Army of Two and its sequel hold a special place for me, being the first videogame I played through with my father-in-law. When Army of Two: Devil’s Cartel was announced I smiled knowing that I’d eventually be playing this with family. Within throwing distance of another bro-fest title, I was surprised to see this game released against one of the most eagerly anticipated shooters of 2013, day and date. Could this be EA’s attempt to bury this title? A quick glance at the inclusion of “rappers” Big Boi and B.o.B. to tackle the theme song also being given a whack at being playable characters told me two things – I was going to hate the soundtrack, and this game was in big trouble.
The game opens with the T.W.O. (Trans World Operations) on guard duty covering a Mexican politician named Cordova. As our convoy rolls into hostile territory it is hit by an RPG attack, and after that….uh….near as I can tell, explosions. Cordova is captured by a vicious cartel called La Guadana, and it’s up to Alpha and Bravo to track him down and get him back. The ‘plot’ becomes increasingly predictable as the game progresses, but I don’t want to spoil the paper-thin story.
Typically a third title in a series is about taking what worked from a previous title, refining those attributes, and then adding new features. For some odd reason, the folks at Visceral Montreal decided to take the opposite approach, stripping out some of the features that made you care about Salem and Rios. Given the years that have passed and the dozens upon dozens of games I’ve played and reviewed since the previous Army of Two, the fact that I still remembered their names without reference shows how memorable those characters were. Given that it’s been a few years and over 100 games reviewed in that time and I still remembered their names without reference tells me that they were at least memorable. What is surprising is that the fist-bumps, the back-to-back shooting, playing rock-paper-scissors to make decisions, cooperative sniping, and really any other cooperative features that set this game apart from every other shooter has been stripped out of the game. What is left is a bland shootfest that doesn’t stand out in any way.
Salem and Rios appear briefly, but have otherwise been similarly stripped from the game, replaced by “Alpha” and “Bravo” – two faceless nobodies. While developer Visceral Montreal likely wanted the player to feel like they were stepping into the shoes of the two new soldiers, instead it leeched the personality out of both of them. By the halfway point in the game the most interesting thing I learned about Bravo was that he is buying a boat. We gave an elbow to the rib to the two previous games for the rampant brofest, but little did we realize that it was the glue holding the whole thing together.
Alpha and Bravo have very little to say, and when they do speak I’m just not laughing. The little quips that they toss at one another do little to make you care about them, and more often they are simply gay jokes, pointless or flat wrong advice, or frequent “your mom” jokes. This reminds me that this game, despite the M rating, sets the bar on the ground, failing to elevate it in any way. Even competing bro-fests made me care about the story more than these two.
There are two features that return for this title – Overkill and weapon modification. Weapon modification comes courtesy of the cash you earn from missions. Taking out enemies using flanking, multi-kills, clean breaches, etc. nets you additional money that you can use to kit out the five groups of primary/secondary weapons and another six sidearms. Attachments like grenade launchers side-mount clips, silencers, and more, in addition to a ridiculous amount of paint jobs gives you a reason to keep on killing. There are a total of 25 weapons to modify, in addition to a stack of new masks and tactical gear, though the last two groups are merely cosmetic in nature. All of the weapons and masks are gated by rank, so you’ll have to crank through the single player campaign to unlock all of the tools of the trade. I burned through the first 8 ranks to unlock the sniper rifle – my always-preferred weapon, and was taken aback by what I saw next.
The Devil’s Cartel is by no means an overly difficult game on medium. There is a hard and insane difficulty level, the last being locked behind beating the game. The sniper rifle on the other hand makes it shockingly easy. Waving the weapon in the general direction of the enemy and then pulling the left trigger causes the reticle to snap to the nearest enemy, center mass. You can take out scads of enemies by simply alternating between left and right trigger pulls, slowed only by the size of your magazine. For some reason you you have to back out to the main menu and hit the Armory to purchase any weapons you might want. Why this couldn’t be done inside the mission in the same way way the previous titles did it is beyond me.
