Call of Juarez: The Cartel

Call of the wild

Well, this is a stupid idea, isn't it? On the tail of the most successful Western-based game in the history of the medium, the developers of Call of Juarez have decided to move the series into the modern day. In the process, they've surely thrown the baby out with the bathwater and lost everything that's unique about their Wild West FPS. Right?

Not entirely, no. Despite the initial reaction being one of bemusement, and in some cases outright anger, the all-new Call of Juarez looks like it might win back some of the naysayers. It may have ditched the setting used to such wonderful effect by Red Dead Redemption, but it's not completely bereft of worth.

Here's the scene that went some way to selling it to me. On the trail of a nefarious gangster, our protagonists make their way into the bowels of a club. Spotting some large double doors, they push up to the walls on either side, ready to breach. With a kick, the doors burst open to reveal not a saloon full of bad guys or a crime den, but a club full of revellers, their hands raised to the ceiling, dancing to blaring techno music.

In the series' trademark style, time slows. In amongst the stuffed dancefloor some armed goons reach for their guns. Our heroes open fire. Screams ring out as the clubbers panic. It's bedlam. Gangsters and innocents alike get hit, screaming out in pain.

Of course, some collateral damage is expected, says the dev giving the demo.

What this scene managed to convince me of is that, transplanted to the present day, it's just possible that The Cartel could offer some compelling experiences. I'm not sure what to make of the shades of No Russian it offered, but it was engaging if nothing else. My interest is piqued. Which is far beyond what I expected to feel going in.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Call of Juarez: The Cartel swaps the cowboy-themed action of previous games in the series for the modern day, with a narrative that takes you from the streets of LA out into Juarez itself. The theory is that the setting is just as lawless as the Wild West, when men were men and women had frilly knickers and worked in knocking shops. More people die in Juarez these days than they ever did back then.

It's still a bit of a stretch though. The urban section of the demo, complete with driving sections, car parks and the aforementioned seedy club, felt like any another shooter. A decent looking one, at least, with a couple of nice flourishes, but claiming a link to the evocative frontier is pushing it a little too far.

The narrative follows three main characters; LAPD officer Ben McCall (descendant of Rev. Ray McCall from the earlier games), FBI agent Kim Evans and DEA operative Eddie Guerra, all of whom are playable via the game's drop in/out three-player co-op. There a fractious bunch.

All carrying their own demons (i.e they are mostly sociopathic nutters), the trio have been bought together to tackle a notorious drug cartel in modern day Juarez, given carte blanche to act outside the law. Which is handy, because I'm not convinced they could ever of acted within it.

They're not especially sympathetic characters. Constantly squabbling and cursing, beating up informants and generally being idiots, they're probably the least appealing thing about the game, truth be told. And at risk of sounding like a Daily Mail-reading old man - is all that swearing really necessary? It seems The Cartel is the latest in a long line of 'mature' games that are anything but.

But there's scope here, if nothing else. This is without doubt the most ambitious Call of Juarez game yet. In the demo we saw sections where you had to tail a perp in a car, keeping far enough away not to arouse suspicions, but close enough to keep within range. There were melee fighting sequences too, plus a huge amount of cut-scenes and set-pieces, all crammed into a relatively short demo.

Admittedly, some of it was rough. The hand-to-hand combat was particularly dodgy, preceded by an apology from the dev and a reminder that the game is still at a very early stage. But it's there. And if they can stitch it all together properly The Cartel may just work out OK. Let's not forget, the first two Call of Juarez games were hardly classics. You have to applaud them for pushing in new directions, even if the most glaring of these is a little confusing.

I'm not sure Ubisoft would have shown the game off at this stage, under normal circumstances. But the reaction to The Cartel's announcement has been so vehement, they clearly felt that they had to get more information out there to assuage some of the worries. To a degree they've done that. It's not bereft of ideas by any means. Yet it's too early to tell. I'll reserve judgement until I can get my hands on it properly.

E3 Trailer