As messy and problematic as the first two M-rated Call of Juarez games were, they both had a certain appeal thanks to their unique Wild West setting. At least in that scrub brush-and-bullets world it made a bit more sense that your character might have a six-gun strapped to his hip, ready to ride hard and take out bloodthirsty desperadoes. And with the second game, Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood, there were even interwoven themes of honor, redemption and faith.
Call of Juarez: The Cartel, however, jumps to the present day and shrugs off any of those thin scraps of charm and spiritual introspection. In fact, a central character with a familiar name and a very loose association to the famed treasure of Juarez are the only meager ties to the storylines of the past.
Meet Your Partners, Pardner
The foul-mouthed and incredibly rough-edged LAPD detective Ben McCall is an obvious descendant of the franchise's previous antiheroes. In fact, he looks much like the Bible-thumping brother from Bound in Blood. The only religion this guy has, though, is a penchant for grotesquely twisting Bible verses ("I will make mine arrows drunk with blood, and my sword shall devour flesh, and I will bathe in the blood of my m‑‑‑‑‑f‑‑‑ing enemies") when he slips into a slo-mo, gun-blazing killing frenzy.
We meet this new age McCall after a DEA agent is brutally murdered while investigating a Mexican drug cartel. It seems there are undercover cartel moles everywhere, so Ben is handpicked to be teamed with FBI agent Kim Evans and DEA agent Eddie Guerra in an interagency task force. The authorities hope that this trio of toughies can slip in under the radar, solve the murder and bring down the powerful cartel and its drug pipeline. The idea has its problems. The three central characters don't like or even trust each other. And that's with good cause: They were designed that way.
Part of the makeup of the game is that each character has his or her own backstory and some little personal agenda to keep from the others. So as gamers play through as one of the three agents, they'll receive phone calls from outside contacts who supply plot clues as well as little secret missions that the others in their team can't know about.
These missions may involve stealing drugs, money or guns, or perhaps destroying a vehicle. If you're successful, you're paid off in experience points and gun upgrades while a few story holes are filled in. If you get caught "red-handed" in your secret quest, the teammate who catches you gets the bonus. It's an interesting new dimension to the gameplay, but pretty much pointless unless you're playing online in multiplayer mode where you and a couple of friends are filling the three main character roles and keeping an eye on one another.
Have Gu* n, Will Splatter*
That cooperative play twist aside, The Cartel is little more than a straightforward shooter. And a very messy, ugly one at that. Whether your team is out burning fields of marijuana or roughing up the occupants of a house of ill repute, it's really just level after level of bloodying bad guys with shotguns, AK-47s, pistols, bare fists and, of course, the occasional motor vehicle. You're rewarded for various types of kills: "Brain Surgery" bonuses for headshots and "Dental Work" bonuses for gunstock blows to the face are just two examples. Enemies spurt and spatter blood and leave pools of the stuff where they fall.
When the task force isn't running and gunning, you slow down just enough to deliver a few up-close-and-personal, uh, touches. You torture and interrogate one thug by tying him up with a noose around his neck to watch him dangle and gurgle before he tells you what you want to hear. And women are also part of the manhandling mix. For instance, the guys get rough and choke a stripper for answers.
Speaking of strippers, the game offers up quite a bit of nudity. Barely covered and fully nude women are regularly seen and ogled in the clubs. And the team breaks in on one informant who's naked and in the midst of sex with an equally bare-skinned woman. Camera angles obscure the digital characters' midsections, but the lens lingers on everything else.
One Last Chaw and Spit
I mentioned McCall's sacrilegiously violent mash-ups of Bible verses above, but I should also note that that's far from the only foul language on his lips. And his team's lips. And everyone else's lips. Each chapter and level is crammed with every type of profanity (both in English and Spanish) that you don't want to even imagine. F- and s-words are staples.
The end result is an "end justifies the means"-themed game that's as repetitive and one-dimensional as it is repellant. It may be that the gamemakers were attempting to bring the Call of Juarez spurs-and-saddle feel into the present day by blending the shoot-'em-up with some Saint's Row-style street grit. But I suspect that even the grimiest villains of yesteryear's Wild West would grit their teeth to dust at the comparison.
A postscript: This game has also come under fire for connecting a glorification of violence with a sour view of Mexico. "I think this should be taken very seriously, considering the large-scale demonization of Mexico and the Mexican people," says Dr. Kathleen Staudt, who teaches political science at the University of Texas at El Paso. Ricardo Boone Salmon, a congressman in Mexico's state of Chihuahua, adds, "It is true there is a serious crime situation [in Juarez], which we are not trying to hide. But we also should not expose children to this kind of scenarios so that they are going to grow up with this kind of image and lack of values."