I'll never understand the human impulse to fix what ain't broke. Eve thought she could make Eden a little better with some forbidden fruit, some Guido bolts a spoiler onto a Ferrari, and Techland, developers of the Call of Juarez series, decide to "modernize" the traditionally Wild Western series. Now, I'm not likening the original two Call of Juarez games to paradise or a Ferrari, but they had something that so many games lack: heart. That, mes amis, is the rarest of commodities in any art form, and it's nearly tragic to see the utter lack of it in Call of Juarez: The Cartel, the third game in the series.
Sure, The Cartel isn't the worst shooter ever. I mean, it's fine. It's meh. Hell, it's not even meh, it's eh. That "m" is too good for it. Techland has taken what was a really cool setting (the Old West) for a shooter, and some really nifty characters and dialogue, and turned them into a weird combination of a Vin Diesel movie and every curse word ever, with a subtle patina of racial stereotyping thrown in. See, The Cartel follows three cops, from three very different backgrounds, three very different races, and three very different approaches to police work. Hell, they're even from three different law enforcement agencies, just to make sure they're totally not the same person or cookie-cutter FPS characters at all. Which, of course, they are.
What happened to the Bible-thumping, fire-and-brimstone dealing, Reverend Ray McCall from the original Call of Juarez? Whither his snappy one-liners and "power-of-Christ-compels-you" ass kicking? Replaced, unhappily, by a series of cliches and boring shooting sequences. The Cartel, instead of making use of an interesting milieu, simply sticks the player in modern day Los Angeles (later Mexico), and has him gun down an endless series of interchangeable enemies in pursuit of some ill-defined law-enforcement-related score at the end of the line.
Needless to say, the characters are all "hard boiled" as hell: You've got your grizzled cowboy type (the closest thing to a nod to the Old West theme of the series as you'll get in The Cartel), a slick Latin dude who factitiously peppers his dialogue with Mexican slang, and a sassy black woman. Aside from their crack-ho-thin characterization, The Cartel's protagonists just aren't very likeable -- partly because they so obviously don't like each other. Constant infighting isn't endearing or cool, it's just annoying, and distracts from the flow and action that an FPS should have.
I say "should have" because The Cartel's map design and single-player campaign are generally more by the numbers than the fourth book of the Bible. It's not that it's bad or broken or boring, per se, it's just that it's so damn predictable. You get a pointless, difficult to control driving sequence, followed by a series of corridors and/or open areas in which you shoot at bad guys, followed by some random slow-mo stuff (generally busting through doors and windows in bullet time), followed by more shooting and sometimes a boss fight.
Like I said: eh. You can play through the game with a couple friends, or dorks from Internet-ville, but the problem is that you can't jump in and out of anyone's game if he's further along in the storyline than you are. This makes it hard as hell to find people to play with, and annoying to sync up with your friends.
There's competitive multiplayer, too, but it's just as unimaginative as the main campaign is. Shooting things is fun, but if Inception has taught us anything, it's that we need to go deeper. And The Cartel, well, doesn't. It's shallower than the shallow end of a kiddie pool during a drought, and dammit, it's such a disappointment, because the series has delivered compelling storylines and settings, if nothing else, up to this point. Here's hoping Techland rights the ship and takes the series back to its roots (or at least away from this mess) in the next instalment.
The option for co-op throughout the campaign and the occasional freedom to just get on with it doesn't make up for the terrible setting, dialogue, storyline and characters.