you experience that distrust along with your character.
The theme of distrust carries over into those secret missions themselves. Secret missions may involve nabbing a cell phone or destroying a vehicle, and each level contains hidden objects that you, and only you, can collect. Your companions, meanwhile, have different duties to accomplish and different items to nab. The trick, however, is not getting caught. Should you thieve an item in eyeshot of a comrade, you don't get credit for taking it, though your buddy gets credit for catching you. Successfully accomplishing a task earns you experience, as does spotting a double-crossing partner. And earning experience helps you gain levels, which in turn gives you access to better guns at the start of each chapter. What a neat idea this is--not just because it cleverly links the story to the gameplay, but also because it gives cooperative play a competitive twist.
But like most of The Cartel's appealing concepts, secret missions suffer from execution errors. Updates come in the form of text messages and phone calls, at which point your pace slows and you must listen to the message or read the text. You might receive an update in the middle of one of the game's clumsy fistfights, or during a high-speed car chase. You can't hang up of your own accord; all you can do is hope your foe doesn't pummel you while you stupidly hold your phone up as if nothing unusual is going on. The secret missions' most pressing flaw, however, is that if you play alone, with the AI controlling your two companions, you miss out on much of the uniqueness. AI companions can interrupt your attempted thefts, and they never perform their own secret acts, so you are always the spied-upon, but never a spy. That's too bad, because if you don't have a regular buddy to play with, you will likely never experience The Cartel's most unique feature: it is almost impossible to find a co-op partner via the game's built-in matchmaking.