With Call of Juarez: The Cartel, developer Techland has taken its now three-strong series into the modern era, but in doing so has produced what feels like the most dated game of the bunch. The Cartel is a desperate and misguided attempt to step into modern times, with a terrible script, basic gunplay and rough graphics overwhelming the handful of good ideas on show in the game's multiplayer modes.
Whereas the previous two games were set in the Wild West, The Cartel takes place in modern day America and centres on a joint investigation by the LAPD, DEA and FBI into a bombing on US soil by a Mexican drug cartel. This task force consists of three characters: LAPD cop Ben McCall, FBI agent Kim Evans, and DEA agent Eddie Guerra. On your own you can play as your pick of the three characters, with the AI taking control of the other two, whereas three-player co-op puts a real person in the shoes of each.
This is no doubt meant to be the game's defining feature: three characters who have their own version of the story, their own special attributes and unique in-game challenges. Sadly The Cartel is a co-op experience you won't want to join.
Differences in story revolve around a constant undertone of corruption, with each character suggesting the other two are dodgy. In terms of gameplay mechanics this plays out as special challenges each law enforcer has to complete without the others noticing - essentially picking things up in secret. With AI partners this proved to be nothing more than a way to get extra XP (for use in unlocking weapons), but with real players there's a genuine sense of apprehension as you sneakily go about your secret business while keeping an eye on others at the same time.
Special attributes are less significant. McCall can reload pistols quickly, Evans can steady her aim when using scoped rifles and Guerra can dual wield. These character perks are neat, but I still found mid-range assault rifles such as the FN FAL to be the best choice in most situations, other than in sequences where sniping is essential.
Various co-op gameplay mechanics come into play at certain points but none of them are particularly unique or exciting. Slow-motion breach and clear manoeuvres crop up over and over again, in which you kick down a door and then blast the enemies waiting on the other side. In a slight nod to EA's Army of Two series, there are also sections where team mates need to provide cover fire so a single-player can get into position to take down a group of enemies. Both mechanics are interesting the first few times, but they're overused.
The standard gunplay is what will take up the majority of your time with The Cartel, but sadly some incredibly basic AI and dull environments make the experience feel years out of date. The generic firefights and bland levels are reminiscent of shooters on the original Xbox, with the game engine's ability to render large open areas often ignored as you fight in yet another dull warehouse or street. Throw in some utterly dreadful hand-to-hand combat and you've got a game that frequently feels rushed to market and significantly inferior to the two games that preceded it.