Bytes & Flops 4.26.12: Call of Juarez: The Cartel
Posted by Vince Osorio on 04.26.2012
The Call of Juarez series took a jump to modern times with Call of Juarez: The Cartel and promptly sunk with gamers and critics. But is it an underrated Western game for the ages? 411's Vince Osorio takes a look!
As far as a setting for contemporary vehicles, the Wild West is possibly even less common in video games than it is in movies. You'd think it wouldn't be so, considering that the time period, the characters & overall tone of that setting would be perfect for a video game, but only Red Dead Redemption and the Call of Juarez series have painstakingly resurrected this time period in a world where modern warfare shooters are just about the only games that sell these days.
Though I can't say that it's on the level of Red Dead Redemption, the Call of Juarez franchise has its fair share of followers, those who have gotten attached to the trappings, the characters & action that takes place in that universe. If I've learned anything from my 22 years of life, it's that gamers are just about always afraid of change, no matter what. Different developer, different platform, even something like a different lead character could be just cause for angry forum posts and online petitions. Even if it didn't incite a major uprising on the internet, the announcement that Call of Juarez: The Cartel would not take place in the same universe as the first two titles, or even in the same time period. Instead, The Cartel would be a "modern-day Western", featuring a contemporary crime story with elements of Western trappings, taking place in Los Angeles and Mexico (yes, that includes Juarez). Some already trashed the idea before it had taken shape, believing that the game dropped its unusual setting in order to compete with other, more attractive games in the marketplace. Others thought that a first-person shooter with elements of contemporary Westerns such as No Country for Old Men could totally work in this day and age.
I don't think we'll ever know the true motivations for why Call of Juarez: The Cartel became a modern Western game, but I can tell you that I've played through this game, not once, not twice, but three times in an effort to find out what the hell The Cartel is.
It's a totally linear first-person shooter, telling the story of an uneasy alliance between Det. Ben McCall of the LAPD (a descendent of the main character from the first Call of Juarez), Agent Kimberly Evans of the FBI, and Agent Eddie Guerra of the DEA. At first, the characters don't quite transcend the stereotypical roles that the game seems to set out for them to fill- the cranky old man with revenge on his mind, the sassy tough woman and the suave, fast-talking Latin man- but over the course of the game (and the multiple playthroughs, if you choose to complete them), you'll learn that each character has his or her own motivations and are more than willing to accomplish their own agendas by any means necessary. On top of that, not only are storylines/endings different, each level brings different objectives for each character, agendas that'll give you experience (which will allow you to unlock more weapons in the game), items that you'll collect, characters that you'll meet that will be exclusive to your character's scenario. You're encouraged to complete these objectives without getting caught by your teammates for an experience bonus, and in co-op play, you can try to catch your teammates in the act for that very same bonus. I think that's an excellent idea that encourages players to find out the story for themselves, though that's only if the players find themselves attached to the characters or the gameplay enough to see how it all plays out.
Techland's main MO seems to have an ambitious framework in a game that's just riddled with problems, technical or otherwise. Call of Juarez: The Cartel proves this theory quite well, though I can't say that it's the fault of the gameplay. As it stands, the gunplay is standard, fun in short periods, satisfying, if a little loose for my tastes. You'll be able to hold onto two pistols (or, for true Western fans, revolvers) and a rifle, with each character having a weapon preference & bonuses tied to specific weapons. Kim works best with long-range rifles and can aim farther, even with a pistol. Eddie has quick reload times for assault rifles and Ben has high power & reload times with a six-shooter. Although it's slightly unbalanced, considering that the reload times are negligible and Kim's aim ability is more useful in the long run, the characters more or less control the same regardless of what weapon you choose. You will still pull the left trigger to use ironsights & the right trigger to, for lack of a better term, bust a cap and most of the time, it'll feel satisfying from a gameplay perspective.
