Game: Call of Juarez: The Cartel
Reviewed: July 2014
The first two games in the Call of Juarez series were excellent first person shooters set in the Wild West, perfectly capturing the feel of the Western genre and creating an entertaining experience all round. So of course, the sequel is set in the modern day and throws out everything that made the originals so good. Change isn’t always a negative thing of course, but this was a poor concept to start with, and then the game just piles on one bad decision after another.
The plot involves three main characters from three different law enforcement organisations. Eddie Guerra is from the DEA, Kimberly Evans is from the FBI, and Ben McCall is from the LAPD. McCall dresses like an old style western gunslinger and looks a bit like Reverend Ray McCall from the earlier games, which is about the only link with them. Presumably he’s supposed to be a descendant. They’re all made to work together on a case involving drugs and gangs and racially stereotyped Mexicans and blah blah blah. You won’t care. You won’t care because it’s boring and badly written, and also because all three of the playable leads are thoroughly unlikable bastards and you won’t be bothered in the slightest about what happens to them. There’s nothing wrong with having non-heroic leads of course; antiheroes can often make fascinating characters, and the aforementioned Reverend Ray from the first two games is a good example of that. The Cartel’s three morons aren’t. They’re obnoxious, violent, swear constantly presumably for no reason other than the developers thought it would make them sound cool, and have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Alongside the awful dialogue, it’s virtually impossible to invest anything into the characters. It’s not helped by moments such as one where you have to occasionally press a button to join in with your team mates in brutally beating up a criminal in an unpleasant scene that drags on and on.
Still, if the gameplay is good, that can be enough to save a game and make it at least an entertaining experience. Sadly, The Cartel fails to even be a competent shooter. Sure, at its very best, in the moments away from all the flaws where everything comes together, it manages to reach the heady heights of a thoroughly average FPS, but for most of the time it doesn’t even make it there. The actual shooting itself is decent enough and works in the way any other FPS would, but it’s so lacking in polish as to spoil the experience. The game starts with a brief confusing scene where you’re shooting from a moving car, since the game uses the trick where it’ll throw you into something from the middle of the game for a couple of minutes before then going back in time and starting the game properly. That’s followed by an interminably long cutscene before the first level itself starts properly with a driving sequence. Things start to fall apart already right there.
Driving is featured in almost all the levels at some point, whether just driving to a location or getting involved in a car chase. The handling is dreadful and feels floaty, without any real sense of physics. Even at times when you drive through water, the handling doesn’t change even slightly and just ploughs through as if you were on a flat road. It’s very weak. Crashing also lacks any physics, since if you’re travelling quickly enough and hit another car, you get an instant game over message. No crash animation or sounds or anything like that, just the very instant your car touches another that’s it over. Making matters worse, if you’re playing in single player then in almost all of the car scenes you’re forced into the driver’s seat. For the car chase scenes that means all you can do is drive and rely on the AI companions to do the shooting. Of course, the AI companions are useless throughout the game and if asked to shoot fish in a barrel would still manage to miss the barrel itself nine times out of ten. All the time you’re doing the driving, you’re getting shot at and hit, and it’s possible you could even die on these missions through absolutely no fault of your own, since all you can do is drive and hope for one of your companions to get a lucky shot, or for the enemies aim to deteriorate to their level. It’s dreadfully designed.
Related to the quality of the AI are the repetitive comments they come out with, every few seconds throughout the entire game. There’s probably only about half a dozen of these, and you’ll constantly hear them say “You don’t have to do this all by yourself” every time you kill a few enemies in a row, despite the fact that they’re barely any help. Still, if you go two seconds without shooting anyone, they’ll start complaining and saying you’d be dead without them. You’ll have heard all these comments approximately eleven gazillion times by the end of the six hours or so it takes to play the game. Equally repetitive in dialogue terms are the lines spoken when going into concentration mode, such as the twisted versions of biblical quotes that McCall spouts. Twisted as in finding ways to add some swear words into them, since that seems to be the main vocabulary of the scriptwriters. You hear the same three or so quotes every time you enter this mode.
The concentration mode itself has been made less interesting since the last game. Where the previous game gave you various different modes for the different characters in the game, here you effectively just have three versions of bullet time. After killing enough enemies to charge up the meter, you can activate the mode and time will slow down to let you aim at people quicker. It only lasts about five seconds and requires you to kill about a dozen enemies to charge it up again, so it’s not all that useful really and I generally ended up not bothering with it, especially since it would mean listening to those bloody quotes again.
