The third entry in Techland's modestly popular western-themed first-person shooter series Call of Juarez: The Cartel, which places players in the shoes of modern-day law enforcers as opposed to the 19th-century cowboys whose boots we inhabited in previous games, opens on a low note.
After a quick, confusing car chase - horses have been replaced by Hummers - players set out on a dull trek through the California woods en route to destroying a group of hidden marijuana grow operations. The action is generic and linear, the graphics feel dated and bland, and the text subtitles are pocked with typos clearly the result of a translation performed by someone who speaks English as a second language.
It gets a little better, but very slowly - and with no thanks to some significantly off-putting elements, including a script that labours under the weight of wanton profanity and not one but two levels set in night clubs gratuitously filled with topless women (clearly, someone designing the game was keen to make it appeal to teenage boys, despite its "Mature" ESRB classification).
Bright spots centre around the very believable notion that each of the game's three protagonists, who hail from different government departments and are working together as part of an inter-agency task force to take down a Mexican drug cartel, have their own hidden agendas. This means that despite sharing the same primary objective, each member of your team has his or her own secondary goals that need to be accomplished discreetly.
Call of Juarez: The Cartel (5/10)
- The good: Hidden agenda system puts an unusual and intriguing strain on cooperative multiplayer. It also creates some suspenseful narrative twists near the end.
- The bad: Dated graphics. Generic gunfights. Linear levels. Gratuitous swearing and nudity.
- The verdict: A kernel of originality found in cooperative play is lost in this otherwise uninspired and thoroughly mediocre first-person shooter.
For example, in one mission I was instructed to go after an important suspect escaping a firefight while my partners held their positions. While giving chase I received a call from a superior at the FBI informing me that the suspect was actually a covert operative and that he needed to make a clean getaway. I let him go. Needless to say, my partners - a DEA agent and a rough and tumble member of the LAPD - weren't pleased when I returned empty handed.
Conversely, there were times in the game when I would hear only one end of suspicious sounding calls taken by my partners or notice that they mysteriously disappeared from the action for a moment. If you suspect something is fishy you can go looking and perhaps catch them in their secret mission.
It makes for an unusually strained - yet fun - co-operative play dynamic, especially if all three players are experiencing the campaign for the first time and don't know what their so-called teammates are up to or when they might go off on their own.
However, this intriguing bit of game design could have used a little more time in the oven. If, for example, you do happen to catch a partner performing a secret task, the two characters simply exchange insults. These moments should jar their trust and relationship and result in a more substantial discussion.
Had Techland focused its efforts on fleshing out the possibilities inherent in a game that deals in deception among teammates, Call of Juarez: The Cartel could have been something memorable. Instead, it's just a thoroughly middling action game with tepid gunfights and an underused hook.