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Call of Juarez: The Cartel

Score: 60%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Ubisoft Entertainment
Developer: Techland Software
Media: DVD/1
Players: 1; 2 - 12 (Online)
Genre: Action/ Shooter/ Online

Graphics & Sound:

Save for a few novel ideas, Call of Juarez: The Cartel is, by far, the fledgling franchise's worst installment in nearly every possible way. The visuals are no exception. The first thing you'll notice is the amazingly ugly pixelated grey font the developers have chosen for the user interface. I usually don't take issue with such seemingly petty trifles, but this lack of aesthetic appeal permeates the entire experience and, in the case of the aforementioned ugly interface, constantly forces itself upon you.

Call of Juarez was a decent-looking game. Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood was drop dead gorgeous. Transplanting the franchise into modern-day Los Angeles may have been a bad idea from a visual standpoint; there's just no going up against the natural beauty presented in the franchise's first two games. So artistically, the game is relatively devoid of merit. Technically, it doesn't fare much better than that. The first mission gives you the task of burning a series of marijuana fields, but once you get into the glens that conceal the fields, you might think it's already burning, there's so much smog. I've been to Los Angeles; the smog is noticeable, but not from twenty feet. When the game isn't starkly unattractive, it's merely unpolished and unremarkable.

Call of Juarez: The Cartel has some pretty bad voice acting, though the lines themselves are more offensive to the senses than their delivery. Ben McCall sounds like McGruff the Crime Dog (after inhaling helium), Eddie Guerra sounds like he could be a extra on Dexter, and Kim Evans... well, let's just say I call B.S. on McCall's claim that she earned a law degree from Stanford. Most of the lines uttered feature profanity and/or Latino slang. Maybe I'm just naive; I've never tried to bring down a violent drug cartel before, but I doubt everyone involved in one necessarily sounds like Cheech Marin. Worse yet, all of the main characters somehow feel the need to repeat themselves. Everything else is okay. Gunfire and explosions are hard to mess up these days, it seems. The music isn't anything special, but some noteworthy guitar licks serve as throwbacks to the previous Call of Juarez games.


With Call of Juarez and its sequel Bound in Blood, Techland set a pretty high bar for themselves in terms of storytelling. They proved that they were capable of delivering a rich and engaging Western with a diverse cast of sympathetic heroes and despicable villains. Having proved that, they simply dropped the ball with Call of Juarez: The Cartel. The story isn't interesting and the cast is entirely made up of assholes. The setup isn't half-bad, though; it's actually quite good.

The D.E.A. offices are bombed by the Mendoza Cartel, which is notorious for drug and sex trafficking, among several other dastardly enterprises. So, the government puts together a special task force to deal with the cartel; a triumvirate consisting of Benjamin McCall of the L.A.P.D. (and descendant of the badass Reverend Ray McCall), F.B.I. Agent Kim Evans, and D.E.A. Agent Eddie Guerra, who somewhat suspiciously survived the bombing. These three do not trust each other, and it's this lack of camaraderie that (oddly enough) makes the game interesting.

Call of Juarez: The Cartel was meant to be played cooperatively with two other players. If you don't, you'll be left with an otherwise ordinary first person shooter with absolutely no frills whatsoever. McCall, Evans, and Guerra all have their own agendas, and they are occasionally forced to go behind each other's backs in order to do their jobs correctly. Each character has a series of hidden items littered about each mission. Their objective (besides the termination of pretty much everything that moves) is to acquire these objects -- discreetly and out of the sight of their companions. By doing so, you will earn an experience boost that will go a long way towards unlocking new gear. If you're caught red-handed, the experience will go to the player who spotted you in the act. This is a really interesting dynamic that unfortunately isn't explored deeply enough to save the rest of The Cartel, which is otherwise as rote and boring as shooters can get.


Call of Juarez: The Cartel's difficulty level can be measured in a number of ways. When it's you against the game, it can get pretty nasty really quick. If you get one step out of line or find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time, you'll find yourself dead more quickly than you might expect. These kinds of situations are not forgiving at all in real life, and they're about as forgiving in The Cartel. Some situations are hectic and intense, especially the ones in which you are surrounded by a legion of automobiles. Cars and trucks are ticking time bombs in this game; a few misplaced bullets are all it takes to blow one sky high.

The game by itself is challenging at times, but if you've got attentive and twitchy co-op buddies, the game can be doubly hard. In addition to the secret objective mechanic, co-op features a challenge mechanic that encourages all three players to fulfill a certain requirement before the others do. Once one player aces the challenge, it ends for everyone else. This can make leveling up a bit more tricky for some players, but it doesn't even appear in single player.

Game Mechanics:

Call of Juarez: The Cartel borrows some of the franchise's trademark mechanics, but much of what it adds to the stable detracts from the game's appeal. For example, Concentration Mode is back. Earn enough kills, and you'll have the opportunity to enter a brief period of slow motion -- as your character embraces the cliches that define their archetypes in the worst possible ways. For example: Ben McCall somehow feels the need to channel Christian Bale while reciting the Book of Revelation (or, at least, a moron's interpretation of it). Also returning are the moments that have you kicking down doors and gunning down roomfuls of goons in slow motion. These mechanics still work well, within both the context of the game and in co-op.

Every instance in which The Cartel tries to be unique usually comes with an execution problem. For example, each of the characters gets their secret objectives from their phones. These calls and messages often come at inopportune times and get in the way of the gameplay far too often. Another example of a poorly-implemented new mechanic is driving. Few of these sequences are fun in co-op, and they are almost intolerable in single player. You're frequently reduced to your near-death screen filter while your buddies taunt you for being no help, despite being no help at all themselves.

On its own, Call of Juarez: The Cartel is an interesting but failed experiment. When placed alongside its predecessors, it's one of the biggest sequel disappointments since Devil May Cry 2. It works, but just barely, and the interesting cooperative play is just about all that keeps the game afloat in the tepid sea of its own mediocrity.

-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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