Imagine this scenario: a zombie is approaching you, and you have a machete.
Outcome 1: You swing the machete and connect where his jaw hinges, cleanly lopping his head in two and felling him without further incident. Quick...efficient...satisfying.
Outcome 2: You run him through with a gut-piercing thrust. It has no effect, so you hack at his torso, taking bits and pieces of him. Finally, a downward chop to the forehead drops him just in time. You’re drenched in gore...but you’ve succeeded.
Outcome 3: You take a wild swing and manage to clip off his hand, which hits the ground with a wet smack. He groans and keels over, defeated. What the heck just happened?
Call of Juarez: The Cartel is a lot like Outcome 3. Whatever hint of excitement can be found is quickly undermined by its own sloppy confusion.
There is some real genius behind The Cartel...but it’s both painful and baffling to see these special touches run into the ground by poor craftsmanship. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I noticed how realistic the muzzle flash was while shooting a rifle - Techland actually added in powder sparks to imitate real life shooting in a way I hadn’t seen before. And yet, looking down your iron sights causes the gun to quiver and the light bloom to jump to unreasonable proportions. Using a zoom control should not turn the entire screen into a blob of muddy graphics.
Driving is straightforward and controls well. Having the windshield shot out during gameplay is an immersive touch, and adds some excitement. Unfortunately, your view is horribly obstructed by the vehicle’s interior - namely, the frame to the left of the windshield. You can turn your head, but it doesn’t help much. Expect left turns to be an exercise in extreme frustration, even though the driving scenarios are generally pretty fun.
These are just two examples of how gameplay is decent but the lack of polish really hurts the overall experience. I could go on about seeing characters’ own arms clipping into their bodies during cutscenes...or about how enemies can sometimes shoot through objects, and with 100% accuracy...but at this point you’ve probably come to terms with the game being a rental title at best.
Anyone still on the fence is probably waiting for co-op and multiplayer impressions. In a nutshell, multiplayer works well. Maps are very, very detailed. If you’re not joining a game from your friends list, you can go into a public lobby by choosing your side: outlaws or police. Each team’s lobby allows the players to interact via voice chat before the game, customize their characters (there are an impressive amount of skins to unlock), adjust their custom classes, and even try out the different guns at the shooting range (using the shooting range actually adds a small amount of XP to your progression, so it’s worth playing with). Once in the game, each side takes turn defending or attacking themed objectives. The Cartel’s multiplayer borrows from quite a few of the currently popular games, with nothing really new to add. It feels like a well-made total modification of your generic Call of Duty-style shooter. The few games I played were solid and fun, but with very little motivation to continue playing.
Co-op works very similarly to the Halo series, in that players can join the game while the host is in the staging area - before the mission actually starts. Once all three players load out and “ready up”, the mission begins (if there are less than three players, AI takes over any leftover characters).
To add some variety to the gameplay, Techland included two very cool mechanics that carry over into co-op: secret agendas, and challenges. Activating certain checkpoints will initiate a challenge, and the first player to meet it will get extra XP; these are generally combat-oriented, such as getting three headshots first or knocking out two guards with melee attacks first. Secret agendas are a bit more random, consisting of interactive items that will appear only to each respective player and are worth extra XP. If a player tries to interact while another is facing them, they are “caught” and the item is lost. Screwing your co-op partners out of XP or even an Achievement or Trophy becomes a game in itself, and sows a little bit of distrust during the exploratory segments in between firefights.
Completing a chapter in co-op saves for everyone, regardless of their single player progression. To add some replayability, the game keeps track of which character you used. 100% completion is not attainable until you finish all of the chapters which each of the three characters. While they all have their individual perks, ultimately the gameplay is the same flat experience with each, so I had no qualms sticking with one character for the majority of my play time.
The Cartel’s plot is actually pretty impressive, and vaguely ties into the Call of Juarez universe via Los Angeles Detective Ben McCall, apparent descendant of the first two games’ Reverend Ray McCall. Story details are interesting and not too convoluted. The campaign would be a pretty good attention-grabber...if only the voice acting and animations weren’t so horrid. The Cartel is not very shy about using as much profanity as possible in a cutscene, nor about nudity - female and male alike. For me, these turn-offs made cutscenes altogether skip-worthy.
My final verdict - Call of Juarez: The Cartel suffers from a severe lack of polish and bug squashing. I’ve played great games and bad games, but it’s rare that a game with a fair amount of potential gets left in the gutter the way that The Cartel did. If you see it in the $5 bin, prepare to switch off your scruples and enjoy the little glimpses of genius with a co-op friend. Otherwise, leave this one to its own shame.