In a parallel universe, Call of Juarez: The Cartel is a moderately budgeted American TV series starring John Leguizamo, Halle Berry and Sam Elliot as a ragtag bunch of renegade (dirty) cops who are dispatched to Mexico in the aftermath of a bombing which has left seven American federal agents dead. They’ve been dispatched covertly in place of the US military, to ensure that the Mexican public don’t suspect that they’re at war with America. Despite the ludicrous amount of profanity and the bevy of ridiculous action sequences, that parallel universe’s critical fraternity admire its tight plotting and uncouth attitude, and it is currently one of the most popular shows on US cable TV over there.

Most unusually for a videogame, The Cartel sometimes feels as if its origins were initially rooted in television because there are moments when its script seems so much more inventive and well-researched than you’d expect it to. Admittedly those moments are stirred into a pot which largely consists of scenes, set-pieces and characters that make comparable examples found in the Chuck Norris vehicle Walker, Texas Ranger seem as if they were inspired by The Bill, but plot twists that actually surprise (and a world that seems at least partially realistic) are two aspects that definitely deserve to be commended.

Even some of the big action set-pieces have an inventive narrative flavour. Perhaps the best of these comes just before the halfway point, and involves your crew having to transport several heavy bundles of stolen cash to a getaway vehicle, all the while fighting off wave after wave of enemy attackers, and ensuring that none of your assailants (or your own team) end up accidentally pumping too many bullets into an adjacent gas tanker. The Cartel delivers daft episodes like this constantly, and it executes them with a sturdy confidence. But the way that the game has been astutely optimised for co-op play is where it scores serious brownie points.

Because each of the three payable characters have covert, ulterior reasons for being on the case (some of which are far dodgier than others) you’ll occasionally receive illicit phone calls that task you with performing ‘Secret Agenda’ missions without your two colleagues noticing. These range from bugging vehicles to stealing drugs to destroying police surveillance tapes, and if you succeed your XP rank rises. The only problems are these; the penalty for being rumbled means that you don’t earn XP, and that the tasks are always located in the same place. So once you’ve played through the game twice, you’ll already know exactly where and when you’ll have to keep an eye on your companions. But before that third playthrough, the dynamic does put a very amusing and compelling spin on proceedings.

Gunplay is pretty standard Call of Juarez stuff – a bit floaty and only somewhat cover-based – but it remains bluntly enjoyable. The new driving segments don’t work quite as well – when you’re in control of the car instead of shooting out of the window, at least – but they are intermittent and brief. Bleed-out time during gunfights is hastier than ever, and this adds an extra layer of tension to the skirmishes that take place in areas where cover is sparse; which is where another neat new gameplay device comes into action. When you’re very heavily under fire from more pendejos than you’re capable of smoothly dispatching from a distance, your partners will spasmodically unleash covering fire which allows you to hop between marked pieces of cover in order to flank them.

Call of Juarez: The Cartel is far from perfect – visuals are frequently a bit scrappy, AI tends to be adequate at best and incidental bits of dialogue are senselessly repeated to an occasionally infuriating degree – but the patented Call of Juarez charm emerges pretty much unscathed. The parade of ingenious, experimental little gameplay touches go a long way to making it feel more distinctive than it otherwise would have done, and although the ‘Secret Agenda’ dynamic isn’t quite worthwhile enough to make three separate co-op playthroughs worthwhile, it warrants a couple quite comfortably. As a no-nonsense co-operative shooter The Cartel is more than fine, and it’ll be very interesting to see how many of its clever little innovations are pinched by other titles in the future.

Call of Juarez: The Cartel is available now on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. The PC version is currently due for release on Friday September 16th 2011.

Watch the Call of Juarez: The Cartel trailer here:


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