ESRB rating: Mature
Release date: Available now
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, most game developers are falling down in love with each other. If a new title doesn’t build off the foundation erected by yesterday’s hits, then it usually aims to follow the same blueprint for success. A few years back, Techland scored a modest hit with their Call of Juarez title, which was notable for dressing the first person shooter in Western duds. That game was fairly formulaic yet novel for sending gamers down the dusty, scarcely traveled trails of the old West. The prequel, 2009’s Bound in Blood, made a greater impression by promoting the narrative and flashing back to tell a fairly engaging tale of two brothers bound and divided by lost gold. Since then, Rockstar has completely revolutionized the fledgling Western genre with the mammoth Red Dead Redemption which now saddles Techland’s latest release, Call of Juarez: The Cartel, with the daunting task of measuring up to that masterpiece.
Call of Juarez: The Cartel avoids comparison by completely jettisoning the Western framework that was the series’ calling card. Players are now dropped into the midst of a contemporary drug war erupting along the Mexican border and the titular city of Juarez. At the beginning, a special team of law enforcers are brought together to break this vicious Mexican drug cartel and players are able to select from one of three playable characters; one of which is the grizzled descendent of the series’ original protagonist. Each of these characters has their own subplot that is explored as the campaign unfolds.
The Cartel plays similarly to most modern shooters, with players dropped into a variety of scripted assault sequences. Early on, you’ll find yourself immersed in a freeway battle against a number of unknown assailants. From there, the story flashes back a bit, revealing the formation of this task force following a devastating bombing . The single player campaign then sends the team to a variety of locales through the Southwest to take down the Cartel and its minions. In addition to the 8-10 hour campaign, there is a multiplayer component which features the standard suite of modes, including deathmatch and objective based skirmishes. The campaign can also be played via co-op, with up to three people controlling one of the three protagonists. In an interesting wrinkle, each character has specific sub-objectives , which means that you’ll be on the hunt to find specific hidden items in each level while also working with your peers on the main task at hand.
The prior Call of Juarez titles were fairly generic shooters elevated by their Western trappings which in turn made the weaponry and gun fights feel new. By dropping that interesting storyline (aside from the narrative stretch of having one of these playable characters distantly related to the original gunslinger Roy McCall) and simply presenting a boiler-plate contemporary action shooter, this becomes a sequel in name only – and that’s a shame. I think Red Dead Redemption effectively killed any chance that this series would stay in the Old West. It’s just too hard to measure up to the world-building and compelling yarn that Rockstar spun.
The problem lies with the fact that the new story and setting are completely generic. This cops and cartel tale feels akin to those laughable Steven Siegal action flicks form the mid-80’s, with cardboard characters popping up as mere cannon fodder. The original Call of Juarez games may not have been classics of the form, but they did suck you into their primal tales of lost gold and feuding brothers. Techland’s proprietary engine had given us a stunning window into the Old West, and then Red Dead came along and opened the West as far as the eyes could see. By dropping the setting and placing the battle into familiar urban jungles and dusty shanty towns, this can’t help but feel like a bargain bin Call of Duty clone. And everything done well in Call of Duty is executed poorly here. The hit detection and aiming is slightly off. The textures pop in with frightening frequency. The frame rate is inconsistent (even effecting cinematic sequences that feature people simply sitting around talking). The entire game feels unpolished and unfinished.
It’s clear we have Red Dead Redemption to blame for this. In a duel, Call of Juarez just decided not to show up, thus avoiding any comparisons to that title which still looms large in players’ memories. It’s a shame, because while the gameplay of those prior titles was simply adequate, the story was one worth following. By dropping all of that in favor of this contemporary setting with laughable caricatures for protagonists, I find it hard to care for this endeavor at all. The new title adds an interesting wrinkle to co-op play by giving each player their own sub-objective, but in essence, you’re still just hunting your own particular flashing doo-dad, which wears thin quickly. Juarez fans…don’t heed this call. Sit back and remember a time when the West was fun.