Video Game Review: ‘Call of Juarez: The Cartel’ Blows Itself Up

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CHICAGO – Rarely have I played a game more frustrating than “Call of Juarez: The Cartel.” It’s far from the worst game of the year. It’s not even the worst game of the season. But it’s underdeveloped, disappointing, and sometimes plain broken when it could have been something truly great. This is a game that should have worked and there are elements that do but the overall title never quite comes together. Video Game Rating: 2.5/5.0
Video Game Rating: 2.5/5.0

The last “Call of Juarez” title was the surprisingly-enjoyable “Bound in Blood” in 2009. The Western-themed shooter didn’t change any of the rules but worked on its terms and was a lot of fun for fans of the genre. Naturally, one would expect a follow-up to be a similar experience. One would be wrong. “The Cartel” moves its action to present-day Los Angeles and basically changes the entire structure of the game outside of shooting people. Instead of a character in a Western, you (and two of your friends if you’re into co-op) play corrupt cops trying to take down a drug cartel.

Call of Juarez: The Cartel
Call of Juarez: The Cartel
Photo credit: Ubisoft

There’s a foundational ambition in “The Cartel” in that the storytelling tries to recreate the down-and-dirty world of cops and criminals that we see in movies like “Training Day” or shows like “The Shield.” With hardcore violence, nudity, and some truly dark plot threads, this is not a game for children. But it sometimes feels like it was developed by them. The cliches pile on so heavily that the actual plot of “Call of Juarez: The Cartel” fades into the cacophony of bullets to the point where you just won’t care what’s happening any more.

Call of Juarez: The Cartel
Call of Juarez: The Cartel
Photo credit: Ubisoft

It also hurts a bit to have no likable characters. Part of your mission is to accomplish secret agendas during different chapters like stealing items and threatening hookers. And you get experience points which contribute to a woefully-underdeveloped leveling system that makes new weapons available. In other words, being a dirty cop makes you a more-powerful player. Ewww. Don’t think for a second that I’m some morally-righteous critic who hasn’t played through and loved the “GTA” games but there’s a difference between dark & edgy and scummy & gross. “The Cartel” crosses that line.

Of course, that wouldn’t matter as much if the game wasn’t nearly unfinished at times. Where should we start? How about enemy A.I. that is so ridiculously outdated that I actually watched an enemy stare at me and wait his turn while I punched his friend out and THEN waited for me to punch him first? Come on. That might have been acceptable enemy A.I. in 2005 but not today. And the firepowered enemies are just as stupid, rarely working together or flanking you like the best shooter games.

Your partner A.I. is just as bad if you forgo co-op and try to play the game on your own. I just watched my partner stare at a wall with his gun drawn as if he was protecting me from it. That’s not just bad A.I., it’s poor design and development. And that sense that the game was rushed and incomplete can be found throughout the title such as grenades that explode right next to enemies but do nothing and even the occasional freezing glitch. There’s nothing like kicking open a door, gun drawn, in slo-mo…only to have to restart your PS3. Checkpoints are either seconds apart (it once saved a new one after no new enemies since the last one) or MILES away from each other. It’s annoyingly inconsistent, like most of the game.

The key word there is “most.” What’s so frustrating about “The Cartel” is how easy it is to see the game that could have been. Fix the A.I. issues on both side. Polish the graphics a bit. Refine the storytelling. “Call of Juarez: The Cartel” makes so many mistakes as a game but when you really break it down: The idea of trying to bust and break an L.A. drug ring is a good one for a modern shooter. And the mix of vehicle levels along with exciting locations like strip clubs, corrupt piers, and gang-ridden neighborhoods hint at a game that really could have worked. It’s just not this game.

Wait, what about the multi-player? It’s just as problematic and even more under-developed. The level/map designs are horrendous and the gameplay is just standard, predictable MP deathmatch or bizarrely-crafted mission-based modes. Neither really works. Like most of the game, one can see how they could have worked if they had only been given more time. Everything about “Call of Juarez: The Cartel” feels rushed. Everything. Well, everything, but your desire to play it again.

“Call of Juarez: The Cartel” was developed by Techland and released by Ubisoft. It was released on July 19th, 2011 and is rated M (Mature). The version reviewed was for the PS3 but the title is also available for the Xbox 360 and PC. content director Brian Tallerico

Content Director

Jesus's picture

Call of Juarez

It’s sad that the third installment to the great Call of Juarez games are getting such bad reviews.

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