The shooter genre doesn't produce the most original content these days, so many franchises are trying their best to do something to stand out from the likes of Call of Duty and Battlefield. For the Call of Juarez series, this has previously meant an Old West setting, which gave the games a certain character not found in other titles. That's why it's such a surprise that the franchise is ditching its one differentiating element in favor of a modern setting in Call of Juarez: The Cartel. It turns out doing so was a bad idea, as this modern-day entry is a generic, sloppy mess of a game that further buries the already-struggling franchise.
The Cartel starts off with a literal bang, as a Mexican drug cartel detonates a bomb at a Los Angeles Drug Enforcement Agency office. An interagency task force is formed, featuring LAPD officer Ben McCall (the only real callback to the previous games), DEA agent Eddie Guerra and FBI operative Kimberly Evans. Each character starts the game as supremely unlikable stereotypes, and they only get worse as the plot drags on. Very few games try as hard as The Cartel to make you dislike the central cast.
Players are given the option to play through the game as one of three operatives, with the other roles being filled by co-op partners or AI bots. I wish I could say that the characters are so unique and interesting that you'll want to go back through and replay it so you can get their full stories, but they're such painful stereotypes that it's hard to make it through even once. Evans is the typically sassy black girl from da hood, while Guerra is the quintessential Latin slimeball. Topping it off is gruff and grizzled McCall, who basically behaves like that old man in the nursing home who hates everyone else merely for breathing. Each of them is terrible in their own right, and the greatest challenge The Cartel presents is making you care about what happens to the protagonists once the credits roll.
Gameplay fares no better, as the title offers up a cornucopia of weapons that are completely indistinguishable from one another. Each character is supposed to specialize in certain weapon types, but this designation is rendered pointless, as you really only need a stock automatic rifle to get through nearly every level. For instance, Evans is supposed to be an expert sniper, but a sniper rifle comes in handy exactly twice throughout the course of the game. McCall is a pistol savant, but pistols are uniformly the worst weapons available, so there's no reason to use them when there is superior firepower strewn liberally throughout every stage. Topping off the stroll down Generic Shooter Blvd. is the obligatory slow-motion that can be triggered from time to time and really adds nothing to the gameplay.
The one interesting element to The Cartel is the Secret Agenda system, but the execution is botched enough to render it nearly pointless. Each character is privy to conversations only they can hear in which contacts ask them to pick up special items without their partners catching on. For example, Guerra is in some deep trouble with bookies and has begun dabbling in the drug trade in the hopes of paying back his debts. Therefore, throughout the missions, he's on the lookout for drugs and rare antiquities that he can sell for a quick buck. The catch to the Secret Agenda system is that you get points for grabbing items covertly, but your partners also get points if they catch you in the act. In the single-player portion, the whole system is kind of pointless since AI bots randomly run around and don't really care what you do, but in co-op, it can be fun to tail a teammate who suddenly peels off in the middle of a firefight; you can catch them trying to grab an item they don't want you to see.
The problem with the Secret Agendas is that they're predictable and ultimately pointless. Agenda items are always in the same place in every level, so it's easy for players to exploit the system. Aside from the point boosts, the items are useless, and the developers missed a major opportunity to weave them into the plot. At one point in my game, I was carrying a key that unlocked some valuable evidence and would unravel the whole conspiracy. I was actually intrigued by the prospect of either turning it over to my partners to help solve the case or sell it off to a contact and have my debts wiped clean. But the game squandered this moral quandary by choosing for me, forcing the narrative to follow its linear path to the inevitable conclusion. Thanks for killing the suspense, guys.
Adding to The Cartel's woes are visuals that look like they really don't belong on modern consoles. Character models are ugly as sin, animation is jerky and the levels look terrible. While the game tries to include a number of urban and rural settings to switch up things, all of them look absolutely awful. Don't forget the sound that randomly cuts out and lips that aren't even remotely synced with the words coming out of them. Techland was quick to point out the great new engine they used to build The Cartel, but that turned out to be an empty boast since this title looks and sounds awful.
Up until now, the Call of Juarez games have been so-so titles with a unique setting. Now, The Cartel has downgraded the series into a messy, forgettable affair. That may be the worst part of all, as in such a crowded genre, the worst thing you can do is look and feel just like all the other "me too" games. Truly, this game is a disappointment on nearly every level.
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