The other times thing slow down are at set points in the game when entering through doorways. You take up positions either side of a door and then burst in, and time pauses allowing you a few seconds to shoot as many people as you can from a still position. It’s a bit overused at times, and it also has the annoying side effect of switching your weapon to a pistol automatically without the option to change it, no matter what weapon you might have had equipped when you got into position.
Perhaps the most irritating aspect of the game is how railroaded it all is. It’s not simply the fact that it’s so linear, but how badly it handles it. The game will often present you with seemingly open areas, but straying even a few steps off the path it wants you to follow leads to a warning message, quickly followed by an instant game over if you don’t back off again straight away. Creating artificial boundaries like that is bad enough, but to actually end to game and penalise the player because you couldn’t be bothered to implement the level properly is taking things to new lows in design terms. It’s not even always obvious what the path you should follow is. During one of the driving sequences where I was trying to chase down another vehicle, I decided to take a turn off to try to head off the other car, but was instead rewarded with a game over message and forced to start again. “You’re trying to do something sensible but it isn’t the exact thing we wanted you to do,” says the game. “Do it again and this time make sure you read our minds first.” At another point, you’re defending a cabin in the middle of nowhere from some enemies who’ve turned up in cars. But you kill them all, and then another wave of them turns up, and then another, and then another. No new cars, just new men, popping up from behind the rocks. How they all fitted behind the rocks is never explained. I got fed up of the repetitiveness of shooting from the windows at constantly respawning enemies so decided to run towards them and take them on directly for a change of pace but again, got a message telling me I was going out of bounds. Moving towards the enemy was taking me outside my allowed level area. Obviously the developer’s didn’t want me to see the men appearing from thin air for no good reason.
Just in general terms, the game just doesn’t quite work and is full of little flaws. The graphics are relatively weak for the time of release and somehow manage to be inferior to the previous two games in the series, which often managed some great views. The cutscenes are poorly done and at one point a video ended with people stood right behind my character pointing guns at his head, yet an instant later when control is returned to you, the enemies are in front of you and quite some way in the distance. It’s just shoddily put together. The three characters don’t even play very differently. This is demonstrated especially by a moment near the end of the game, where you’re presented with three doors and allowed to pick which one you want to take. It looked like it was going to be a moment of three paths that would eventually converge, and, well, in a way it was. It’s just that they converged about 10 seconds after going through the doors, with no enemies to fight or anything. It’s a completely pointless choice and you instantly team up with the other two.
About the only thing the game does that tries to be different is in the form of secret agendas. Each of the three characters is given extra objectives that aren’t revealed to the other two. These you have to try to carry out without being spotted by the other members of your team. Sadly, they generally only involve picking up things lying around the levels or finding things. If you manage to pick up the items without being spotted, you get XP, but if you’re caught you get nothing. In single player, it’s generally easy to avoid being caught as the AI doesn’t tend to follow you too closely, and they don’t bother trying to carry out their agendas. This is something that’s designed mainly for co-op. The three characters are supposed to be suspicious of each other, so it makes sense in that regard, but it’s broken as a game mechanic. If playing a co-operative game and you catch the other players stealing something then you stop them from getting XP while getting a small bonus yourself. The trouble is, it’s still a co-op game you’re playing, not a competitive one. XP is used to unlock better weapons and if you’re stopping your companions from getting access to these then you’re crippling your own game too, since there are quite a few times when you’ll be relying on them to defend you. The one new thing the game does try is even a vaguely interesting concept, but it, like most of the game, hasn’t been thought through properly.
So The Cartel started with a fundamentally poor idea, implemented it badly, threw in an almost interesting but fundamentally broken co-op idea, all wrapped up in a mass of bad dialogue, dodgy stereotypes and swearing. Then there are the tacked on standard competitive multiplayer modes that you’d find in every FPS game that don’t really offer much incentive to keep you playing. It fails badly as a sequel, it fails as a game in its own right, and it’s a tragic decline for an entertaining series. Thankfully, writing this from my position here in the future, I can at least say that Techland redeemed themselves with the next game in the series, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger. It’s nice to be able to say one positive thing in a review.
Arbitrary Final Score:
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