Nearly a quarter century again Midway released a questionable action game called NARC. This ultra-violent arcade game had a pair of overly sensitive cops blow up anybody that even thought about picking up a crack pipe or bong. Fast forward to 2011 and here comes Call of Juarez: The Cartel, a game that seems to thrive off the killing of drug users, dealers and everybody in between. There's only one difference between this modern game and the 1988 Midway hit: NARC knew it was over-the-top, goofy fun.
Call of Juarez: The Cartel is silly for all the wrong reasons. This game tries to tackle a serious subject (the on-going drug war between the United States and Mexico), but does so in the most ham-fisted way possible. The result is a series of action sequences that start to blur together the longer you play this disappointing game. Here's an example of a product that has nothing new to say, so instead it spends all of its time trotting out clichés and nauseating machismo. Throw in some weird technical problems and you have a thoroughly disappointing game about drug trafficking.
This modern day Call of Juarez tells the story of a trio of tough-as-nails officers (an LAPD policeman, an FBI agent and a guy from the DEA's office) who are tasked to work together to track down the leader of Mexico's largest drug cartel. Told through news reels and taped interviews, the story takes us from the mean streets of Los Angeles to the dusty (but no less mean) roads of Ciudad Juarez. Along the way we torch marijuana plants in the hills, visit a strip club and survive tons of high speed chases. Eventually we'll make our way south of the border, where players will be treated to some very predictable plot devices.
The game is played almost entirely from the first-person perspective, so fans of modern shooters shouldn't have any problems acclimating themselves to Call of Juarez. Much like Gears of War and other squad-based games, you have a couple helpers covering your back. These characters are computer-controlled by default, but the game clearly wants you to team up with friends (or even strangers).
The gimmick here (if you can call it that) is the interplay between the three different cops. All three have their own specific agendas, something that comes into play as you make your way to Juarez. Sometimes this will culminate in the player being asked to choose what's best for that specific agent versus what is good for the team. For example, in one scenario you are asked if you want to arrest a suspect or kill him. This is an interesting idea, though it felt underutilized as the story played out.
In each mission the player is given a secret assignment, a task that only they know about and can perform. Usually this involves finding evidence, planting a tracking device on somebody or tampering with important information. You do this by breaking away from the pack and locating the secret objective without being seen. Complete the task and you'll get a hearty congratulation (and bonus points), fail and your partners will start to question your allegiance to the cause.
The truth is, your partners have plenty of reasons to doubt your actions. You'll spend a lot of your time trying to keep them busy while you tamper with evidence. Picking up hidden objects without being scene is the best way to earn experience points. These points are used to determine what kind of guns you'll choose from. These aren't the deepest RPG elements, but at this point I'll take what I can get.
A big problem with Call of Juarez: The Cartel is that the hardware isn't able to keep up. Every so often the game will freeze for a split-second. There's no warning, it just freezes the player for a very short amount of time. Unfortunately, it doesn't freeze anybody else. While it may not sound like a long time, that split-second is enough for an enemy to get the jump on you. This happened to me all the time. I would be right in the middle of a firefight and, out of the blue, the game would freeze for a split-second. Even if I didn't die every time, this performance issue definitely made the game a lot more challenging.
The game also insists on cramming the game full of driving sequences. Just about every mission has you in one form of a car chase or another. If you're playing with computer-controlled partners, then you will always be the one driving. The driving mechanics are simple enough, but the car's handling is all over the place. Worse yet, one wrong turn and you'll have to start the whole section over again. Like everything else in the game, the driving portions go on far too long.
If you're playing with friends, then chances are you'll be hanging out of the passenger window shoot at enemy cars. At this point it's essentially an on-rails shooter, which is marginally more fun than actually driving the car. Either way, you're stuck shooting imprecise guns at moving cars. This is definitely not the highlight of Call of Juarez: The Cartel.
Sadly, we haven't even touched the surface of what this game does wrong. Beyond the technical problems and incessant driving segments, you'll find a whole host of other unacceptable inconveniences. For example, your player will get phone calls at the worst possible times. What makes this extra infuriating is how these lengthy phone calls prevent you from doing anything else. This is especially bad when you get a call in the middle of a fist fight or while you're driving. The fact that you can't push the ignore button is unacceptable in this day and age.
I also found that it was a little too easy to accidentally stumble out of bounds, which instantly kills you. This was even more frustrating when driving. Too often I would take a wrong turn and have to start the whole segment over again. If this happened once or twice that would be one thing, but it happened to me constantly (sometimes in the same mission).
It's also a shame you can't go back and replay past levels without it completely erasing your saved data. The game is designed to allow three friends to work together, yet the game finds a way of undermining that every step of the way. Ultimately there's very little incentive to go back and play these completed levels over again, a real shame that will certainly hurt the game's replay value.
The real problem is that no part of the game feels finished. From the disappointing presentation to the lackluster level designs, the horrible one-on-one fist fights to the lack of a cover system, the no-fun on-foot sequences to the even-less-fun driving segments. Everything about this game feels like it needed a little more time in the oven before being rushed to retrain. And don't even get me started on the non-stop, heinous racial stereotypes. Call of Juarez just keeps getting worse the further you go.
The game's presentation is a complete train wreck. It starts with the muddled, choppy audio and ends with the inconsistent graphics. Every single character sounds like they were recorded in a cardboard box, and that's the best thing I have to say about the audio. The actors either have too much enthusiasm for the job, or not enough. There's never a time when I was convinced the in-game characters were doing anything more than hamming it up for effect. Worst of all, the audio has a tendency or cutting out for a split second, making the game sound like a choppy mess.
The visuals are also sloppy, with character models ranging from goofy to shocking. Early in the game one character wears an especially creepy President Obama mask that will haunt my dreams for years to come. Sometimes the environments will look good, while other times Call of Juarez looks like a first-generation Xbox 360 game. With an uninspired art style, inconsistent animation and that split-second pause I mentioned earlier, it's hard to be impressed with what Ubisoft is offering.
There are definitely a few ideas in Call of Juarez that I would like to see implemented in better games. I loved the idea of sneaking behind your partner's backs and having head-to-head co-op challenges. Sadly, all of these reasonably good ideas will be overlooked thanks to the buggy game mechanics. Gamers with online friends may get a kick out of The Cartel the first time through, but there are far too many problems for me to recommend this heavy-handed sequel. You're better off sticking with NARC.