The Call of Juarez franchise always interested me in the past because of its western themes. The previous titles told interesting enough stories, and had engaging enough characters, that they were appealing despite their lack of polish. Call of Juarez: The Cartel, however, doesn't even succeed in this regard. The characters are unlikeable and under developed, and the story is completely forgettable. Beyond that, The Cartel feels rushed, unpolished, and repetitive to the point of frustration.
Call of Juarez: The Cartel tells the story of three law enforcement officers put together on a special task force to take on the infamous Mexican drug cartels. Of course, they all come from different backgrounds, making each of the three playable characters a little different. Ben is a typical gunslinger, sticking out like a sore thumb with his predisposition to using old cowboy revolvers. Eddie and Kim, on the other hand, are sassy modern cops who've grown up in the streets, and come with all the clichéd dialogue and one liners you'd expect. Together they form a motley crew, one that has to fight against enemies on the outside and within.
The problem is that the story fails to be engaging. The characters are caricatures of American law enforcement officials, with laughable dialogue that makes them hard to take seriously. Moreover, all the intrigue and emotion that developer Techland attempts to seed in the story is pointless because they never create any good bonds or trust between the characters. You don't like them, you know they don't like each other, and you don't really care what happens to them.
The Cartel looks like a game from several years ago. Textures are constantly popping in, and it's downright garish at times. On top of this, characters are constantly clipping through things, magically reappearing ahead of you when they were just behind you, and sometimes even speaking when they're already dead. It's hard to even start to get into the story when you're constantly seeing generic, poorly made environments and cloned characters.
Call of Juarez: The Cartel's first-person mechanics aren't bad, they're just abused by repetition. The guns are fun enough to shoot and there are always plenty of enemies to kill, but the levels are so utterly repetitive that I could literally predict what was going to happen next. At some point in every level there will be a boring driving sequence, followed by a bunch of guys to shoot, and then several doors to kick in, triggering a slow-motion shooting scene. All of these level components are fine the first couple of times around, but they're overdone to an extent that it feels like the game's length is artificially extended.
I appreciate the inclusion of three-player campaign cooperative play, but this isn't really the type of game I'd want to play with a friend. The AI allies are surprisingly adept at killing enemies, and, unlike players, they will never get taken down. Annoyingly, you can only play levels that all the players have reached, so you can't have a friend jump into your campaign if you're ahead of them. You can play through the campaign with each of the three characters to get a unique ending and slightly different take on the story, but it's just not fun enough to warrant the effort.
And then there's multiplayer. Yes, it exists, but it's mundane. It includes no modes or does anything that you couldn't get from any number of other, better shooters. The controls work well for the single-player campaign, and feel appropriately calibrated to aim at the AI, but no amount of tweaking could get them to feel good against players. It's just not worth playing.
Call of Juarez: The Cartel is a poor change of pace for the franchise. Taking the story into modern times seems to have robbed it of its passion and charm, replacing it with asinine characters and more cuss words than an Al Pacino flick. It’s not the worst shooter I’ve played, but it’s got all the problems of a budget title and few redeeming qualities to make it worth recommending.