Call of Juarez: The Cartel – can the Wild Western outlive the Wild West?

Ubisoft retrieves its cowboy hat from the attic. Preview with thoughts from Senior Producer Samuel Jacques.

By Brent Selvog, March 5, 2011

Escape from LA

Where Call of Juarez and Bound in Blood split their action between two characters, The Cartel opts for three – one of whom will be familiar to fans of the series, another of whom will be familiar to fans of Halle Berry. The campaign supports drop-in co-op, and designing levels around this feature was apparently the major challenge during development.

The trio in question are a multiple-agency task force thrown together in the wake of a bomb attack by the mysterious Cartel. Detective Ben McCall is the warrior-preacher, a distant descendant of Reverend Ray: he inherits his forebear’s leonine hairdo, fondness for Pulp-Fiction-style punitive scriptural quotation and tendency to shoot first, ask questions later, assuming he bothers to ask questions at all. A Vietnam veteran driven by revenge, Ben is the damage dealer of the three.

There's no word on whether the quickdraw bits from previous games will reappear.

Up and coming FBI agent Kim Evans is the game’s token female and Halle lookalike. She’s there to sass people and get ogled by soon-to-be-exterminated hoodlums in cut scenes. Kim’s brother joined a gang back in the day, and it’s probably safe to say that an unexpected reunion is on the cards.

And DEA boy Eddie Guerra, finally, wears sunglasses, has street connections and spends a lot of his time stopping Ben from shooting people. Eddie’s a compulsive gambler and a regular old smoothie: he looks a bit like Luis from The Ballad of Gay Tony.

The first mission we’re shown sees the trio travelling to a dealer’s apartment to press him for details on the Cartel bombing. It’s pretty insipid stuff at first, little more than a pair of cut scenes separated by a trip across a street and up some stairs, but the plot thickens when the dealer, now bugged, is assassinated by two of his contacts. The dialogue pivots on cusswords and is, all told, about as sharp as a sledgehammer, but the continual back-and-forth between over-clocked egos lends things a certain memorability.

From here the action progresses to the back door of a nightclub, where Ben, Eddie and Kim put their fisticuffs to the test on some thugs. Some shonky collision detection aside, the bobbing and weaving is bruisingly well-animated, reminiscent at times of Condemned.

A DJ saved my life

Inside the nightclub, we’re led across a heaving dance floor to a private upstairs bar, where Eddie tries to coax some info out of a gang boss. The boss evidently isn’t too bright, as he responds by ogling Kim and getting fresh with Ben. Hostilities erupt, and we finally get a chance to see the new shooter strut its stuff.

Sadly, it’s not an inspiring sight. The nightclub is too cramped to admit much in the way of flanking or strafing, and peek-shooting rules the day. Ben’s magnum has thunderous, screen-filling charisma, but every good gun needs an enemy worthy of its charms, and the gangsters are so many cardboard targets on rails. In a rather contrived attempt to reward teamwork, the game occasionally drops beige waypoints near choicer bits of cover, as per the yells of your allies.

Shotgun the front seat!

There’s a pleasant sense of cinematic overload regardless, the setting taking up a little slack from the underfed combat basics. A door breaching sequence throws the trio back into the heart of the nightclub, where gunmen now lurk among the party-goers and laser lights. Outside, a circling chopper puts an exclamation mark on a fight through a car park, vehicles exploding left and right. The mission concludes with a car chase – hardly an eyebrow-raising turn of events in an action game, though the inclusion of procedurally generated traffic sounds interesting from a distance.

Then it’s off to the second demo chapter, and to Ben’s wistful inspection of back-country scenery. There’s little gameplay to be had in the few minutes we’re shown: Techland’s aim here, one presumes, is simply to demonstrate that there’s more to The Cartel than corridors and alleyways, and to underline the point about overlapping eras. Consider that point underlined, chaps, but remember – if there’s one thing people expect from a Western, regardless of timeframe, it’s a great shoot-out, and right now Call of Juarez is firing blanks.

Call of Juarez: The Cartel is slated for release in Q3 2011, and will appear on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.

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