My only real issue with the gameplay is that it's stagnant throughout. The exclusive objectives for each character never amount to much more than finding an item or seeing a person and pressing the action button to complete the objective, while making sure that no one has you in their line of sight, and *spoiler alert*, they're the same each time you play through that level. A random task element would've made that concept much more interesting in the long run, especially if you plan on taking the game online cooperatively. The gunplay isn't different from anything you'd play in this day and age, with the exception of some turret & sniper sequences thrown in to break up the action. I've always said that action games with driving sequences always suck unless the game makes the driving a big mechanic in the game (like Driver, GTA, etc) and no game proves that point more than The Cartel. You're forced to drive in the single-player mode, while your A.I. buddies do all the cool stuff like shoot machine guns on the 405 freeway at comically large SUVs. Oh, and the less said about the awful first-person hand to hand combat, the better.
There are a couple of neat mechanics within the game that I'll give credit to. There are sequences where you & a partner bust open a door with your pistol & are given 5 seconds or so to draw your weapon in slow-motion and shoot down as many baddies as you can with one clip. These sequences are very cinematic & fun to play the first couple of times you encounter them, but by the end of the game, when you're performing this action 4-5 times in each level, it gets tedious. There's a cover mechanic where your buddies will provide covering fire, allowing you to reach a better vantage point for shooting, but the cover system is wonky & I usually just found it easier to find my own cover or throw a grenade at the oncoming baddies. Like a number of action games, you're given a "bullet time" mechanic, allowing you to slow down time in order to get a better shot at your enemies. This is also the point where The Cartel's abrasively dumb writing comes into play. Each character will spout out a one-liner while entering this mode, with Ben littering Bible quotes with F-bombs (admittedly kind of cool), Eddie making awful gambling puns (because he's in a deep gambling debt!) and Kim saying nonsensical stuff like "You won't have the right to an attorney because you'll be six feet under, motherfucker!" as if that's something that a real person would actually say in real life.
You can see one of Eddie's unbearably awful gambling puns captioned in this screenshot.
I feel like Techland dropped the ball in the story & character development departments. The story is more or less "dudes are going to get to the bottom of these drug cartel shenanigans" with a few twists & turns thrown in to keep you interested, but I can't say that I was. Because Techland only deals in stereotypes, the characters are mostly unlikable, saying dumb, unrealistic, possibly racist things in unrealistic situations (the cartel members have accents that'd make Speedy Gonzalez blush, for example). Ben is really the only character that's worth a damn, as his no-nonsense attitude and hilariously gruff voice stand out amongst the action.
This wouldn't be a Techland game if it wasn't filled with technical issues, and while it's not broken like Dead Island was during launch, I've had my fair share of problems with the game. The framerate is usually reliable but falters in larger setpieces. The motion blur hides the low textures and awkward animation on characters, even though the lighting is stellar at spots. There was an instance where the game's scripting worked against me, as a door wouldn't unlock after I had cleared all enemies in the room & completed the objective, forcing me to restart at the checkpoint. Subtitles almost never line up to the spoken dialogue or feature poor spelling or grammatical errors. At least the soundtrack is suitably Western, if repetitive in spots.
And this game failed because?
Though Call of Juarez: The Cartel had a prime Summer launch date, it was a hard sell for both fans of the franchise and for newcomers. The universally poor reviews did no favors for the game. Those who grew attached to the universe that Techland originally created didn't particularly want this game, and people who were looking for a solid first-person shooter with an intriguing premise & setting weren't going to pick this one up. This was a game that tried to appeal to everyone, but ended up alienating everyone instead.
I have to say that my first playthrough of The Cartel left a solid impression on me; I had a good amount of fun playing through the 10 hour + campaign, especially after trying out crap like Mindjack or Rogue Warrior. Unpolished & unoriginal, but at least it was satisfying. The other playthroughs, however, were significantly underwhelming & I just wanted for the game to be over well before I finished my second (of three) playthroughs. So I'm torn. Relatively speaking, compared to stuff I've played before, this game is far superior. As a first-person shooter in a marketplace full of excellent ones, it's lacking though not without its pleasures, as simple as they may be. It's good for a one-time rental if you're looking to waste some time & rack up achievement points, but other than that, I can't heartily recommend this one, whether you're a Western fan or not.