Call of Juarez: The Cartel – Review

Release Date: 22nd of July (UK)
Developer: Techland
Publisher: Ubisoft
Singleplayer: Yes
Splitscreen: No
Co-op: 2-3 Players
Multiplayer:  2-12 Players
PEGI: 15+

(Call of Juarez: The Cartel was provided free of charge by Ubisoft for review)

I have a bit of a soft spot for the Call of Juarez games. Sure, they’re not the best of shooters, instead they usually hover around the “decent” area looking a bit shifty, but they were a member of the small community known as Western games. They let me live out my Wild West FPS dreams and provided soe entertaining storylines to boot.  But it seems Techland decided that there just isn’t enough FPS games set in modern times, so they’ve changed Call of Juarez from a Western to a game to a story of three Law Enforcement agents trying to bring down a drug Cartel, and it all takes place in 2011.

Just a few seconds lines into this review and we’ve already hit he Cartel’s biggest flaw: the change of setting. By being a Western, Call of Juarez  immediately set itself apart from most other FPS experiences on the market, and that also made it easier to look past the flaws in the series. But Techland had the idea that Call of Juarez needed a change, and bringing the game’s setting into todays world was the outcome. In all fairness the concept was good: a modern-day FPS that still felt like it had strong Western aspects. But in execution they haven’t managed to combine the two worlds together, instead Call of Juarez has become just another modern-day FPS with a few hints toward its Wild West heritage. One of the main characters, Ben McCall, is a descendent of the fiery preacher from Bound in Blood and the original Call of Juarez, and the music has a distinctly Western vibe to it. At the far too rare moments when the game sticks you in an abandoned ghost town or the desert things begin to look up: wandering around these Wild West feeling areas with modern weaponry feels like the perfect blend, but sadly the game more often sticks you in streets, warehouse and other settings which we see far too often in other games.

So many words in and I’ve made this review sound entirely negative. But that’s not true, because I did actually enjoy the Cartel, so let’s get on with it.

The Cartel follows the story of three Law Enforcement Agents from different branches who are thrown together to bring down a drug cartel. Of course the different departments never trust each other, and the three agents are no different. Theres the cowboy dressing, revolver using Ben McCall, the smooth talking Eddie Guerra and the good-looking but deadly Kim Evans. At the beginning of the game you’ll be asked to pick one of these characters to play as, each with different skills, and this alters the storyline. During the game you’ll discover the story and agenda behind your chose character as the distrust between the three builds. At first the story is fairly dry stuff, but as the game progresses the story becomes a tad more interesting, and then it all comes together in a satisfying ending. The lead characters never really get far part being fairly generic people and you won’t ever truly care about what happens to them, but their backstories are interesting enough to kep you wanting more, despite their B-movie styled personalities and obsession with swearing more than a drunk Ozzy Osbourne. It’s not an original story, but if you’re into gang wars, drugs, suspicion and betrayal then you should enjoy it.

Things are all solid on the gunplay front as well. While the actual shooting mechanics feel a little sloppy compared to the genres big boys, the weapons themselves sound and feel nice and powerful. Revolvers kick back with convincing weight and let off a beautiful, sharp “bang” when you pull that trigger. And the Cartel is one of the few games where using pistols and revolvers feels utterly badass thanks to some heft license when it comes to their accuracy. And you can dual wield them! Call me odd, but there’s just something badass about running around with two revolvers, and it makes you feel like a real gunslinger. It’s not just the side-arms that feel dangerous, though: the assortment of machine guns, SMG’s and assault rifles also on offer all come with satisfying sound effects, right down to the lovely metallic sound of a new clip being slid into place. When it comes to the actual combat the game sits in that lovely white room known as the “Meh” room: it’s fun and it feels decent to play, but it never really drags itself above that level and amazes. Sure, there’s a couple of cool sections that are pretty damn good, but for the most part it’s simply decent and nothing more.

Techland have tried to ram a few interesting ideas into the gameplay, though. There are plenty of moments in the game that see your partners taking positions at either side of a door and then bursting through in slow motion with guns blazing. Sure, it’s not a new idea, but it is pretty enjoyable. However, this feature does tend to get over used during the game. Joining this breaching game mechanic are sections that pin you down under a barrage of enemy fire. At these points it’s up to you to dive from cover to cover when your partners give you covering fire, slowly working your way toward the enemy. Again, it’s a neat idea but this one is a bit less fun that the breaching, and like the breaching it gets over used.

There are even some driving sections thrown into the game, and like the rest of the game these are fun but largely unimpressive sections. There’s a sense of realism to these segments as you’re limited to a first-person view and your car will get thrown around like a cowboys boot in a hurricane, but some rather unconvincing handling stops these sections from ever becoming truly great.

