Techland are out to prove that videogame Westerns don't always need varmints, lone riders and itinerant piano-players behind saloon swing-doors to qualify for the classification. The Wild West, they reckon, can live on today, in the twenty-first century - through epic locations, gruff masculinity, moral ambiguity and the simple allure of some good old bloody violence.
Given that the real world Mexican border city of Juarez, home of the cartel in the game's title, is currently the murder capital of the world, the argument that The West hasn't quite been tamed is certainly a compelling one.
The Cartel follows three law enforcers, who can be AI partners or co-op buddies, on a hellish road trip that begins in LA but will leave dried bloodstains on the iconic landmarks of the West, the Mexican border and Juarez itself. The Mexican drug wars have led to an explosive attack on American interests, but because of a suspected mole in the system three different cops from three different fields have been drafted in to deal with the main Cartel.
Unlike former Call of Juarez games, once you select your character you have to stick with them through thick, thin, and bloody - primarily because (much as in the forthcoming FEAR 3) each character has a slightly different storyline and experience, despite playing through the same overall levels.
One character might receive a secretive phone call during a mission, for example, but keep the details to himself - or, on a larger scale, missions might split the players up to go about their violent business and have them meet up later on. It's a fascinating co-op set-up infused with the no-nonsense crim-chasing spirit of TV shows like The Shield, and it's hard not to get a little dizzy and flustered when you think of the potential.
An early mission starts off with routine police work. Well... routine-ish. You interrupt a dealer while he's having sex, strap a wire onto him while he still has his little friend dangling out, listen to him get shot and then tail the murderers. Just who'll be writing up the paperwork all this will need isn't made clear.
What certainly follows is a sequence a million miles away from anything the series has seen before, however. A drug-littered building vibrating with a deep bass, a club containing hundreds of gyrating bodies, music that'll drown you as soon as you open its doors and, later on, a variety of naked ladies spinning round poles.
The environments are so different, and so much more complex in this Los Angeles mission that the developers claim it contains more assets and objects than the entirety of Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood. It really shows.
Naturally, as in any given mission, a gunfight ensues - reintroducing our old 'friend' bullet-time - with used rounds arcing gracefully away from beautifully realised weapons, and the previously mentioned vast crowd of clubbers cowering on the floor. It's frenetic stuff - and as you work from room to room the familiar Call of Juarez door breaching mechanics (marked by suggestive silhouettes on either side of doorways) make a welcome return.
The level's big finish, however, is still to come. The Cartel also introduces co-op vehicular combat, meaning that you and your AI/co-op chums can all pile into cars and start tearing after criminals. In this instance, the designated driver weaves his way through heavy traffic on the motorway dodging the occasional pirouetting hatchback, while the other players hang out of the windows spraying gunfire at anything that looks criminal or explosive. That's pretty old-school.
It's undeniable that the time-shift is unnerving (and we'll take a little more convincing to believe its characters are particularly likeable - just look at the tit above) but Call of Juarez: The Cartel is undoubtedly keeping its approach fresh and its action suitably ridiculous. In the almighty words of Doc Holliday, we'll still be its huckleberry.
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