Call of Juarez: The Cartel Review
Leaving the Wild West behind
Call of Juarez: The Cartel is a somewhat of a reinvention for the Western franchise. This first person shooter leaves the classic desert setting behind, in favor of the modern day Los Angeles with its urban shootouts and drug trade. Players will be able to experience the game’s decently lengthy and surprisingly involving story from three different perspectives, thus offering solid replay value. The multiplayer options are also well implemented and function well alongside some unique ideas. Possibly the biggest and most notable problem with the game is the dated presentation, from poor visuals and animations to low quality audio. However, if the new setting and overall low budget presentation isn’t a critical factor for you, some may be pleasantly surprised by what The Cartel has to offer.
The story in Cartel revolves around a squad of officers that has been assembled in order to investigate a bombing of an LAPD office. The bombing itself is never shown, as the events pick up in the meeting room where the team is put together – consisting of Ben McCall, an LAPD detective who’s as close to the Western ideals as the game can get, an FBI agent Kim Evans, and Eddie Guerra from DEA. This undercover team is tasked to work in secrecy and carry out their investigation of the bombing, with possible involvement of the local gangsters as well as the Mendoza cartel from Mexico. Given freedom to achieve their goals, the team begins by attempting to incite a gang war by destroying drugs that belong to one gang while impersonating the Cartel. It works, and the story begins to unravel from there.
It’s a relatively engaging story with some unexpected dramatic moments and good length at 15 chapters. The action takes place around Los Angeles as well as Mexico, so yes players will get to visit Juarez itself and the legend of the lost gold is worked into the story in passing. Although the new setting lacks a Western atmosphere, it is none the less successful at setting up a violent world run by crime and drugs. Most of the levels are linear but with plenty of side alleys to explore for secret objectives or flank your enemies. The environments are decently detailed, and apart from the technical issues that will be discussed later, look quite nice.
Unlike the previous games in Call of Juarez series, the player is no longer able to simply choose which character to play as before each chapter. Instead, the selection is made at the start of the campaign, and thus there are three fairly distinctive stories to play though. The overall plot remains the same of course, but there are tons of back story and cutscenes that are specific to each character’s personal plot. Completing the game once only provides the details from that perspective, and there are many missing elements that are worth discovering when playing the story from another point of view. There is even a choice to be made towards the end of the game, which essentially results in six different endings possible.
During the game, depending on what character you’re playing as, there will be a variety of secret missions presented. These objectives are secret because they are tied in to the character’s personal story, which is kept secret from the rest of the team. They most often involve talking to a specific contact or stealing various objects in the level, and it must be done out of sight of your teammates. Doing so successfully nets valuable XP and further advances the plot of the character. It’s an interesting element to distract the player from the routine level progression.
Before each mission, the player has a chance to select their weaponry in a neat lobby area which is actually a setting-appropriate space where you can wander around and exchange comments with teammates. Weapons that are available on the loadout depend on both XP-based character progress as well as story progress. There is a wide variety of guns in the game, from rifles and shotguns to pistols and revolvers. Each comes with varying stats that are better for certain situations, and it’s also possible to pickup ammo and new weapons from fallen enemies.
Overall, the various rifles feel somewhat distinctive, with rate of fire and accuracy being the most notable factors. The shootouts in the game feel satisfying to a point, though there are some quirks that may annoy players. Gunplay is well done and enemies remain realistic, not requiring three ammo clips to put down later in the game. The player is also able to take his share of damage, and thanks to regenerating health, hiding out of sight for a while allows you to heal fully. Your teammates will constantly call for you to use cover, but as any first person shooter, it’s a difficult thing to do. Like the previous Juarez games, there is no cover mechanic in the game, other than hugging the wall or barrier in front of you. This leads to many frustrating deaths even behind cover, as a hail of bullets comes from an unseen flanking enemy.
Though to say that the AI is clever because it can flank is a bit of an overstatement. Because there are three characters, all involved in the main plot as well as stories of their own, the entirety of the game is completed with partners by your side. In single player, the friendly AI will most often simply stick around the player, unless they are engaged in combat or are running to the next scripted event. Thus the previously mentioned secret objectives are extremely easy to do since your teammates are probably somewhere around the corner not really doing anything. In firefights, they are most useful at calling out an approximate position of the enemy (right, left, etc) but themselves are often unable to take anyone down. They can’t die nor revive the player, so they are quite literally very useless in combat.
Enemy AI doesn’t fare much better, as they simply stick to cover and occasionally run across your field of view, firing stray bullets. That’s not to say they miss, as even on Medium setting the game can be quite challenging (in part due to poor friendly AI). Thankfully, this issue is mitigated by playing online cooperatively with up to two players. This eliminates the friendly AI frustrations, allows others to revive the player if they go down, and makes the secret objectives a challenge to pull off as the pesky lobby partners won’t often leave your side. It does remove your ability to enter concentration mode, but it’s a small price to pay for a much more enjoyable experience. One critical feature that’s missing from coop is the ability to jump into any available game – instead, players create a specific mission lobby and wait for someone to join them, hoping that others are playing the same mission in the campaign. This severely limits the coop potential, as you must hope that others are looking to play on the same level as you.
