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Hardboiled - Call of Juarez: The Cartel hands-on

Stace Harman goes toe-to-toe with Call of Juarez's modern day reboot to find out if it’s a sharpshooter or fool’s gold.

Playing as gruff, sweary LAPD cop, Ben McCall, in the online co-op mode of Call of Juarez: The Cartel, I’m reminded of 2004 GameCube title Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles.

I’ll wait here while you reread that sentence; it surprised me too.

This seemingly random association is triggered by one specific element, a feature that I first recall seeing in the local co-op mode of Nintendo’s cutsey action-RPG: the issuing of secret individual objectives to players who are otherwise acting cooperatively.

Back in 2004 the objectives were issued via each player’s Game Boy Advance, which you could tether to the Game Cube and use as a controller. Here in ‘the future’, ubiquitous online modes mean you no longer have to share a TV screen with your multiplayer chums and so the secret objectives can be displayed, big and bold, for your eyes only.

It provides a frisson of excitement and sits well with the narrative which sees members of the LAPD, DEA and FBI ostensibly working together in a joint investigation of a bombing perpetrated on US soil by a Mexican cartel. Each of the three protagonists has their own agenda to pursue, be it a personal one or that of their particular law enforcement agency, and if Hollywood has taught us one thing it’s that Government agencies begrudge sharing the glory with one another.

I achieve my specific objective of retrieving a mobile phone from a building which is off the level’s critical path, without my two allies spotting me nab it. Seconds later, one my co-op partners - playing slick DEA agent Eddie Guerra - enters the room behind me and I feel like I’ve achieved a minor victory.

I start to wonder what the secret missions of my comrades might be, whether they’ve already achieved them or if I might be able to catch them in the act and so the seed of wariness and distrust is planted in our already shaky alliance.

Unfortunately, my contemplation of the potential of this system is broken when McCall barks at Guerra, demanding to know whether he saw anything as he entered the room. This is tantamount to a child protesting their innocence before they’ve been caught doing anything and somewhat undermines the subtlety of the moment (worse still is the coining of the word ‘coopetition’ to describe this co-op play with competitive elements).

And this, really, is the story of my hands-on time with Call of Juarez: The Cartel: each good idea or subtle touch is undermined by poor execution, shoddy mechanics or the laughable script.

Benny from the Block

During a briefing by a high-ranking government official - who looks and sounds a lot like Robert Duvall - the “inter-agency bullshit” arising from Guerra and FBI agent Kim Evans bickering about the best way to infiltrate the Cartel is neatly cut short by a presentation highlighting them and their achievements. This leads to a moment of silent acknowledgement and a flicker of grudging respect; it’s a smartly scripted moment and well played out.

Moments of promise are overwhelmed by the game’s seemingly suicidal desire to sabotage itself

It makes it all the more grating when, not 30 seconds later, McCall growls a petulant, over-acted line when describing a former soldier who has turned criminal: “Worse than that, he’s an asshole”. In trying so hard to make the game gritty and, in particular, to show that the modern day McCall shares the hardbolied traits of his Wild West ancestors, the writers resort to some cringe-worthy one-liners and copious amounts of swearing.

Despite the primarily multiplayer focus of the hands-on session, I also get a chance to play through some of the single-player and here too, moments of promise are overwhelmed by the game’s seemingly suicidal desire to sabotage itself.

Vehicle handling is twitchy and lacks traction, AI partners stand in plain sight of the swarms of bad guys - seemingly safe in the knowledge that all of the enemies milling about are gunning for you, not them. Shooting out the windows of vehicles causes them to explode and setting marijuana stocks ablaze fails to so much as singe the canvas tents they’re stashed in.

Activation of the unoriginal but potentially fun ‘Concentration Mode’ - that slows down time to facilitate multiple takedowns - is accompanied by a nonsensical quote from each character, presumably to show highlight their renegade, take-no-shit personas.

In these moments it seems that McCall might have been watching Pulp Fiction, as his utterances have him trying to echo the ferocity of Samuel L Jackson’s bible passage quotation. Instead, he spouts some half-baked nonsense that’s presumably supposed to make you feel empowered, suffixed with the word “motherfuckers”.

Cops and robbers

Fortunately, competitive multiplayer fares a little better, helped in part by a lack of nonsensical dialogue. Choosing either the side of the criminals or the police the map we play – one of eight available for up to 12 players – sees the former team trying to crack a bank vault and make off with the payload in a getaway car. Later on, the police hunt down a criminal hideout and attempt to return bags of stolen loot to the vault as the criminal gang try to repel them.

Call of Juarez: The Cartel multiplayer trailer

An interesting addition to the team-based multiplayer is the partner system that has you buddying-up with one of your five comrades prior to starting the round. Enemies spotted by your partner are tagged on your HUD and only your partner has the ability to revive you if you’re downed.

This encourages you both to stick together and you’re awarded bonus experience points for assisting one another. It’s a system that could promote more effective co-op play and enable friends to wring more value from the game. We don’t see the full potential of this mode, however, as we’re only playing 3v3, which serves to make the map feel a little empty and necessitates a long run back from the spawn point to the isolated pockets of action.

With the game’s launch imminent, reviews will reveal whether it manages to capitalise on the glimmers of potential that it shows. It’s too late to fix the sub-par script or the niggling gameplay inconsistencies but fans of the series may be able to look past these discrepancies to the tale of betrayal and revenge that lurks beneath.

It’s curious that, having recently been pleasantly surprised by Techland’s other co-op shooter, Dead Island, the Polish developer has managed to so frustrate me with Call of Juarez: The Cartel. However, it’s hard to shake the feeling that, despite its modern day setting, it feels more a product of a bygone era.

Call of Juarez: The Cartel is due for release on PS3 and 360 on 19 July in the US and 22 July in PAL territories. A PC version is due on 13 September for US and 16th September for PAL territories.

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