I don't have any experience with the Call of Juarez series. A cursory glance online tells me that it's a wild-west shooter, with varying levels of success. A cursory glance at The Cartel tells me that the man on the cover wearing bullet-proof armor with POLICE emblazoned on the front is probably not a turn-of-the-century cowboy.
Indeed, The Cartel is more of a modern take on the Wild West, with a tale beginning in Los Angeles and spiraling towards Mexico as things get hotter. After a bombing of a US government building by a drug cartel from Mexico, three agents from three different government agencies are teamed up as a special task force to bring this group of criminals down. Ben McCall, LAPD detective (and descendant of the character Ray McCall from previous Call of Juarez games), Eddie Guerra of the DEA, and Kim Evans, FBI agent are not perfect officers, but they're the right ones for the task.
There are problems with the story. For one, it takes some time to get moving and doesn't communicate what the heck is going on a lot of the time. Things get a little better, but the game suffers from a lot of issues. The level design, for one, is fairly bland. Some levels stand out, like a club full of people, but a lot of the areas with gunplay are just corridors with enemies that pop out of the woodwork as you proceed. There's no sense of accomplishment, no narrative to the level's progression; it's simply move forward, shoot half a dozen guys, move forward again.
The gunplay itself is just as basic, giving you a rifle and two pistols to wield (pistols that can be dual-wielded, sacrificing iron sights). The guns at least feel like they have some strength to them, taking down enemies quickly, but hearing your partners throw out comments with every guy you take down gets old really quickly.
"Woah, nice shot!"
"Hey, you ever practice with that piece?"
"Hey you don't have to do this alone you know!"
And so forth. They start repeating really quick. Also I never thought I'd get tired of swearing, but damn. Damn damn damn *insert swear word here* wow *swear* that *swear adjective* guy was *swear*ing all over the *swear*ing place!
Other modes of play, such as driving and some hand-to-hand fighting, are present and in a way serve as a nice transition between areas, smoothly switching between modes as levels progress. Unfortunately, these parts of the game aren't very fun, and don't feel very well put together. Driving can sometimes mean clipping through some objects and getting stuck, and the boxing is just too simple and dull.
The game offers some nice drop-in/out coop gameplay for up to three players. Before every level is a lobby, where your characters hang out before the mission begins. A parking lot, a hotel room, whatever is appropriate to the upcoming mission. Here, you can wait for people to join (if you're playing online) or switch your weapons, which you earn via completing levels and earning experience points.
Who you play as has an effect on the game you're given. For the most part, the story as a whole stays the same, but seeing it through different perspectives changes how some of the missions play out, and how much of the story you see. One character gets a phone call in the middle of a mission, for example, that you won't be able to see unless you're playing as them. The three of them might split up to cover different ground, and only by playing as all three will you see all that the mission has to offer.
Likewise, each character also has a secret agenda that they're following, such as grabbing some cash on the side or keeping an eye on the others. Performing these secret agenda missions earns you bonus experience points, which eventually allow you to level up, unlocking more guns to play with. It's kind of a neat idea, going beyond simple collectibles (since you need to collect things undetected by your partners), and gives a kind of double-sided feel to the co-op gameplay.
The biggest issue that The Cartel has, even more so than the poor level design, are the even poorer production values. The game just doesn't look good, often looking like a next-gen game with high-resolution textures. Even worse, there are numerous filters plastered all over the screen to try to make it look better, but instead these filters just make it look like you're playing the game through a vaseline-smeared screen. Details get washed out, it gets hard to separate the enemies from the scenery, and all in all it makes playing an unpleasant experience.
This problem isn't limited to the visuals, however. Shoddy controls, audio that skips and pauses randomly, models clipping through each other and other problems really highlight a low-budget feeling to the title, despite its attempts to be more than that.
If you're looking for multiplayer, The Cartel does have you covered in that department. The Team Deathmatch isn't anything to write home about, though there is an interesting partner system that gives you bonuses for performing actions to and around your partner, meaning that sticking close to them is a wise choice. The real meat of the gameplay is in the Objective mode. Here, you and a team of mates must complete a series of objectives that blend into each other quite well. Getting drugs into a car, jumping into the car and driving through some city streets, progressing to another objective once you reach there, all while being pursued by some very dogged cops. The issue, of course, is the simplistic gunplay. When you're dealing with just a few types of weapons (rifles, pistols, and grenades), things tend to get a little dry pretty quickly. Still, this mode actually did something well, and had it been in any other game I'd probably look forward to it more.
Call of Juarez: The Cartel, isn't a very good game when you get to the basics. Its low production values and simple gameplay drag the experience down, while an erratic pace to the storyline makes it worse. There are some interesting ideas, such as the three-man co-op with varying points of view, but they aren't executed as well as they could be. It feels like there's a good title somewhere in the gameplay, and it's evident with a couple scenes that stand out, like a club packed with people or a fast chase across a packed highway, but aside from that the game simply fails to deliver.