What do you get when you take the bromance and aggro out of Army of Two? I don’t know. And apparently neither does Army of Two
You’ll shoot dudes, flank mounted machine guns, shoot dudes, slide through a collapsing hacienda, shoot dudes, rain death from a helicopter and shoot dudes.
I like Army of Two. I always have. I have a quasi-nostalgic soft spot for a game reminiscent of playing soldier with my best friend in the back yard as a child. But at odds with my appreciation for the experience is the knowledge that this series really isn’t very good. The first two entries were largely panned by critics, myself included. From the first game’s enemy health bars and oddly slow-moving bullets to the second game’s baffling moral choice system and nonexistent story, this has never seemed like a carefully crafted series. In my review of Army of Two: The Fortieth Day I suggested that the series reinvent itself in the way one does following a mid-life crisis. Well the Devil’s Cartel is a mid-life crisis. It bought a new shiny engine and took a trip to Mexico and now we’re stuck with the consequences.
In the Devil’s Cartel, series protagonists Elliot Salem and Tyson Rios are relegated to supporting cast. Their newly renamed company, Tactical Worldwide Operations (T.W.O.), takes on a mission to protect a Mexican politician and lead his war against the drug cartel. The story is a late bloomer as the first few hours consist of reacting to ambushes and shooting dudes from behind cover without any real objective. To be fair, this is what all the other hours involve too, but at least the characters motivations and banter get more interesting.
There’s little to say about the new protagonists. They’re referred to simply as Alpha and Bravo to allow players to project themselves. Despite the names, they’re given quite a lot of personality and back story. I wasn’t too upset about the changes as it’s nice to see Salem and Rios manage their company and grow as characters. But we don’t get to see much of that. Rios does a fine job as manager, but Salem looks, acts and sounds nothing like his former self. The character is entirely unrecognizable no matter how forgiving you try to be. I understand why they didn’t want to use Nolan North again, but John Sheppard from Stargate Atlantis? Really? Maybe it’s the fanboy in me, but if you’re going to use a TV actor to portray Salem my vote would have been Jared Padalecki. He could even have done the motion capture.
The gameplay now centers around its use of the Frostbite 2 engine of Battlefield fame and Medal of Honor let’s-just-forget-that-ever-happened. The cover system has gone from criminally under thought to thoroughly over designed. Your screen is perforated by blue dots, dashes and tool tips alerting you to the cover you’re using, the cover you could be using, the cover you should be using, what buttons you could hit to facilitate better use of cover and even an advanced satellite tracking system that will give you directions to all nearby cover in real time across the globe. Perhaps in the next game there will be social networking features allowing you to check your friends’ reviews of particular cover and post amusing pictures of cats on it. This may all be well and good for a single player game, but Devil’s Cartel uses the odd form of split screen that Resident Evil 6 uses where a quarter of your television is dedicated to black space. So the fact that another quarter of the screen is dedicated to blue tooltips puts visible space at something of a premium.
Online the game suffers from a clunky interface. You have to start over a level to accept a new player, as opposed to drop-in play. Sometimes players can get stuck after loading screens, ruining a session. There is no versus mode, though I fully support this excision as the single player clearly needed more focus than it got and I’d hate to imagine what it would have been with even less development.
Once the story is in full swing and you’ve learned the controls well enough to not be bogged down by them, the action is entertaining. It’s the sort of co-op experience you’d expect of Army of Two and the Frostbite 2 engine. You’ll shoot dudes, flank mounted machine guns, shoot dudes, slide through a collapsing hacienda, shoot dudes, rain death from a helicopter and shoot dudes. The Overkill feature is back and better than ever, now imbuing you and your partner with unlimited explosive ammo and invincibility for a brief period. If used synchronously time is dilated making any gunfight into an action movie set piece comparable to the previous games’ back-to-back sequences. If what you wanted from Army of Two is a never ending action sequence with some co-op and personality, then Devil’s Cartel doesn’t disappoint. But it’s no crowning achievement to the series and its new direction is circumspect at best.
The entire co-op nature of the game has been rethought for better or worse. I’d say worse. Aggro only gets a token mention, no longer sporting an on screen meter for visual reference. The environments are seldom wide enough to make use of flanking. Back-to-Back sequences are gone even though there were very clearly two sections designed to put the characters in the dead center of a circular kill box that I could see no reason for other than a back-to-back sequence. Even the sequences wherein you have to flank with your partner to take out a mounted machine gun usually label two obvious paths and split the players up such that by the end of them you can’t help but be on opposite sides. The classical co-op thinking has been replaced with an interesting, if ultimately nonfunctional, points system. When you do things that make use of your partner, such as flanking, or shooting the same target, you get additional points. These points charge up the meter which allows you to use Overkill.
While it’s a good idea in theory, the failing of this system, and therefore the lynchpin of play, is that the level design never forces players to make significant use of it. If players don’t take risks to execute complex co-op strategies the overkill meter will still charge up, if slower, and the need for overkill won’t be so great. Nothing here forces strategy and co-operation as the rule of the day the way the original did. You have the option but no imperative to use it. You don’t rely on your partner; you tolerate them for their brief utility. The enemy AI is so bad that upping the difficulty doesn’t fix this problem, it just increases the motivation to stay behind cover and never advance.
The single player AI is impressive, but why would you play it single player? The co-op is functional but not as focused. At a third installment there’s really no excuse for this. Army of Two has kept my attention so far, but I’m worried for it. This series’ premise and formula will only be fun until someone does it better and the upcoming Star Trek bro-op shooter is looking pretty good right about now.