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Call of Juarez: The Cartel mixes Spy vs Spy and The Wire as it shifts from the old west into modern LA and Mexico. An anxious cop drama, it deals in tension and mistrust but is let down the limitations of its genre.
Paranoia, we all feel it, the sense that you are being followed or watched for no reason. It can be terrifying; it makes you unable to relax, constantly believing that someone is out to get you, especially when you have something to hide.
It is this anxious sensation that Call of Juarez: The Cartel uses to good effect, both as a catalyst for its story and as a means to create emotional ties. This is a world of fragile alliances and broken coalitions and no one, not the drug runners or the law, are ever at peace.
Mistrust is established from the very first meeting with the three heroes, each of whom represents a different branch of law enforcement, DEA, FBI and LAPD. In a dark boardroom the tone is one of subterfuge and secrecy, setting the stage for a covert attack on the drug trade. The cloak-and-dagger coalition allows them freedom from the usual police restrictions, but even here the team are instantly at each other's throats talking of jurisdiction and with accusations corruption.
Despite each member's blustering about their agency's superiority, the real reason for their fractious natures lies in their secret personal histories. Here is where the true paranoia begins, because personal secrets are so much more sensitive than professional ones.
DEA agent Eddie is neck deep in gambling debts and suspected of being in league with the cartels after surviving a bombing on his offices. The LAPD's Ben has prostitute connections and a history in Vietnam that he is trying to keep hidden. And finally there is Kim, the FBI agent whose younger brother is a gang banger, making her constantly battling between job and family loyalties. Living with these secrets leaves them at odds with the world, constantly straining the fragile alliance.
Choosing Ben I was amazed how quickly The Cartel engendered its uneasy mistrust in me. Phone calls from LAPD's internal affairs demanded I keep an eye on Eddie and look for evidence tying him to the DEA bombing, leaving me wondering if the man next to me was to be trusted.
Mistrust is established from the very first meeting.
Soon after, another call saw a lady friend of Ben's looking for help with her son's medical expenses. These two messages added mechanical layers to the narrative's mistrust. Trying to conceal my own acts while stalking Eddie further heightened the tension and complemented the co-op mechanics.
Supporting three-player co-op The Cartel rewards you for catching a partner doing anything illicit. This creates an interesting push-pull as you try stay near enough to catch them in the act, while at the same time wanting to sneak off and fulfil your own goals. A simple idea that introduces a nervous antagonism to the (supposedly) co-operative play, that left me constantly unsure if I should trust those around you or if they are just out for themselves. (Ed: Sounds like Spy vs Spy).
What I found intriguing was how the Task Force used mistrust as much as a weapon as they did a failing. Manipulating gang's inherent unease and suspicions is a potent tactic for the team, who exploit the various factions lack of communication. Setting gangs against each other by attacking one's territory results in the blame instantly being laid at another gang's door, even if they had been allied.
These strong story points are prevalent throughout. Plans develop, and levels start with you talking to patrons of a crowded club for leads or entering the centre of a gangs operation undercover. Thrilling and nerve racking there were moments when I held my breath to see how a plan would play out. It had a sense of The Wire about it as every faction tried to manipulate the others, and the result was never guaranteed.
The Cartel wasn't without its flaws though. There were times when I lost all sense of realism as my character took a path that seemed unimaginable for him. Other times things simply became unbelievable as the plot took incredulous turns.
The palpable anxiety I felt through the well-executed rhythm of the story was consistently undermined.
The palpable anxiety I felt through the well-executed rhythm of the story was consistently undermined by an over reliance on mundane gunplay. Tension constructed by double-dealings and close escapes was dispersed by overly long gun battles through linear paths that did nothing to inspire and served only to undercut the twists and turns of the plot.
Call of Juarez: The Cartel, as a piece of fiction, is constrained by the nature of its core interaction with the world: shooting. Anxious moments of plot would have been better served to stand on their own two feet, rather than bear the weight of ill constructed shootouts. The story's subtly soon evaporates, as the fear I would be caught is replaced by being caught.
I battled through later levels, carried on by an attachment to the earlier story wanting to know the conclusion to Ben's story, The Cartel never seemed to realise it early promise. It's a missed opportunity that this brave and interesting story eventually had to capitulate to the standards of the genre it placed itself in.
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