Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood is one of those rare exceptions that managed to pull it off. The Western FPS refined the shooting mechanics of its predecessor while layering on a mature, well-told story of two brothers at odds and some neat gameplay tricks. So with the series' third iteration, you'd hope for something even closer to perfection, something that masterfully realizes the full potential of the world, mechanics and characters.
And if it weren't a cheap, sloppy, misguided failure on practically every level, Call of Juarez: The Cartel just might have pulled it off.
Trading the Old West for the modern era, The Cartel puts you in the shoes of either Ben McCall, a police officer and distant relation to the McCalls of previous Juarez games, Eddie Guerra, a charmless Latin Lothario stereotype, and Kim Evans, a Harvard-educated FBI agent who talks like a member of Kreayshawn's crew.
You attempt to take down the titular drug cartel as any one of the agents, and have online friends or the AI control the other two. The three agents are working together but also competing, with each being assigned secret objectives in each level (usually snatching a small object or talking to an NPC). To get the reward (experience and accompanying increased assortment of weapons), you have to complete them without your partners seeing. This is interesting in online co-op but beyond simple in single-player, where you just have to wait for your partners to get hung up on level geometry.
I don't like how The Cartel moves away from the West -- to say the industry has a "glut" of modern urban shooters would be generous -- but I'd look past it, especially if Techland was taking an interesting approach to this crowded field. But not only does this iteration do away with the series' unique setting, it forgoes the gameplay trappings that have helped set it apart.
Levels are boring, nondescript collections of cover; weapons are utterly uninteresting; the AI of both your partners and your enemies is beyond stupid. The period you need to hide to regenerate health is far too long, which ruins the pace of combat.
The one attempt Techland makes to spice up the gunplay is "Concentration Mode," a callback to Juarez games of old. Only now, instead of satisfyingly fanning the right thumbstick like a pistol hammer as in Bound in Blood, you trigger a dull few seconds of slow-motion that don't last long enough to be truly helpful. McCall has abandoned the holy cloth of the other McCalls, but nods to his priest forbearers by spending the slow-mo quoting scripture peppered with profanity (which improbably manages to be both predictable and offensive).
Breaking up the dull shooting are some really unenjoyable driving sequences that are plagued by crashes and deaths you can neither predict nor avoid and a nigh-unusable dashboard viewing angle.
It's all generated by Techland's proprietary Chrome Engine 5, which shows plenty of rust here in its debut. Trees in the game's opening wooded level were rendered so slowly and with such egregious pop-in that the effect was a little like watching Bob Ross methodically create a picturesque forest landscape. (Ironically, The Joy of Painting had better shooting mechanics and driving controls.)
The script is riddled with clumsy dialogue and stereotyped characters that talk like ... well, like Polish guys guessing what Hispanic toughs in L.A. and Mexico might say. It doesn't quite edge into Racistland, but it has built a comfortable home in Unintentionally Offensiville and it's right on the border.
(Note: The captions of the dialogue bear only a passing resemblance to what is spoken. I almost didn't mention it to make room for other more egregious failings, but then I wouldn't have been able to relate one notable example in which "dark as hell" is replaced in on-screen text with "dark as cow's guts.")
I don't normally talk much about the user interface, but since The Cartel will forever stand as history's most unattractive UI, I thought I should record a taste for posterity. Behold: The opening menu.
Sadly, too many of the single-player problems carry over to make it worthwhile, and besides, if there's a loving deity in heaven above, too few people will buy the game to sustain it. But it's worth checking out for a few minutes before you put the wrapping paper back on the game and regift it to the cousin who accidentally backed over a beloved family pet in his RAV4 last Easter.
I think The Cartel stings more because I was a staunch supporter of Bound in Blood despite the franchise's tarnished reputation, even going so far as to name it one of my favorite games of 2009. The Cartel heartbreakingly not only fails to build upon Bound in Blood's momentum, it spits in the face of everything that made it worthwhile. It doesn't feel like a misstep for the series, it feels like an epitaph.
But who knows, maybe I'm too pessimistic. Maybe a fourth game will fix The Cartel's problems, rebound like Bound in Blood. But if that day comes, Techland and Ubisoft will have to find some other sap to convince people to care about their efforts. Much like the McCall family themselves, I'm done evangelizing.
This review is based on 360 code of Call of Juarez: The Cartel purchased by the reviewer.