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Call of Juarez: The Cartel

17:3402/08/2011Posted by Chris MorellOne Comment

The Wild West – it was dusty, barren and if the movies of old are anything to go by, plagued with lawlessness and gun-toting cowboys. It was also not without its charm, giving way to the aforementioned Hollywood flicks as well as a few high-quality games, most notably Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption. One title which never quite received the praise it deserved was Techland’s Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood; the prequel to the generally overlooked first instalment. It’s almost impossible to mention The Cartel without fondly referencing the last game, as this latest attempt may have undone all of the groundwork laid down by its predecessor.

In Call of Juarez: The Cartel, you play as one of three members of a special task force, one of which is Ben McCall, a descendant of the McCall brothers from Bound in Blood. Fans of the original game may find themselves baffled as to why he looks more like Ray than he does Thomas, but we’re nit-picking here. The name and familial resemblance is about as far the game goes to connect the dots to the rest of the series, making it feel less like a related sequel and more an irrelevant B-movie featuring a laughable script punctuated by even more ridiculous delivery. It rarely becomes so bad that it could be seen as good, though you may find yourself chuckling as Ben argues with his team in every cutscene. His compatriots, DEA Agent Eddie Guerra and FBI Agent Kimberley Evans come across as racial stereotypes, but given that you’ll mostly be shooting hooded thugs rather than cowboys this time around, these two forgettable characters are the least of the game’s issues.

The Wild West is gone, replaced by stock buildings and dreary warehouses that seem to go on for far too long. The game just isn’t paced well and you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything that pleases the eye given the pixelated and hazy graphics – we’re pretty sure Bound in Blood looked considerably better than this. There are a few nice vistas on occasion, but make no mistake, The Cartel is not eye pleasing or even well presented, looking like something which could have been released in mid-2006 and still not impressed in any way. The audio too is inexplicably troublesome, with the voice work made even more awkward by the stiff animations and resonating sound booth in which it was recorded. If you don’t care for swearing in your games (and let’s be honest, a few well-placed F-bombs never hurt anyone) then you might well reach for the mute button here, with the cast bombarding you at every given opportunity. Fighting a drugs war turns you into a raging potty mouth, apparently.

After landing enough kills, a concentration mode becomes accessible, allowing for some slow-motion kills to be landed. It’s useful in a pinch, but you’ll have had enough of the cheesy one-liners before too long. You gain access to a variety of weapons, such as rifles, submachine guns and pistols which can be duel-wielded. Many of these are unlocked throughout the single-player campaign, though some can only be accessed via the simple levelling system; as one of three dirty cops, you’ll be tasked with retrieving secret items without being discovered by a member of your team. It isn’t always easy, especially as they have an irritating habit of running in and staring at you just as you’re about to make your move. The game is better for this addition, making for a mild distraction from the mindless running and gunning.

One distraction that makes itself apparent very early in the game – and in pretty much every stage thereafter – is the driving. It isn’t terrible by any means, but it can feel sluggish and on very rare occasions, disorienting. It’s just as well that waypoints are presented, as the game has a habit of rewarding you with the red screen of failure should you have the audacity to travel off the beaten path. You’ll also be getting shot at, a lot. If anything, the driving sections are overused to the point of tedium, though one highway shootout does stand out as a high point thanks to an abundance of explosions.

The game is at its best when it’s evoking the Old West or destroying the scenery in one of the few set-piece moments. There is the odd shake-up to the formula, such as having you traipse through a strip club looking for – you guessed it – a stripper (and a rather cut and paste one at that) or presenting you with a packed nightclub dance floor and rooftop party, but again, it all seems out of place for the series and fails to save the game given its quality as a whole. Juarez does feature online co-op as well as a basic versus offering, neither of which are likely to hold your attention for long. The game just isn’t that good and can’t be expected to succeed in any real capacity over the coming months. If anything, this title should be rented (at a push) only if you have a strange fondness for bad movies and want to see for yourself just how wrong things have gone for the series.

Call of Juarez is a completely missed opportunity. Rather than capitalizing on the quality of its forebears and building it into a successful franchise, The Cartel takes everything back ten steps, planting its feet firmly into the muddy doldrums of mediocrity. It’s not horrendous in that it may at least serve as a distractionover a particularly uneventful weekend, but it can’t come recommended either, having omitted any sense of charm or atmosphere for what it believes to be ‘hip’ and modern. Bound in Blood’s questionable stand-offs may be gone, but so too has everything that made it worth playing, in which case The Cartel not only fails to reboot the Western genre, butalso fails to live up to expectations in every regard. It may be time to close the saloon doors for good on this one – we’ve just witnessed the fall of Juarez.

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One Comment »

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