The Call of Juarez series offered a solid, if relatively unspectacular, action-packed representation of the 19th century gold rush frontier with its first two games (although I personally preferred Rockstar's Gun), but now developers Techland have decided to propel the gunslinging action of the Wild West into the modern day. It's a decision that caused a fair bit of controversy early on - the current drug-related lawlessness south of the Mexican border providing a very real, very present conflict indeed - but one that has allowed for a few interesting gameplay elements that Techland are hoping will elevate The Cartel into competition with, and get the jump on, a few of the big hitters later this year.
Techland are doing things a bit differently this time around, with The Cartel concentrating primarily on trying to offer what the developers have called 'Co-opetition'. The idea behind this delightful portmanteau concept is that The Cartel will offer 3 v 3 co-operative gameplay, with players taking on the roles of three law enforcement agents from three different departments: there's Ben McCall (an ancestral successor to Reverend Ray) from the LAPD, FBI agent Kim Evans and DEA officer Eddie Guerra.
Of course, anyone who's seen any American homeland thrillers will be able to guess that factional mistrust is most definitely the order of the day here: none of the agents trust one another and their parent agencies all have their own sneaky little agendas.
This feeds rather nicely into the gameplay. You'll be able to hit the streets with both AI players and your chums online and little spot challenges such as being the first player to claim three headshots, or kill five enemies with a pistol will pop up from time to time to inject a little competition into proceedings. We found the AI to be somewhat lacking in brains during our hands-on session, but the competitive elements made for some frantic gunfests and not an insignificant amount of good-humoured trading of relatively light smack-talk.
On top of the little challenges, your characters will also receive little agency updates via mobile phone that manifest themselves in the form of clandestine sub-missions. It could be picking up a package, meeting with a courier, offing a particular target, tapping a phone line or stealing some evidence - whatever the gig, though, you have to do it without the other two discovering what you're up to.
It balances out really well, keeping one eye on the enemies in front of you, and one on the partners at your side. We successfully managed topick up Mendoza's PDA, earning us some sweet bonus experience points, and we also managed to foil an attempt by Eddie to meet with a courier. But this suspicious interplay is only really present in the multiplayer - the singleplayer AI companions won't follow their own agendas, although they will keep an eye on you.
The Cartel is shaping up to be a pretty good game, certainly one that offers something a little different to your usual modern day shooter. The backstreets of Ciudad Juarez still retain something of a frontier feel to them, and the game positively shrieks 'modern day Western' thanks to a visual aesthetic that takes more inspiration from previous games in the series rather than modern contemporaries.
There are traditional co-operative aspects to the game as well, of course, and as our demo took us through a bustling market - civilians fleeing at the sound of gunfire, stampeding away to reveal rifle-toting guards now manning the stalls - the maze of carts and merchant stands allowed two players to hold the enemies in position with suppressing fire while we sneaked our way through a couple of buildings and flanked the militia from behind.
To be honest, it's business as usual for the Call of Juarez series with this latest instalment. Even with the modern setting, it's immediately recognisable. Techland have a history with this franchise of quietly building really very solid games with well-thought out plots , action and mechanics. It was perhaps not quite as satisfying in terms of feedback (the sounds were lost against the swarm of people inside the convention centre) as one of EA or Activision's forerunners, and we're not sold on how entertaining it'll be for the lone wolf. With a couple of mates, though, The Cartel could well be a summer hit, and we'll only have to wait a few weeks to find out.