Playing through the latest short demo of Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel, there's an extremely strong sense of ambivalence. On the one hand, I'm in Mexico, in the present day, smack bang in the middle of one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time. I know this because Visceral and EA have told me as much. It's also really brown, sandy, and dusty. On the other hand, the co-operative shooting has been tightened up immensely by new developers, Visceral Games. One side of my brain is quietly muttering, "This is wrong". The other half doesn't give a flying proverbial because it's quite a lot of fun.
At least those shades of brown look lovely. Frostbite 2 is once again the star of the show. Sandbags splutter and burst, pillars flake and crumble, and the dynamic lighting effects once inside are glorious to behold. It just seems a little bit of a shame that, given the TWO in Army of Two stands for Trans-World Ops, the developers settled here rather than, I don't know, anywhere else.
But I made these points in my post-Gamescom preview.
Getting hands-on with the game again, it's clear that Visceral have put in something of a shift. It's still really solid, and feels tighter than either of the previous games. The cover system is a simple, but crucially important feature, that feels snappy yet never sticky. The gunfire feedback, both aural and visual, is exceptional, and aiming mechanics and weapon handling feel responsive and yet also weighty and impactful, without being sluggish; Overkill yields its own reward.
After spending an inordinate amount of time blowing chunks out of pillars, I sat down with lead designer, Julien Lamoureaux for a swift chat.
Matt Gardner (Dealspwn): After Call of Juarez: The Cartel received a significant backlash over its setting, why return to modern-day Mexico to make a game set in the middle of a real-life crisis?
Julien Lamoureaux: For multiple reasons. First of all, the Mexican Cartel wars are something that really very relevant, there's a real resonance to that conflict precisely because it's a current conflict. We felt that the previous two games hadn't pushed a storytelling narrative perhaps as much as they could have, and that was something we really wanted to bring to this franchise. So we thought if we want players to engage with our story we should try to provide an interesting setting, and we've had positive feedback from that.
Of course, it's a sensitive subject, and therefore we've needed to change a few things from the previous games. So we got rid of the air guitaring, and the fistbumps...those cheesy, frat-boy moves that were a bit too much considering the nature of this game. That's not to say we don't have humour and lighter moments in our game, but we just make those light touches in different ways. So the conversations contain more sarcasm, perhaps irony, there's banter outside of combat. It's still a game that's about pure entertainment, but part of using Mexico as a setting is being respectful.
We're not killing civilians or policemen, we're not saying that everyone in Mexico is part of a Cartel gang. Alpha and Bravo are two mercenaries going in to get the job done, to kill some very bad, evil people. This isn't a crime game, we're not making political statements, they're there to eliminate drug-dealing Cartel bosses.
Dealspwn: But Army of Two has always been rather synonymous with straightforward, co-op shooter fun – as you put it, “pure entertainment”. Do you don't think that pure entertainment and an incredibly current human crisis are ill-fitting bedfellows?
Julien Lamoureaux: But you could say that about any war or conflict. Time doesn't change that. Every war is a human crisis. It's the same for games that set themselves in Iraq or Afghanistan. Admittedly, our conflict is a little closer to home, but that makes it more relevant. And these drug Cartels, they're not selling candy; these are evil people.
To us the really important thing is to be respectful of the Mexican culture. We've casted proper Mexican actors; authenticity is a big deal for us. We've tried to mirror real life in the way that NPCs in the game interact with the world around them, the way that they dress, for example. At the end of the day, Alpha and Bravo are not there to embroil themselves in a national conflict, they're there to get the job done.
Dealspwn: Moving away from the setting for the moment, what does Army of Two mean to Visceral Games? What are the core features of the franchise that you've looked to build this third game around?
Julien Lamoureaux: Well, to take a little step back, our approach to this game, and it's Visceral's first with the series, was hugely influenced by Frostbite 2. We had this new engine, with the opportunity to make it look fantastic, and take advantage of things like destructible scenery, and it really made us think in terms of design.
So we sat down and stripped it back. The series has been known for Salem and Rios, sure, but really we felt the essence of Army of Two was two guys in masks with big guns and fun co-op. So what does it mean to be a co-op game? Well it has to be fun in any situation: in singleplayer with a partner AI, in splitscreen, and online. Furthermore, we also wanted to make sure that co-op was rewarded, and that's where Overkill comes in. So if you do a normal kill you'll get a few points, but working co-operatively will earn you bigger point rewards. Eventually you'll fill that Overkill meter, and you'll practically invincible: you'll have unlimited ammo, you won't need to reload, your bullets will do more damage, and you'll be able to get a lot of visual satisfaction and feedback thanks to Frostbite 2.
Visceral is a company known for quality game, so we picked our battles. We didn't want to spread ourselves too thin, so we've focused on a few key things: making a spectacular action blockbuster, creating a gripping blockbuster story, and delivering engaging co-op. We knew we wanted to just focus on those things and polish the hell out of them rather than trying to take on too much and having to lower our standards.
Dealspwn: So will there be a competitive multiplayer element to the game?
Julien Lamoureaux: No, as I said, we didn't want to stretch ourselves too thin. We decided early on that it was more important to put all of our resources into the core co-op experience, as that's really what Army of Two is all about. Polish and quality have been things synonymous with Visceral Games, and we want to keep it that way.
Dealspwn: It's really good to see that the splitscreen local co-op experience has been retained. How important is local co-op to a game like this, and do you think it's a shame that more and more games are dropping splitscreen multiplayer?
Julien Lamoureaux: Oh, it's hugely important, and it's a real shame that so many games are giving up on splitscreen multiplayer. You get an experience that's just not possible over an online connection, particularly when it comes to co-op games, where you have one another's backs. Of course, more and more people are in sync, they'll buy the game and play with a friend online. But I'm sure that there are loads of people out there maybe with only one console in house. What if you don't have multiple Xboxes, or a huge LAN setup, or reliable internet? And that whole experience of wanting to play with a brother or sister, or having a friend over to play some games, those local social elements are still hugely important. For us, splitscreen is a no-brainer. If you're going to deliver a co-op game, it had better have splitscreen.
Dealspwn: The first two games in the series gave us extensive customisation options? Will The Devil's Cartel follow suit?
Julien Lamoureaux: Yes, although I can't give too much away. You will be able to customise your weapons, and there'll be plenty of options for skins and attachments. Again, though, this is an area that is one our core battles. We're really committed to delivering a high quality customisation experience, even more so than the previous two games.
Dealspwn: Will I be able to give Alpha a solid-gold grenade launcher?
Julien Lamoureaux: Maybe. You'll have to wait and see.