This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Call of Juarez: The Cartel.
Let's face it: shooters have never been what you'd call overburdened with complexity. You point at things you don't like and then they go away; they're not exactly the twelve tasks of Hercules. But even this simple mechanic has found a way to devolve in recent years. "Oh, Yahtzee, you curmudgeonly, cardigan-wearing Lemsip drinker," I hear you sputter, "how can you say that? Shooter technology is the best it's ever been. The chest-high walls seem to stretch all the way to the horizon and you can see every scratch and imperfection on your gun when you stick the iron sights up your nose. I think you've fallen victim to the very same nostalgia blindness you're always warning people about. And no, I'm not still bitter about Ocarina of Time."
You know, perhaps you're right. But let me ask you this: what sort of things did you fight in Quake 1? Grunty dudes, knights in armor, the jumpy flea things, bouncy blobs, floating snakes, and an angry rabid cousin to the Sugar Puffs monster. Now, what sort of things do you fight in Call of Juarez: The Cartel? A dude in a red shirt and a dude in a green shirt.
So here's the framing device for this week's shirtwearer genocide. After a terrorist act within the U.S. is committed by a Mexican drug cartel, everyone starts getting really shirty and support grows for a full-on invasion of Mexico. You see what kind of piffle I have to work with? Everyone knows the U.S. would never invade a country just because a small faction within it committed an atrocity. No, they'd just invade the country next door.
But before Guatemala could start getting worried, the U.S. government sets up a special task force to take down the cartel, a coalition of FBI, DEA, LAPD, uh, BBC, TCP/IP, LOL. There's Kimberly, a sassy black FBI lady with hair like she got interrupted halfway through cleaning the tar out of her favorite jet engine; Eddie, a Latino gambler type who says "esé" all the time like an insistent university lecturer; and Ben McCall, a grizzled LAPD detective whose main role is to justify calling this a Call of Juarez game. He's presumably a descendant of Ray McCall from the Old Westy games, because like him he constantly looks and sounds like he's accusing someone of farting.
The first thing you must do is pick which one you're playing as, and don't worry if you haven't figured out which one you dislike the least yet, because you'll hate every single one of them equally by the end of all this. You'll resent the one you're playing as just for being the flea-bitten mule on which you ride this rubbish, and you'll resent the other two for constantly taking the piss out of your aiming skills even while they themselves try - and fail - to snipe an obese pig that's been lashed to a tree six feet away.
On the gameplay side of things, how it's supposed to work is that Ben specializes in close combat, Kimberly in long-range, and Eddie is the in-betweeny one (as is also the case with his skin color, weirdly enough). But even if there were any perceptible difference between the styles (there isn't), all three fight dudes at all three ranges all the time anyway, so it hardly matters. Oh yes, and while dual-wielding pistols was the only rapid-fire option in Old West times, when machine guns are available it's about as much use as feeding Gatorade to a sloth.
So we have three protagonists who get along like three Borgias in a hessian sack but bound by the invisible elastic bands of a game designed with a co-op focus. But here's the rub, gentles. Each character has a secret agenda that they must pursue without the other two noticing. Ben is looking for info on some guy who said his hat looked gay thirty years ago or something, Kimberly is a big narcing bitch, and Eddie is in debt and must steal what are either packages of money, drugs, or sandwiches to feed his crippling addiction to egg and cress. The idea is you have to find pickups and complete specific objectives without the other players seeing you and telling the teacher. Doing so grants experience points which with you level up and get better weapons.
So here's my question: why wouldn't you want your co-op partners to level up? Six missions in and he's trying to cover your arse with walnuts fired from a sling, you'd only have yourself to blame. While I'd need no convincing players enjoy dicking each other, that doesn't usually apply in co-op, except when absolute fucking twats are involved. It seems far more likely that players will just be saying "Hey, Steve, look over there for a second - I'm going to steal these drugs."
I'm growing increasingly sick at games that let their multiplayer mode tramp all over the single-player, getting scuff marks all over the carpet and dealphabetizing the CD collection. Playing single-player in The Cartel is made all the more excruciating by the game laying out all its special toys and then saying "What? No, these aren't for you, these are for the co-op players. Don't touch them, you'll make them dirty." Then it chucks a flea-bitten hand puppet on the floor and says "There's your partner A.I., now fuck off."
The game still introduces all that business of hidden agendas and warns you to get an extra special close eye on those crafty partners of yours, but the A.I. don't go after collectibles. They usually just stand there staring at you with gormless, uncomprehending eyes. They were also never programmed to drive, so in the occasional vehicle section if you perhaps would rather take riding shotgun to its literal heart, then fuck you and your haughty airs. The A.I. will pile into the backseat without a word and just look at you like a dog with its leash in its mouth. And as I said, they can't aim for shit. But after you've single-handedly cleared out an entire room, they'll unfailingly say the one of their four or five endlessly repeated lines that goes "You don't have to do this all by yourself, you know!" There is no middle finger big enough!
I will say that when you inevitably get sick of the single-player concentration camp, switching to online co-op is made nicely straightforward: you just press one button in the mission setup screen. But the thing is, playing games is my job, so I do it at around one in the afternoon, and no one is playing online at one in the afternoon. So the game would say "No one joined your game, reverting to single-player" and I could almost picture the game looking pityingly at me over its cool sunglasses and hear "Creep" by Radiohead start up in the background.
So is there anything good? Well, the environments look nice and expansive, except the expansiveness is a dirty lie because the moment you step off the linear path the game marked out for you a caption flies up going "BZZZT! Turn around now!" like I'm about to stumble upon the factory where all the gang members I've killed get turned into Soylent Green.
So basically, it's a game that does nothing but insult me in every possible way. Right back at you, The Cartel! I'd throw you away, but I'm concerned your stench would attract crime scene investigators.
Making a run for the border: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
Is this game racist? It's hard to tell these days but you do shoot a lot of brown people and I don't want to be the only one to not point it out
Surely big duster coats would be a bit hot in Los Angeles