Review: Call of Juarez – The Cartel (X360)

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Call of Juarez: The Cartel is a game that likes making you wait.

Health regeneration is usually a fast and painless way to get back into the thick of things, but not here. In-game cell phone calls can’t be canceled even if you’ve heard them before, and that problem carries over to multiplayer co-op where everyone has to wait until their scripted personal time is finished.

If there’s an explosion nearby, expect to get knocked on your ass and being forced to wait as you get back up. There’s a reason most FPS shooters don’t do this to the player, and it’s not because of realism issues. If you’re thinking “because it’s not fun”, you’re already ahead of this game. 

Then there’s the checkpoint system ready to educate you on the joys of repetition, subtitles botched with embarrassing errors like “homes” for “holmes” and calling police “5.0″ instead of “5-0″, and  bugs such as doors that open off the game map. This is game that is as far from “Bound in Blood” in more than one way.

Yet for its faults, Cartel has some good things going for it. The agenda system that sets players on personal missions, such as recovering a special item or gathering collectables without being seen by their partners, AI or co-op, add some diversity to an otherwise rote exercise in bullet dancing. Picking up the bling translates into experience points for unlockable weapons and a chance at one of two alternate endings for the game. Ubisoft’s Uplay is also hooked into the game allowing players to rack up credits that they can spend on Ubisoft extras, if they’re into that sort of thing.

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Cartel can also be played from the viewpoint of one of three different characters who will have their own ideas on how to handle the action, each with their specialties whether it’s in being able to reload pistols faster than greased lightning or have the skill to shoot a fly’s wings off with a sniper rifle though none of them are restricted to only one set of weapons. One irritating thing is that levels earned for one character don’t carry over to anyone else – likely to force you to explore the game as someone else. It doesn’t matter, however, when it comes to weapons as any that are unlocked remain so for everyone else.

The intermissions between each chapter of the game also have different things to say depending on who you’re running as, explaining what might be strange behavior in the game from one perspective through another. For an FPS that wants to tell a story, even though the story itself is pretty dry, it’s a great way to make replaying the game feel fresh.

Co-op also makes the main campaign much more interesting. In addition to looking out for each other, co-op will also challenge players with special goals outside of the single player such as being the first one to melee a certain number of baddies or in completing their secret agenda. None of your experience really carries over to this part of the game, though any weapons you unlock are still selectable.

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Techland’s artists have managed to decorate Cartel’s world with plenty of graffiti, boarded up houses, and abandoned desert hideaways that almost make it as open as its predecessor. Almost, because if you wander too far off the beaten path, it will respond with all of the wrath of a vengeful teacher armed with a game-ending ruler slap. The same applies to multiplayer where, if you wander too far away from the game zone, death is your only reward.

The visuals are also an odd mix of low-res looks and high end ideas. The inner city grime comes through with seedy warehouses and cluttered backyards of abandoned homes, but at the same time, hit the player with camera-like text overlays with jaggy edges, disappearing bodies, bland textures, and low res explosions. Bodies have even clipped through and have hung from walls and if you run too far ahead, your partners simply teleport to where you are. Whoosh!

The AI is also single-minded in trying to kill you along with your partners making it easy to pick out, or for your partners to simply hang back until the script calls for them. The shooting is standard stuff, though the game sometimes mixes it up with a few driving sequences such as what it starts you off with. The cover system from the last game is non-existent. Don’t expect this to be an FPS GTA, though. Driving one of these cars felt as if you were simply driving the front end of a car floating on sponges.

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And why does every bad guy in the game talk as if they’re a wannabe gangster? At one point, you run into PMC soldiers and they’ll holla at you as if they were born and bred in LA’s school of hard knocks. The sheer repetition also makes ever line feel old after hearing the same insults for the hundredth time.

Multiplayer, for up to twelve players, is worth more than the single-player and actually plays a better game than “Bound in Blood”. It has a glorified lobby which looks like a cop office or a run-down warehouse depending on whether you play as an officer of the law or a gangsta wannabe. And it also comes with its own jagged edges.

Leveling up unlocks additional weapons, perks such as body armor, and character models, though it doesn’t carry over to the other career. What this means is that if you decide to play a different set, you’ll need to earn your stripes from the ground up within it just as you did on the other side of the law.

It might be one way to keep players hitting up MP for thrills, but it also comes off as something of a cheap stunt in doing so. It’s not as if either side is as different as Battlefield Bad Company’s classes are from each other. The system actually bears more of a resemblance to Modern Warfare’s system – only with more headaches.

There’s also no game browser listing available matches, which “Bound in Blood” had. It relies on the often-used automatch setup between two gametypes: mission based and team deathmatch. And you don’t get to specify which one you want. Why Techland decided to step back from this feature makes little sense.

You simply pick a side and go blind in letting the system search for a random game. You can set up your own, but why should you if you want to immediately hop into one that’s already in play? Oh, but you can’t until you roll the dice and hope it’s something you like.

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The mission-based games are fun, objective-based maps that play out as modern versions of cops and robbers complete with driving your crew when the occasion calls for a wheelman – which can also result in some hilarity since teammates can apparently run over each other even with friendly fire off. Or simply die when the car hits a sand dune the wrong way, mysteriously killing everyone. Still, the maps are varied with forests, roads, and inner city apartments with plenty of missions ranging from a train robbery out in the desert to raiding a court house.

The four major maps are also subdivided into smaller areas crammed with detail allowing for ambushes, sneaky angles of attack, or alternate ways in getting to where you need to go. They can also create some odd weirdness – certain objectives call for destroying a door to push forward, yet savvy players can get in behind the same door yet be unable to destroy it because the explosive ‘sweet spot’ is on the other side. It shouldn’t matter, but to Cartel’s strange logic, it does.

Team deathmatch is just as it sounds and it also comes with a few maps that are great for large crowds of players. Weapons are kind of odd. Even though there are rifles in the game, uzis and shotguns tend to be abnormally effective at sniping from long range.

Options for setting up your own multiplayer game are also sparse allowing players to pick from what mode they want, the map they want to play on, and the scenario allowed on that map. There’s little else to fiddle with.

The Cartel is a shadow of what “Bound in Blood” was in nearly every way, and that’s in spite of the modern setting. It could have worked there just as well, but a litany of problems and shortcuts have also made this sequel feel like a cheap cash-in on the name of the series.

Despite that, the surprisingly fun multiplayer, something of a problem-filled mode in “Bound in Blood”, might be all the mileage that some would be lawmen and gangsters find appealing. It’s too bad that the rest of the game isn’t as strong. Beyond its rugged and scarred facade, there are enough lead-lined points in this shootout to make its middling back roads and vengeance-fueled gunplay worth a visit.

Call of Juarez: The Cartel
Ubisoft / Techland
Xbox 360 / PS3 / Microsoft Windows (reviewed on Xbox 360)
Rated: M for Mature