Platforms: PC | PS3 | Xbox 360 (previewed)
Developers: Visceral Games
Publishers: EA Games
I always thought that there was something refreshingly honest about Army of Two. In a sea of rather serious dudebro shooters, at least Salem and Rios at least knew who and what they were, as well as the nature of their target audience. Who hasn't engaged in a little fistbump or a joyous hi-five after blasting through a particularly difficult mission in co-op with a friend next to you on the couch? Seeing that reflected in a game was satisfying. Instead of blithely ignoring the meatheaded nature of the genre, Army of Two gleefully revelled in it, and gained my respect for it. Let's face it: none of these games exactly give us a deep emotional experience or reflect on the darker side of war. The fact that it happened to be a solid little throwaway shooter made it something on an actually-not-all-that-guilty pleasure.
Which is why I might be the only person a little bit sad that The Devil's Cartel sees you play as neither Salem nor Rios, and there's nary a hint of air guitar or victory dancing in sight.
Instead of the divisive frat boys that EA Montreal created, new overlords Visceral have seemingly opted in favour of a couple of blank slates - Alpha and Bravo - deployed on a covert mission down in Central America, where they find themselves in the middle of a tumultuous Mexican drugs war. Much of the gameplay seems unchanged, although there's a lightheartedness that's missing, though the producers assure us that the game will see some banter and a few touches to provide some respite from what looks to be a rather darker setting than the PMC skullduggery of past games.
If there is one thing to be said for The Devil's Cartel, it's that dumb, violent, co-op fun has never looked better than this. Frostbite 2 once again razzles and dazzles, with so much of the cartel drug lab in which we find ourselves for our hands-on demo proving to be destructible up to a point. Furniture positively explodes into clouds of splinters, with concrete walls and pillars spitting chunks of debris with every flying bullet. It's pleasantly anarchic stuff.
The cover system deserves a mention too, if only because certain recent games (*cough* Spec Ops: The Line *cough*) has shown that it's still possible to screw up the simple things and potentially ruin A Good Thing. Alpha and Bravo feel sturdy and robust, snapping into shelter at the tap of a button, with a drag back on the stick pulling them away. It needs to be quite a decisive pull away, which I rather like, but better still is the ability to aim at further cover points and have your soldier advance with precision. Simple stuff, but important nonetheless. A cover shooter with a poor cover system is a very bad thing indeed.
The Aggro meter from past games - whereby one masked hero could go bananas and essentially attract all of the attentions of the guards in an area to allow for near-invisible flanking manoeuvres from their associate - appears to be gone, replaced in this game by an Overkill meter that's boosted by suitably violent co-op shenanigans. The more two players work together to wreak havoc, the more that meter fills up. My partner and I end up split up across several vertical levels, with me on top covering the man below. A door breach at the top of some stairs triggers slo-mo entry, busting caps to fill the meter. Once it starts flashing, all hell breaks loose.
Should one player prove something of a maverick and fire up Overkill by themselves, then it's simply a case of unlimited ammo for a short time, some sweet extra explosive power, and large amounts of dead bodies as a result. Should you activate it in tandem with your partner, however, you both go into slo-mo for massive amounts of damage. Rounds suddenly turn explosive, limbs are flying everywhere, the architects who designed the building you're standing in are weeping...probably. It's a lot of fun...even if we do miss the tactical potential of Aggro.
Later on in the level, we're split up again. This time, my partner is on the ground taking out RPGs who are trying to bring down the chopper from which I'm raining down death with a satisfying minigun, and taking out gas canisters and ruining the cartel's industry in this particular area.
So Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel is still just as over-the-top in terms of action and silliness as it's always been. But instead of having pantomime characters along with that, they've gone down the serious route - or as Visceral and EA like to call it, the "grittier" and "more mature" path. There are suggestions that this series needed to "grow up", but it hasn't really done that. This is still a dumb, blockbuster co-op shooter that doesn't have an original idea in its body, only it seems to be trying to hide that. And it's not doing a very good job of it.