As just mentioned, concentration mode is indeed back, making a smooth transition to the new setting. Much like before, players fill up their meter by killing enemies, and once activated the time is slowed for a short period, allowing the player to line up their shots. It’s a satisfying game mechanic that remains useful in tight situation. Also back are the Alamo entries, where a player and another partner bust down a door and have a similar time slowing effect in which to take out any visible enemies. New to the series but rarely implemented, a few times in the story players are able to take on one or two enemies in hand to hand combat. These fist fights are odd and are over fairly quickly, so it doesn’t add much to the game experience.
There are also driving sequences, as either getting from one point to another or, more frequently, as a chase scene. The car handling is very basic and rather forgiven, but you’re unable to return fire and thus the helpless friendly AI further shines through as they’re never able to take out your pursuers. There were even times when you could die even though driving perfectly – and there’s nothing to be done since you can’t return fire or deviate from the chase. Another interesting gameplay feature is a team cover sequence. Occasionally, you will be faced with a set of barricaded enemies who are too powerful to tackle head-on. In these cases, your teammates will provide cover fire and yell at you to gradually move cover to cover in order to flank the position. The game will force the player to take caution and move only when teammates call for it, and thankfully there are no issues here and your AI squad mates are always correct in telling you when it’s safe to advance.
Alongside the coop, there is also fully featured competitive multiplayer. There are two teams to choose from, cops and criminals, and this will affect your starting weapon loadouts and lobby area. Much like in single player, there is both weapon progression as well as XP based character progression. Players can earn XP in multiplayer by scoring kills, completing objectives, etc. Earned XP contributes to an overall level (last weapon unlocks at level 43), which allows for more loadouts, bonuses, weapons and skins. A neat alternative also exists, as some guns unlock once you’ve reached a certain number of kills with a similar weapon, regardless of your level. As expected neither the XP nor weapon unlocks are tied to single player progression, so you’d be starting from scratch.
There are two main modes available, team deathmatch and objective. Team deathmatch functions as expected with all the basics, and players are scored fairly simply based on their kills as well as team assists and other actions. Objective game modes pits the two teams in a more focused scenario – often the levels take place on sprawling maps in order to make it realistic. For example, during one scenario the cops are tasked with retrieving intelligence from the bandits who are holding it in their base. The cops actually start out almost a mile from the desert town where bandits are hold up, and must pool into vehicles and drive over there before they even see any action. Subsequently, they must drive away having recovered the package. It’s a refreshing approach, only similar to Battlefield Bad Company 2 Rush mode.
To get a match going, each team needs to have at least 4 players before an automated countdown starts things off. Disappointingly, there doesn’t seem to be a way to join a match in progress. The online action turns out as expected, and after a killstreak players can call in helicopter support as a perk on some maps. Like many other modern games, upon being fatally shot the players enter a downed state, where they can wait to be revived or choose to suicide and spawn again. In both MP modes, respawn times are very quick so you’ll never be looking at the scoreboard for long.
What’s unique about the Cartel’s multiplayer is the partner system. In lobby or during the match, players can approach their teammate and request to become their partner. If accepted, these two players now become a much more lethal force. Your partner will always be shown on your map, and you are close then both partners will actually boost each other’s abilities in some way. The basic boost is providing each other with better damage resistance is you stick close by – while later unlocks allow for extra ammo, increased damage, and more. It’s an interesting mechanic that allows for two players to lead their team to victory if they play well together. To use the system even further, the game occasionally throws in partner challenges where duos compete to get the most kills, assists, etc in a specific amount of time. The partner system is a great way to spice up multiplayer that is otherwise not too different from other shooters on the market.
Perhaps by now, The Cartel sounds like a darn decent game that’s worth checking out. And it is – except for one central problem. That problem, surprisingly, is Chrome Engine 5 that powers the game. The previous engine version, 4, was used in Call of Juarez Bound in Blood – and it was a decent looking title. Unfortunately with 5, something went quite wrong and The Cartel simply looks dated. We’re not talking Unreal Engine dated; it’s a whole new level of poor draw distance, awful animations and general lack of polish. Mind you, the character models and faces look quite alright, and the world is nicely detailed, but it all looks very blurry with a distinct lack of AA. Even the main menu texts and backgrounds are all very basic and low resolution, which makes it seem like a rather low budget game. There were also a couple of times when a scripted sequence failed to execute, and the whole chapter had to be restarted in order to advance past that point. Both friendly and enemy AI have a knack of blatantly teleporting themselves ahead or spawn in empty rooms, further degrading the experience.
Problems continue with a very poor view distance – aiming down the iron sights often produces mixed results; it’s difficult to distinguish between an enemy and a parked car in the distance, as the game applies an ugly blurring effect. There are also many poor animations, from lip syncing to cutscenes and character movements. Pistols fired by enemies as machine guns, a rappelling system that is frozen and instead produces new hooks out of nowhere, are all just examples of the presentation issues. The sound department struggles as well – voice acting is decent, but it all sounds as if recorded in a metal box and the sound effects don’t fare much better. At least, the loading times are very quick.
It’s a bit unfortunate to be ending the review by going over the engine problems – but this will likely be one of the major reasons why many will pass on the game. As you’ve read to this point, it’s easy to see that the game offers plenty of stuff worth getting excited about, but the unfortunate lack of polish in the audio and visual presentation will be a major problem for many. Call of Juarez: The Cartel is an interesting entry in the franchise, brining a new setting that many weren’t expecting, and still putting out a very worthwhile experience. From multiple replayability of the singleplayer, to the unique twists of coop and competitive play, The Cartel is a game that warrants your attention. If you can get past the admittedly poor presentation and general feel of a low budget title, there’s plenty to like underneath it all.