Gosh, that's an alarming headline.
Perhaps I should preface this article by explaining that I - along with my fellow Dealspwn writers - love ourselves some Army Of Two. Sure, the series is riddled with flaws (and it's easy to make a persuasive argument for them being pretty bad games), but the original game and its sequel delivered something you'll rarely find in the shooter genre: good old fashioned cooperative fun. We air-guitared our way through some well-designed arenas, hooned a hovercraft around like nobody's business and fist-bumped our mates after each successful mission. Army Of Two is fun, empowering and a perfect way of blowing off steam with a friend, and bringing players closer together through Rios and Salem's lighthearted banter.
And yet, our delight at discovering that Visceral Games are working on a reboot soon turned to major concern after witnessing the first trailer, followed by a gut-wrenching realisation that The Devil's Cartel may have already failed during the planning stages. By setting The Devil's Cartel in the midst of the Mexican drug war, Visceral has potentially derailed their sequel before it was even revealed.
A few of our early criticisms boil down to tone and style - or the lack thereof. Matt got hands-on with The Devil's Cartel at Gamescom, reporting that despite an improved cover system, much of the personality has been sucked out of the experience. Our initial impressions are that of unending brown, a colour palette that makes the original Quake look like Okami in comparison. Despite not exactly being the most artistically enriching of games, the original Ao2 provided a level set on an aircraft carrier featuring clear skies and deep blue ocean, while The 40th Day delivered a surprisingly eyecatching visual experience with a stark crimson-on-gunmetal aesthetic (not to mention some vibrant sunlit scenes that made the most of the eastern architecture). TWO stands for Trans World Operations, meaning that Visceral could have chosen any setting or mix of locations for the action, but they seem to have chosen one of the most uninspiring and drab environments possible.
It's indicative of a "dark" and "gritty" new focus, which are two buzzwords that publishers trot out with merry abandon. Two words that absolutely do not sum up the core engagement of Army Of Two. We play Army Of Two because it's fun - end of. Taking faceless grunts through brown, brown, brown locales with nary a hint of a single fist-bump doesn't exactly sound like fun to us, and that's before you even get to any attempts at meaningful introspection. Instead of trying to differentiate the series by focusing on vibrancy or fun factor, Visceral appears to be bringing The Devil's Cartel in line with other shooters, making the experience less distinct and unique by doing so.
I actually like the idea that the two main characters are blank slates, up to a point. Being able to properly read ourselves into the protagonist will make the weapon and armour customisation more relevant and immersive: it's us in the experience, not a proxy. Sadly, we also have to point out that Rios and Salem's infectious banter serves to bring players together, work as a team and care about the cooperative mechanics as well as each other. The fact that my co-op partner turned to me, almost teary eyed, and begged me not to shoot at the end of The 40th Day demonstrates just how easy it is to relate to the seemingly boorish frat boys, while the preceding eight hours provided all manner of... well... irreverent fun. That's the point, and we rather feel that Visceral may be missing it.
But these are minor concerns compared to one massive problem. An elephant in the room heavy enough to completely derail the entire project. So with the aid of a bigger typeface, allow me to explain our biggest issue with The Devil's Cartel:
The Mexican Drug War Is Not An Appropriate Setting For An Army Of Two Game
Games have trodden controversial roads or tapped into divisive current events before, and often emerged better for it. Any number of titles have come under fire for setting their action in real cities or real wars and successfully weathered the storm. But the Mexican Drug War isn't really a war with clear sides, an obvious 'bad guy' and stark shades of black and white. It's just carnage. Indiscriminate, heartbreaking, horrific REAL carnage inflicted on thousands of innocent people. As a Brit, I'm barely au fait with the situation, but I guarantee you that a quick Google search will reveal news articles from the last 24 hours that shed light on untold suffering inflicted on innocent people. Perhaps an appalling casualty statistic. Maybe the shocking story of a mother threatened with watching her children slaughtered in front of her after her husband was kidnapped and executed, allegations of police corruption, young kids indoctrinated into gang violence at an early age or desperate men forced into a life of crime just to make a living for their families. This may be happening half a world away, but it's happening right fucking now.
Before we go any further, we need to make one thing crystal clear. I am not for a moment suggesting that games should shy away from controversial settings or be browbeaten into playing things safe. On the contrary, I believe that there's real scope for a game to explore the heartbreaking real-world suffering of the Mexican Drug War, possibly from the perspective of an innocent victim or a terrified young Federale/enforcer on either side of the conflict. Videogames' interactivity make them a perfect way to shed new light on the horrendous situation and educate a global audience, much like Six Days In Fallujah might have done if it was as authentic as Atomic Games claimed. I would applaud any developer willing to research and deliver a brutally honest take on the conflict; never flinching from unglamorous home truths and complex issues.
But we're taking about an Army Of Two game here. A game that's predicated on cooperative shenanigans set to hip hop music. A game based on shooting first and asking questions never, providing a shooting gallery of stereotypes to kill without guilt or shame. While I'd never demand that a developer back down from their artistic vision, I'd suggest that the setting has placed Visceral Games in an untenable bind from day one.
Either The Devil's Cartel will completely trivialise a heartbreaking, complex and horrific situation that is even now ruining (and taking) thousands of lives - most likely - or worse it's going to be so dark and brutal that it won't be any fun to play. It's a fail-fail scenario: an ostensibly fun game set in one of the most complicated and miserable battlegrounds on the global stage; ill-equipped to explore the reality in any meaningful way by design, but potentially dark enough to remove the devil-may-care vibe that we love from the franchise. Any attempt to focus on the miserable impact of the drug war will inexorably pull away from The Devil's Cartel's mission statement of providing breezy cooperative larks, but ignoring the real-world anguish (or stereotyping it with broad strokes, see also Call Of Juarez: The Cartel) will result in a disrespectful and disingenuous end product.
As always, I glean no enjoyment from writing articles like this... and more importantly, I genuinely hope that I'm plain wrong. I'd desperately love The Devil's Cartel to prove this entire argument null and void, to make me look stupid, narrow-minded and petty in the process. We want games to be great, and as fans of the series, we want The Devil's Cartel to deliver. But sadly, thanks to some seriously questionable design decisions, the entire project may be doomed from the start... and, dare I say it, may even deserve to fail.