Techland and Ubisoft are back with the third installment of the Call of Juarez series. Call of Juarez: The Cartel (CoJ:TC), marks some major changes for the series, simultaneously adding interesting new gameplay ideas but also executing them in very poor fashion. Ultimately, the result is a mess of a game that could have benefited from several more months of development. Still, The Cartel is not a total loss, but it's an experience that is very rough around the edges and does the franchise a great disservice.
Taking the Fight To the Cartel
In CoJ:TC, players take the role of one of three characters: Ben McCall, descendant of one of the McCall brothers from the previous games, Eddie Guerra, a DEA agent, or Kim Evans, a former street punk turned FBI agent. McCall works for LAPD, is 57, and is tough as nails. Eddie is a late 30s, former military, DEA agent, and Kim is a young FBI agent who worked to get out off of the violent streets she grew up on. Normally, these three have nothing to do with each other, but after a terrorist attack left several Americans dead on the 4th of July, the US government authorizes the formation of this 'elite' team to strike back at Mendoza's drug running cartel in an effort to seek justice, and revenge.
You can choose to start the campaign with any of the three characters. There are some subtle differences between them, such as their preferred weapons, but they all play similarly to one another. Each campaign offers you a different perspective on the story and also on your two partners. As a interesting gameplay element, your character will receive phone calls and text messages from DEA internal investigations, for example (if you're playing as McCall). They might tell you to watch out for Guerra -- he's a known gambler and you may catch him stealing loose money that you find in the many LA slums you will traverse. Each character has their shady past, no doubt about it -- and this distrust mechanism is pretty cool, although it's more for show than actual game-changing differences, unless you play co-operatively online.
I'll get to the online component of CoJ:TC soon, but in getting back to the gameplay in general, it has a whole lot of issues that you notice right from the get-go. For one, the presentation is a mess, but that too is something I will elaborate on shortly. Moreover, the flow and execution of the game is really rough -- at best it's unpolished, at worst, it's broken. Obviously the most apparent action you take in CoJ:TC is shooting. Control feels pretty sloppy, the HUD, or UI, is ugly, and the graphics are just plain muddy.
Despite a variety of weapons that are unlocked as you level up and complete chapters, the actual 'S' of FPS never gets beyond mediocre. Level design is mostly dull and repetitive from one mission to the next. AI, both friendly and enemy, is really poor. Don't expect to receive much help at all from your AI controlled partners, and do expect to see a lot of glitchy-ness both in them and in the enemy. I witnessed my partners disappear at times and show up at another location, enemies that ran in place, and others that were unresponsive. Your AI help in single player end up being mostly props, but there are some instances where you can use them in scripted fashion to provide cover fire while you move up to flank a group of enemies. Additionally, there are several situations where you and one other partner simultaneously break through a door and have about ten seconds of slow-mo time to gun down the bad guys.
The 'distrust' mechanic also doesn't really work in single player. Your two partners do not perform any illegal actions, but they will watch you, however. It hasn't been much of a problem for me to steal money or cartel cell phones or other 'secret items,' without getting caught, but it would have clearly been a better experience if I wasn't the only one being watched. Interestingly, this is the only way to level up in story mode -- you have to complete secret objectives without being seen, and you have to catch your partners red handed (although again, this does not work in single player).
All that to say, online co-op is by far the preferred method to play through the story. Each player gets phone calls and texts that the other players can only hear one side of (i.e., they can only hear their partner responding, but they can't hear the caller). This is a pretty neat idea, it's just a shame the foundation of the rest of the experience was built so poorly. I'm a believer that a rewarding co-op experience can hide, or make up for, a lot of bad gameplay execution, but in the case of CoJ:TC it's very much on the brink of losing that entire battle. Bottomline, if you intend to play through the campaign, get a buddy or two on board to play through it. There is a pretty good story behind all of the bad gameplay, afterall.
In addition to co-op, there are also Team Deathmatch and Missions available for online play. Levels are inspired from areas that you see in the campaign and therefore take place in the Countryside, LA Streets, and Ghost Town. There are eighteen total Team Deathmatch maps, pitting Cops versus Criminals, and a dozen Missions. The Missions are specific to the map, but involve defending items (like jewels, for example) from being stolen by the bad guys. The game will automatically assign you a partner that you can see on your HUD; if you stick with them, both of you can gain some kind of benefit, like increased damage. It does promote team play, but in the realm of random online gaming, you never know how committed other players will be. Still, just like I discovered with FEAR 3, there are plenty of good games to be had out there. A ranking system for online play will likely draw the attention and time of committed gamers, too.
CoJ:TC was built with Chrome Engine 5, an engine that Techland has been updating ever since releasing Chrome on the PC several years ago. To be frank, it's absolutely showing its age. I've always said that gameplay and fun factor are the most important parts of any game, but the presentation definitely counts for something. In this case, with an overall unimpressive gameplay package, the dated and sloppy presentation only compounds the issues for this game. From the opening seconds, I was honestly shocked at how blurry and plain bad the game looked. Simultaneously, my hears were met with a myriad of excessive foul language, two impressions that would be constant throughout the game. Muddy textures and awful lighting made this the type of game I had to really sit up and look closer at to make sense of what the heck was going on.
The image quality made locating enemies tough; they looked bad when I saw them anyway, though. Clipping and framerate stuttering abound, too, and not just in moments of high-action either. The animations lack detail and smoothness. The Main Menu and HUD looks bad; in game, there is often too much junk filling up the screen, be they objective markers flying around the edges or that annoying white dot that tells you where to go. And if you stray from that course too much, expect a very sudden game over screen. At least the load times are short.
The voice acting is, yes, also bad. And not just the dialogue, which is peppered with constant obscenities, but the acting itself is grating. I grew tired of hearing McCall's forced gruffness, Kim's annoying street talk, and how Eddie constantly mixes English and Spanish within the same sentence. As bizarre as this sounds, playing CoJ:TC reminded me of playing Red Steel for the first time. It looked like crap and it played as though it needed another six months of development.
To the summary...