Techland, it’s okay. Everyone screws up, and Call of Juarez: The Cartel just happens to be your very own planetary misstep. So you’ve put to pasture (and shotgun-ed) all the good work that went into the series over the last few years. That’s all right. You’ll have to introspect. You’ll have to think it through; for only through this pain shall there be redemption.
As corny as my amateur philosophising may sound, it serves to illustrate just how far off track the developers have found themselves. I’ve played through the earlier entries in the Call of Juarez series and there wasn’t ever an instance where this sort of pop theology (spouted by one of the characters) ever felt out of place in the context of the characters and the world. What Techland seems to have got wrong is that the same over-the-top character caricatures don’t easily transplant into the contemporary, at least not without a certain degree of finesse and creative writing that may be too much to ask from a relatively small Polish developer. To be clear, a short stop-over in the present does read like a good design goal on paper, but unfortunately, Techland seems to have not thought the execution through.
There are three playable characters that stem from the story’s misguided stab at interdisciplinary rivalry between law enforcement agencies. Your partners are by your side throughout, making for the perfect three-person co-op opportunity. Chapters begin in a lobby where you can equip weapons and invite friends into games. How this rivalry translates into gameplay is a series of collectibles unique to each player, and these collectibles must then be picked up without the partners noticing it. While this sort of works in multiplayer, it falls flat in single player because the AI never makes the effort to catch you in the act nor does it pick up any collectibles itself. It makes for a pointless feature in any case, because the only rewards for taking the time to make these random pickups are a few weapon unlocks.
The fact that the game borrows from the current unease plaguing beautiful Mexico could have been an issue, but it’s impossible to be take offense when you’re busy having a good laugh at the nonsensical dialogue and cutscenes. But context is the least of Techland’s worries; the ham-fisted handling of the change in time period is certainly problematic, but what’s more stupefying is the clear slack in gameplay and production values. The Chrome engine of earlier games was a thing of beauty, delivering sprawling vistas untouched by civilization, and stopping just short of being truly open-world. Here, it’s anything but. Despite supposedly being a revised version of the tech, what’s on show is a sorry excuse for what the engine was once capable of. The canyons and forests of old have given way to decrepit apartments, motels, warehouses and nightclubs, and the freeform gameplay that once excited me has been lassoed and broken into a standard corridor shooter. Even the driving levels, of which there are a many, are linear to a fault. There’s no room to experiment or to simply let loose. The game signposts specific developer-approved paths to flank enemies.
While you can’t fault how the basic movement and gun combat works, that’s about all the game gets right (if only at a thoroughly base level). Every other gameplay mechanic has seen a steep drop in quality. The weapons all mostly feel the same and suffer from an odd wobbliness when you peer down the sights. The gunplay is never as exciting as the best moments in the last Juarez game. Grenades are underpowered and there were no melee attacks as far as I could tell. You do have a handful of sections, where you’re bare-knuckle boxing, but the controls are so rudimentary and your opponents so dense, that you’ll mostly be punching air than anything else. Awful controls also plague the aforementioned driving sections. The vehicles you commandeer feel like they’re on an ice rink rather than asphalt, and you’ll more often than not get yourself caught in random environmental objects that require a restart to escape from. There’s no active cover system to be found, but your character does pull back his or her weapon when you’re pressed against objects. Unfortunately, there’s a ton of glitching and general jankiness to this as well.
The AI is equally inept, with enemies either standing in place or popping in and out of cover like brainless automatons. You’ll even see a few of the clone gangbanger army standing around oblivious of the firefight around them. I also noticed enemies glitch in and out of the game world. You’re merrily shooting them one second and they’ve disappeared on you the next. Your partners are equally prone to flirting with the supernatural. The game automatically teleports them to objectives, so you’ll look back to see them running behind you and then turn around to see them standing ahead of you at the next checkpoint.
The art design isn’t as interesting as it should be either. The buildings and corridors meld into each other in no time and the characters look thoroughly generic. There’s a level towards the end of the game, where you visit one of the fort environments from the last Juarez game, which is where you notice the degradation in visual fidelity the most. Textures are flat and the lighting harsh, and any sense of atmosphere that the level once had is completely lost. The voice cast tries to do the best it can with the material provided and the music does come to life when you finally hit Juarez, but there’s no escaping that gnawing feeling of diminishing returns and crushing disappointment, especially if you’ve played the previous games. The canned cutscenes have terrible compression artifacting on show as well. There’s also some unintentional hilarity to be had from mismatched subtitles, obvious grammatical errors and misspellings in the in-game text, and all the rampant swearing that’s been thrown in for no reason at all. The laughably over-the-top fifteen-chapter campaign will last you a good while, so at least there’s content on its side.
The obligatory multiplayer menu is present and accounted for, and there are some decent co-op related ideas here. There are bonuses for sticking with your partner and spotting enemies, for instance, which is all well and good on the back of a box, but completely irrelevant when the competition is so strong and the base game is so utterly lacking. To be clear, it wasn’t that I couldn’t invest in a barrel-chested tough guy cop that quotes from the Bible as he guns down gangbangers, but rather the fact that he was stuck in that uncomfortable limbo between self-aware and all-out serious, wrapped in a title that’s clearly a step down in terms of quality. It’s a special game that throws multiple helicopter boss fights at you (boring in itself), and then proceeds to make each one of them snooze worthy.
It’s not all bad though. We’ve seen Techland deliver quality before. Bound in Blood in particular evoked emotions that few games do; of being temporarily transported to a rich world long lost to time. Where you lived by your gun and bled for honour. Do look it up if you haven’t already. So have faith in Techland. The frontier in the heady days of prospectors, sheriffs and outlaws was probably harsher than any of us could imagine, but as the McCall brothers of old would say, faith is my shield.