And now we get to The Cartel coolest and most unique feature: the weapon unlock system. During your singleplayer venture you can level up your character resulting in new weapons becoming available for your kablamming pleasure. There’s a decent range on offer to play with unlock during the course of the game, but it’s the way that you do it tat counts. While you’re shooting your way through the levels you’ll see secret items strewn around the landscape that must be claimed by your character, but the catch is you can’t let either of your partners catch you while doing so. Netting one of these items scores you some points toward your next gun, but getting caught equals nothing. During a mission you’ll also receive phone calls from certain people who give you a secret agenda to complete during the mission: like the secret items you can’t let your partners catch you completing these, and they net you much bigger points rewards than the normal items. It’s a great idea and ties in beautifully with the idea of the three main characters distrusting each other, but it definitely feels like it was designed with the games three-player co-op in mind. In singleplayer your AI buddies are simply too easy to avoid and never seem to try steal items themselves. or their just so good that I never noticed them. In which case respect to the AI, you conniving sod. The idea falls flat on its face during co-op if the players simply decide to each other pick up their items without interference as the reward for catching someone red-handed isn’t that big. Thus I recommend that you roleplay this idea a bit and really try to sneak those items into your pocket and catch your mates at it.

Ah yes, the three player co-op. You can really tell that the game was designed around three people playing it: the start of a mission has you standing in a “lobby” picking your weapons, regardless of whether you actually have anyone else playing with you. The “secret item” mechanic is clearly designed with live people in mind. Getting together three people to play the game will definitely ramp up your enjoyment of the game, but playing with friends always has that effect.

If you want to shoot other people rather than cooperate with them then you can venture onto The Cartel’s multiplayer modes, of which there are a few offered. They’re mostly takes of familiar game types with a slight twist: getting in and out with the cash while avoiding crooks, guarding judges and blowing stuff up are all in a days work here. Theres a decent amount of weapon unlocks to be gotten and your different classes can be outfitted with different body armour and perks.  An interesting idea comes in the form of getting to pick a partner during games, and if you stick with him/her you’ll get bonuses depending on which perk you and your partner has equipped, plus you’ll get free ammo. Bonus! But, in what is a recurring theme in this review, the multiplayer simply never stands up and screams ” look at me, you son of a bitch! I’m awesome!”, instead it’s simply enjoyable but far from amazing. Expect to play it for a week to two weeks and promptly forget about it.

In respect to the presentation and polish side of things, The Cartel needs some work. Graphically the game fails to impress. Sure, there are some good-looking sections, but they’re buried under the rest of the game which simply looks rather dated. The textures lack any real detail or depth, the animations are stiff and the environments are usually drab streets and warehouses. And, unusually for me, I’m also going to criticize the menus: they have a Windows DOS look to them, colored in a yellow and black/grey style that simply looks horrible. The blocky letters and rough menu design seem completely out of context with the rest of the game. What’s up with that?

There’s also a number of bugs and glitches in The Cartel, such as people still talking while dead, enemies walking through scenery and cars/people appearing right in front of you. I also encountered a problem right from the start when I had to replay the entire intro level for no reason.

Revolvers: still badass.

Techland made a mistake by taking Call of Juarez out of its Wild West setting and placing it into an all-too familiar backdrop. And without that Western theme, the game doesn’t manage to hide its shortcomings as well. Does that mean it isn’t fun? No. The Cartel is enjoyable, but is simply doesn’t manage to do things well enough to climb up to the top of the pile with the big boys.

The Good:
+ The guns!
+ An interesting storyline.
+ Unique gun unlock system.

The Bad:
– Lack of polish.
– Fairly repetitive mission structure.
– Never makes it above “decent”.


Graphics: 7
The Cartel only just manages to cling to the “average” in terms of graphics with a few good-looking moments and several bad-looking moments.

Sound: 7.5
The music isn’t amazing, but enjoyable. The voice acting is nothing special. But guns sound great.

Story: 8
The main characters never really break free of their stereotypical trappings, but this is still an enjoyable tale that comes together nicely at the end. The different backstories during the game also work quite well.

Gameplay: 7
The shooting is solid, as are most of the other aspects of the game.

Lifespan: 7
The fact that The Cartel has a longer than normal singleplayer for an FPS is balanced out by a multiplayer that won’t last you very long. You can expect around eight hours from the singleplayer.

Overall: 7/10
Summary: Taken out of its Wild West home and dumped into modern-day, Call of Juarez: The Cartel loses its unique appeal and  delivers a solid, fun, but ultimately average shooting experience.

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