It's not hard to imagine the general atmosphere in Techland's development studio as the first Red Dead Redemption review scores started rolling in.
The Call of Juarez custodians, suddenly identifying a rather large whale in their previously spacious paddling pool, must have glumly mourned the loss of their Western exclusivity.
Not that the Juarez franchise is necessarily in direct competition; Red Dead is a markedly different game. But it is telling that Techland has now found it necessary to abandon virtually all the Western themes that made Juarez such an intriguing prospect for modern warfare-wearied first-person shooter enthusiasts. But then, there was only so long Call of Juarez could hover between average and mediocre in a gaming environment that rewards neither.
Set in modern-day Los Angeles and Mexico, The Cartel follows three law enforcement agents as they attempt to take down a notorious drug kingpin and his band of merry stereotypes. LAPD detective Ben McCall, DEA agent Eddie Guerra and FBI agent Kim Evans move relentlessly from one location to another, slaughtering hundreds of bandanna-flouting gang members and the odd innocent civilian, whilst swearing gratuitously and sassing at a solid fifteen jibes per minute.
Peel away the backslapping and overt violence however, and there's little meat in this three-deck sandwich. A solid attempt to consciously anchor each character is played out in cinematic snippets: Evans was born in Compton and lost two brothers to gang violence. Guerra is a special forces agent, and a crack shot. For the sake of continuity, McCall is the direct descendent of the McCall heroes featured in both previous Juarez titles, yet despite best efforts and the ability to play each character through the campaign mode, it's difficult to feel any sort of attachment.
This may be due to the relentless pace of the action, interrupted so frequently as it is by cheap deaths. Each of the characters has their own weapon speciality, and general combat abilities. Straying outside these predefined talents risks a quick trip back to the previous checkpoint. Incoming fire from enemies can be so extreme at times that death can occur in an instant, particularly as a frustrating recoil effect occurs whilst taking damage – all but removing the ability to return fire until comfortable cover can be obtained.
In addition, due to a generally poor draw distance and ample pop-in, attempts to pick off enemies at range often feels frustrating. They'll most definitely be able to target the players position, returning accurate fire is another matter. Adding to the sub-par visual standard, a lot of the dialogue fails to match subtitles, and characters frequently blurt out repetitive statements that have no relevance to the proceedings.
Close-quarter combat is more satisfactory, with liberal use of shotguns, pistols and SMG rounds progressing between checkpoints is an enjoyable experience, even if it is entirely linear in nature. Unfortunately, most of it is tempered by the knowledge that your comrades will never die, enemies seldom make any effort to flank, and most vehicles explode faster than a Knight Rider prop.
An ever-present white dot burned into the landscape will guide progress; hardly the gaming innovation of the century, but functional nevertheless.
The combat may lack inspiration, but a sidestory involving the ulterior motives of each character offers a rare glimmer of diversification in this otherwise middling shooter. It seems the protagonists are anything but clean – each have skeletons in their closet, and in an unusual twist, it's up to the player to accumulate environmental objects related to their vice without the other members of the team noticing.
Each character-specific object is highlighted when in range, and provided enough stealth is employed, can be added to a running total. Objects vary from drugs, to guns, and walkie-talkies, each offering the ability to unlock additional weapons further along the campaign.
Despite an admirable attempt, the rewards simply aren't worth the effort, given the potential for betrayal amongst the team and the fact that the weapons are unlocked for all players anyway. There's plenty of opportunity to pocket these items as your squad stands immobile at the next checkpoint, so it's not actually particularly difficult either. Perhaps if their spawn location had been randomised and on some kind of timer, and the rewards offered were more immediate and beneficial, a brilliant new concept could have been realised.
The online multiplayer, too, feels rushed. Players compete as either cops or crooks, storming around levels with pre-defined weapon loadouts and little overall balance. To be fair, the decision to equip players with flashbang grenades at each respawn is likely to raise epilepsy awareness in the community, so it's not an entire washout.
An overall lack of polish prevails. The only thing that Call of Juarez ever had going for it was the wonderfully underutilised Western theme. Techland may never have really produced an exemplary Juarez game, but both titles were favourably received and the potential was always there for a gritty reboot, or a period action first-person title with every bit as much relevance as Red Dead.
The Cartel isn't a Call of Juarez title; it's an extremely average paint-by-numbers shooter channelling the Juarez fanbase for a modicum of credibility it simply doesn't deserve.