Call of Juarez: The Cartel Preview

We cast an eye over Call of Juarez's "gritty" modern sequel.

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Call of Juarez: The Cartel
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Last month, Call of Juarez: The Cartel broke cover as a present-day action shooter to the consternation of video-gaming cowboy enthusiasts. As unlikely decisions go, setting a Wild West franchise's third installment in 21st-century Los Angeles and Mexico ranked on par with a disco-era Prince of Persia reboot. The announcement vaguely promised the "best elements of the Wild West" transplanted into modern times, but aren't the best bits of cowboy times (big hats, stagecoaches) unique to the period?

Not so, says Call of Juarez developer Techland, which submits to us that the essence of the Wild West is timeless and universal. In a first-look presentation, we were told the real heart of the genre is not a time but a place (the American West), lawlessness, a sense of freedom, and "real men." The Cartel has all these things, said Techland, weaving a tale of "modern gunslingers" in a world of gang violence and drug crime on either side of the Mexican border.

The gunslingers in question are LAPD detective Ben McCall, direct descendant of Call of Juarez's murderous preacher Ray McCall; Eddie Guerra, crooked Drug Enforcement Agency operative; and FBI agent Kim Evans, woman. After a bombing in a US government building is traced to a Mexican drug cartel, this cross-agency taskforce is sent down south to smash it. Such is the "gritty and relevant" plot foretold by the press release and since rebuked by the Mexican state government for insensitivity to real-world violence.

Three cops walk into a bar (stop me if you've heard this one).
Three cops walk into a bar (stop me if you've heard this one).

Techland presses the matter of The Cartel's "dark," "mature" tone by citing TV shows The Shield, Sons of Anarchy, and 24 as influences. The depth of that maturity remains to be seen, but we can vouch so far for abundant swears, pole dancing, and various cop-drama staples. The hands-off demo began with the superteam busting into a grimy apartment to hassle a cartel grunt and moved onto a sleazy nightclub in downtown LA, in whose private lounge a suited, ponytailed cartel boss was holding court.

The inevitable nightclub shootout showcased The Cartel's cooperative mode, which was sorely lacking from the game's predecessor, dual-protagonist Bound in Blood. Here the drop-in co-op play is for up to three players, with a new, semiautomated cover fire system to let you suppress and flank your enemies; a ghosted silhouette indicates where one player should run while another player provides covering fire. Bound in Blood's time-slowing concentration mode is still present, and there's a co-op entry mechanic to let players cooperatively breach and clear a room in slow motion. Techland isn't talking multiplayer yet but confirms there will be some.

Melee fighting is on offer, too. Before entering the club, the good guys get into a scuffle against cartel thugs, both parties swinging wildly. At this stage, melee combat is "very much a prototype," we're told. But the hand-to-hand combat makes the point that as a cop, you won't be able to shoot noncombatants without repercussion.

The gunfight led from the lounge, across the crowded dance floor, down an alley, and onto the street, where cartel thugs brought an LAPD helicopter crashing down among the parked cars. It is cop drama as channeled by Michael Bay; Bad Boys, not The Wire. "I will make mine arrows drunk with blood," intoned the pastor's son Detective McCall, laying waste much as his bible-quoting forerunner would have, but in a Kevlar vest.

Wickedy wickedy wild wild west.
Wickedy wickedy wild wild west.

Techland points out that what you lose by sacrificing a Western's period setting, you gain in 21st-century technology. In place of Bound in Blood's period firearms, The Cartel has current sniper rifles and assault rifles. Where Bound in Blood had horse-drawn carriages, The Cartel has fast cars. The nightclub shootout segued accordingly into a highway car chase toward the Hollywood Hills, with our bickering trio of heroes in pursuit of the cartel boss's SUV, dodging laser sights and machine gun fire. We hope the cars don't handle like the previous game's stagecoach, though the demo made no such promises.

The Western flavor was stronger in the second part of the presentation. This took us out of the city and into the desert, where McCall was waiting to exchange a captive for a witness, with Guerra and Evans watching from a scrubby cliff top nearby. When the cartel convoy rolled in and the handover went badly, the latter two took out snipers on the opposite cliff before fighting downhill toward their associate. Twanging guitars and cactuses exploding in hails of bullets, although followed closely by another vehicle segment, felt closer to the spirit of the first two games. We're expecting something impressive to convince us that modernization was what Call of Juarez needed, but Techland is adamant it can have its cake and eat it too: make a true Western with cars and nightclubs. "This is still a Wild West game," it says. We'll see come launch in summer 2011.

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