Where to begin? Call of Juarez, by Techland was an interesting first person shooter that took place in the Wild West and had a few issues. Bound in Blood, the sequel took place in the Wild West and was markedly better. I had a soft spot for Ray MCall the outlaw, and when he became a fire and brimstone preacher. Now the third instalment of Call of Juarez is back and Techland has taken it into the modern era, a strange but kind-of fitting move that some might find jarring.
You can see the story of one of three characters, Ben MCall, the descendant of Ray MCall and an LAPD cop with a taste for hookers. Eddie Guerra, a DEA agent and Kim Evans an FBI agent. Each of the characters story plays out through similar cut-scenes but the in-game text messages and phone calls, snippets of story as the game loads the next level, are all different.
The actual game story is one of well...you'll have to play to find out.
Techland has refined the Chrome engine somewhat, it's now in iteration 5 and seems to handle the moment-to-moment gunplay pretty well. The game is broken up into quite a few large levels that have you engaged in various shootouts and a few protracted chase-scenes that fit well into the overall feel of the story as well as the setting. These are levels that aren't going to be over in a blink of an eye and they'll throw a ton of bad guys your way as you battle towards your overall goal. You are updated by a small white waypoint marker that often pops up on screen to give you a helping guide to the next objective.
Many of the levels have a free roam aspect to them, now that's not to say you can go all 'sandbox' and visit every corner of the area you're in, because the game will warn you if you're going far off the beaten path. You can however use the large environments to set up ambushes with your partner AI (it does its own thing and doesn't need to be babysat) and co-op partners, we shall come to that part later.
There are also vehicles, and whilst the vehicle physics are a little on the jittery side, they're not terrible bar far. Vehicles are basically SUV's and there's usually a player car for you to get into and you can't miss it since many of the interactive objects have glowing parts, like door handles on the car for instance to let you know you can use it.
As you progress in the first mission, you'll get a call on your phone, opening up the secret agenda and steal items portion of the game. This could have been better implemented since all of the special items you have to take are in the same place (and you can play levels again). This isn't too much of a problem when it comes to single player since the AI can be tricked allowing you to run back and nick the item that you want, or accomplish the secret agenda objective (talking to an important NPC, taking a special item or something else).
When you play it co-operatively though, it can lead to object camping and so on...which might be what the developers intended.
You are rewarded with experience and you can level up to 21. The game unlocks various weapons at certain levels, and points in the story, so playing through single player first to attempt to get all of the secret items is a valid strategy. This allows you access to the cool toys for co-op play sessions and so on. Grenades cause splash damage and can knock you prone, as can exploding cars and other objects.
Gunplay is straight forwards, the weapons feel a little weak at times and there are no real differences in the arsenal that stand out. It's a bit bland really, but modern guns tend to be like that. You earn concentration for shooting enemies and pulling off head shots, once the bar is charged you can let rip for some slow-mo fun action until the bar drains.
Then there are set moments where you enter a room, team based slow-motion shooting like in Bound in Blood. There are also some fist fighting moments but the fist fighting melee is terrible and it's pretty tricky to get used to. It needed a lot more polish in that particular facet of gameplay.
If there's one word I'd use to describe the action of CoJ: The Cartel it would be generic, it's fun enough though and that's what counts. It just doesn't push any 'awesome' buttons for me in that regard. The game gets much better when you play it with friends cooperatively though, but we'll discuss that element later on.
The game has checkpoint based saves, regenerating health and you can pick up weapons and ammo from dead enemies.
The game features some nice vistas and the Chrome Engine 5 has certainly improved upon the visual aspect. It's still not quite there yet to match up with some of the triple A titles but it doesn't slouch too badly in the graphics department. The wide open areas are definitely some of the best I've seen on the Chrome Engine to date and the interiors all have a certain charm to them. Lighting and special effects are decent.
The Chrome Engine 5 has also improved in the animation department, with more fluid character animations and a better animations overall.
Vehicle physics can be a little twitchy but overall they're not bad. The rest of the game's physics allow for some destroyable objects and an amusing ragdoll here and there when a grenade goes off. You can be knocked prone by this effect and that's fairly nice to see, even though it happens with alarming regularity with sneaky grenade tosses from the enemy. Certain objects like cars also explode and can harm you or enemies with splash damage.
Partner AI isn't too bad; it works well enough and doesn't usually get caught with a path-finding error. If it does then it's not game over, since it'll wait for a bit and then jarringly teleport to the next waypoint to wait for you there. It's pretty ok in a gunfight and if anything acts as a bullet sponge to soak up enemy fire whilst killing a few enemies now and then. The enemy AI is pretty decent as well, with it using various tactics and working in conjunction with other bad guys to flank you and use the environment to blind-side.
The weapon sounds and environment sounds aren't too bad in the game, they're a little weak when it comes to some of the weapons but overall the sound engine is fine.
I really have a soft spot for this music and I wouldn't mind the stand-alone soundtrack, it blends in some of the Western themes with contemporary heavier themes quite nicely and has that Juarez flavour, since the music to these games has always been pretty special.
The voice work in the game is decent enough, with the bit-part actors doing a decent job. Nothing really stands out from the crowd but nothing breaks the suspension of disbelief either. Ben's voice has that gravel-cop that I've come to expect from the MCall family and Eddie is suitably framed, along with Kim Evans. It has good voice acting from the main cast as they deliver their lines with enough passion to make the story interesting.
The story is interesting enough, the dialogue isn't too bad, there are no really cheesy lines throughout and it keeps you immersed in the world of drugs, weapons, skin trade and other facets of the team's investigation. Throwing in curse words galore in various one-liners from the bad guys, that might repeat a little too much for some tastes.
When I talk of co-op, The Cartel allows up to 3 players to play together and against each other. You can revive a fallen comrade but you'll also get random challenges show up through the game, first to 5 headshots and so on for example. If you win these you get a chunk of experience to help you level up. You'll also be able to compete to pick up your hidden items and complete your agendas, whilst trying to stop your friends completing their objectives if you're mean enough. Co-op is fun and its how the game should be played, there's something lacking when it comes to the secret items and objectives though and the novelty wears thin after a while especially if your players play a game of item camping.
There were no lag issues to speak of and the mp was smooth.
There's little to no lag that we experienced with 11 players, 6 per side playing a standard team deathmatch or the new objective mode in the adversarial side of the game. Objective mode is by far the most fun with objectives such as escorting or killing the VIP and so o,, cops vs robbers style play and reminds us very much of Kane and Lynch 1 and 2. It's fun enough and adds to the overall package. We still preferred the cooperative side of the game though, even though the back-stabbing antics felt a little protracted and telegraphed after a while.
The Cartel is a mixed bag. It won't light the FPS world on fire but it doesn't seem as bad to us as some of the reviews made it out to be. Perhaps we have more tolerance for that kind of thing as plain old gamers, who aren't put off by the odd problems we encounter. It's not a fantastic game by any means, but it's not wholly terrible. If you liked the first couple, then you're probably going to like this one. In the end though, the proof of the pudding is in the eating and in the case of the Cartel the taste is just a little sour now and then. If a little more work had gone into the competitive-coop I think this game would have fared better.