"Why are we in Mexico?"
I've roped in my flatmate to help me review Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel. He knows nothing of the franchise, not of the frat-tastic fistbumping of the first two games, nor of EA's desire to distance this third game from the perceived missteps of its predecessors. He is the perfect guinea pig for this co-operative experiment.
And he has a point.
Four, maybe five hours into the game we're shooting up a graveyard somewhere in Mexico, for reasons that have thus far been totally skipped over. AI goons that all look pretty identical are running blithely into oncoming fire. My 'Alpha' is refusing to stick to cover, but on the plus side I'm earning 'Decoy' and 'Bait' points for a score that's never fully explained for leaderboards that seem to be an afterthought.
"We can be stealthy," said my character two minute earlier.
"Yeah, I can tell by your loud weapons and iconic masks," replied a sassy female operative who's joined us presumably just because she can.
This is before we activate Overkill, slow time down, and create a scenario where every round of rifle fire is explosive, and enemies explode like jam-filled piñatas.
I'll be honest, I actually rather liked the first couple of Army of Two games. They were outstandingly dumb, and lots of fun, with a simple mechanic in the Aggro meter that worked well. Instead of simply sinking into the abyss with all of the other derivative shooters, they embraced the bonehead inanity of the genre, and pushed it completely over the top. Gold-plated RPGs, a delightfully homoerotic central character pairing, and a dedicated bromance button made for objects of almost sublime ridicule.
In many ways, The Devil's Cartel is a definitive Army of Two game. The first hour manages to out-Bay Michael Bay. The Aggro mechanic, although not given a dedicated visual indicator in this title, is still very much a part of the game. The customisation options for your weapon are nicely varied, with the best scopes, barrels, stocks, and magazines unlockable as you rank up by playing through the game. Thankfully, you can still put gold plating on a massively pimped-up SAW.
You can also customise the look of Alpha and Bravo - the charisma-less duo at the forefront of this third instalment - changing their masks for Skullcandy-sponsored faceplates, a Captain America visage-shield, or even designing your own should you wish. Of course, becoming so attached is completely pointless, as the game shows you their faces within the first two minutes, and then does so repeatedly throughout the campaign, breaking all sense of immersion. Given that this game relegates Salem and Rios to the sidelines, and gives you two protagonists defined by callsigns, you might have hoped to be able to read into these characters and situate yourselves in the game. Hahaha... fat chance.
I'd try and critically assess the story, but I'm still not convinced that there is one. There are a few cutscenes near the start of the game where a convoy (of which Alpha and Bravo are a part) for a suited political type is blown up. But you're fighting faceless puppets for several hours before anyone resembling a villain of the piece - toting an angular blood-red mask - turns up. His name is El Diablo, he makes the sassy girl and Bravo angry, and that's pretty much all of the backstory we get.
Early encounters are disarmingly solid, though any AI opponents on Normal difficulty or below reveal themselves to be brainless drones with an appetite for their own destruction. The cover system proves relatively robust, aside from the occasional sticking issue, and the firearms feel good to fire, even if their impact is lessened on their targets. However, the more caps you bust, the more your Overkill (Bro-verkill? Opportunity missed.) gauge fills up. The first time you unleash it is a glorious moment. If just one player activates, time slows slightly and you're both gifted with unlimited ammo and health for a short time. Should you both activate your Overkill, it lasts twice as long, time slows even more, and every round you fire is accompanied by explosions that would make John Woo weep with joy.
Sadly, though, Frostbite 2 doesn't really respond to Overkill, at least not as much as we'd like. Though your screen becomes filled with fire, when the smoke clears, you'll have maybe peppered a building with a light dusting of bullet holes, or blown away a few cover points. In fact, as powerful an engine as we know Frostbite 2 can be, there's little evidence of it here. From a purely functional standpoint, Mexico is an awful setting. It's borderline offensively brown, and the clouds of dust that occasionally kick up merely restrict the view and make the brown more homogenous. If we're to believe The Devil's Cartel, the streets of Mexico are abandoned, empty of all life save for bandana-and-do-rag-toting Cartel grunts. Oh, and the occasional box of Day of the Dead fireworks.
It doesn't take long for the questions to set in. Why are we in Mexico? What the hell is going on? Why is the arsenal so small? Why is there no score indicator in-game if we're chasing leaderboard position? Why is it so fiddly to move between cover? Why are the loading times so long? You move from brown street to brown church to brown junkyard to brown villa to brown graveyard shooting the same enemies over and over and over again. There are turret sections (of course!) and occasionally you'll split up to leverage a level's verticality, but these scenarios are short-lived and unspectacular. There's a section where you jump into a truck with a turret on the back, with the aim of busting through heavily armed streets to get to a compound. It lasts 20 seconds, and your opponents bounce off of you like flies. It's about as exciting as a Sunday afternoon nap.
The banter is awful, mainly because the game can't decide whether or not it wants to be super serious or super OTT. Worse yet, the dialogue occasionally manages to accidentally comment on the game's own inadequacies:
"These guys are idiots," yells Bravo at one point. "They just ran straight into a machine gun!"
"So did we," says Alpha.
"Yeah, but we're fucking awesome."
There are three things to take from this: the AI is bad. The level design is bad. The dialogue is worse. In the end, the only question that's important regards just how long you'll survive before asking why on the earth you're playing The Devil's Cartel.
- The first time you unleash Overkill is glorious
- You can still gold-plate a sniper rifle
- Couch co-op! Wooooooo!
- Bad setting
- Bad AI
- It's only 7 hours long and it still manages to outstay its welcome
- There's nothing else to do after the campaign
- No fistbump button to alleviate the misery with levity
- Not even beer made this game better. No, really
- EA are charging £40 for this.
The Short Version: The Devil's Cartel is not a broken game. In fact, some might not even consider it to be a bad game given that it presents a fairly solid 7-hour campaign for online and offline co-operative play. But to say it's not bad would be to suggest that it might be worth £40. You'd be ignoring the insipid design, the risible writing, the paucity of any impact or originality or thought. In short, you'd be wrong.
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Developers: Visceral Games | Danger Close Games
Publishers: EA Games