Overkill in previous titles let you go back-to-back and cut down scores of foes while invincible. As I said, back-to-back has been removed, but the unlimited ammo/invincibility remains. This time around we get the addition of Double Overkill. When your partner triggers Overkill mode, and then you trigger Overkill the mode lasts twice as long. This allows you to use your selected weapon to rip down all of the very-destructible cover, including the VAST amount of explosive barrels, propane, and fuel tanks scattered throughout the entire game. Even trucks, cars, and helicopters seem to store 55-gallon drums of gasoline in the trunk. In practice this mode allows you to punch through plaster walls, rip columns apart, blast wood to splinters, and stand in the middle of the resulting inferno laughing in your superior invulnerability. You would imagine that this would make the game absolutely pointless, but shockingly, it ends up being the most fun to be had. Watching scores of enemies fall to your firepower while explosions chain in the background like a Michael Bay movie on steroids had me laughing. It’s ridiculous, but somehow ridiculously fun.
Like the previous two games in the series, the latest Army of Two title features a cover system. Heading backwards once again, but this time all the way back to the first title, we also see the return of the “press to stick to cover” system. Rather than using the method from 40th Day which had serious issues with both reliability and predictability, the team abandoned any new attempts at fixing the cover system. Just like other cover-based titles, moving the thumbstick lets you select the direction you’d like to move, resulting in a vault over the object, forward to another safe spot, or a dash laterally to another piece of cover. The issue is that it is very inconsistent, often disappearing when you need it most. This makes an otherwise serviceable cover system a little cumbersome at times, forcing you out into the open more than you otherwise would naturally.
An engine change, but why?
Army of Two and Army of Two: 40th Day looked pretty great. In fact, I can’t recall saying anything negative about the game’s graphical presentation. Likely to prevent the need to license the Unreal Engine 3 as they had for the previous two, Visceral has utilized EA’s own Frostbite 2 engine. The result is a bit of a mixed bag, giving incredible detail to some things, lending destructibility as we’ve seen in other Frostbite 2 titles, but otherwise looking not unlike its predecessors. I can’t help but imagine that the team spent a great deal of time making this engine change that could have been spent on story or ironing out some of the bugs.
Oh….the bugs. During the course of the 49 missions (each at around 8-10 minutes in length with a few exceptions for a combined total of about 8 hours in all) I encountered numerous bugs. At one point Alpha began reloading his shotgun and just never stopped. After watching him drop over 50 shells into the breach I fired off the 4 that were actually loaded which finally cleared the bug. I also saw plenty of enemies that died and floated in mid-air, arched and sprawled. Occasionally the friendly AI will decide to stop moving forward to trigger the next sequence, or enemy AIs will forget to spawn from the monster-closet areas, leaving you wandering around aimlessly. Even before I could get started, I got asked if I’d like to install the 1.5GB HD content pack which got stuck half way through install and then popped back to the prompt to try again.
The game does do a good job of presenting the dusty brown Mexican landscape and setting. Rusted barrels, concrete walls with rebar sticking out of them, and graffiti-strewn favelas make up the villages. Winding open spaces in graveyards, junkyards, and many others give the player far more distance to run, but once again the team decided to remove your need to think your way through it. T.W.O. Vision takes all of the tactical measures out of the game by giving you the ‘best route’ to take through cover to not get your ass shot off. This helps mitigate some of the sticky nature of the cover engine, likely as a result of this being the ‘tested path’.
The 49 missions in the game (plus a handful more if you got the Overkill Edition) each nets you a rank and time rating. When you finish the section (when multiple sections happen in one area, it’s hard to call them ‘missions’) you’ll be scored on how many Overkill kills, tag team kills, decoy maneuvers, multi-kills, difficulty rating, time, and other miscellanea to reward you with cash. It also immediately ranks you on the world leaderboard so you can see how you fared against everyone else.
Most of the missions in the game feature some sort of decision to make. They are simplified down to choosing high ground or low ground most often. Given that the braindead AI is more than willing to rush directly into heavy gunfire blindly, this decision is usually made moot. Enemies dive predictably behind cover, but their animation options are few, dooming them to all die in nearly the same way. Even if they didn’t, they all seem to want to hang out near the largest clusters of explosives, leaving them to be gibbed by collateral damage. When the ebb and flow of combat begins to fall flat I imagine that I’m simply killing the same dozen guys over and over again, and they are rising up like zombies – since they all look the same, occasionally bothering to put on glasses, hats or bandanas, I’d challenge you to prove me wrong.
The death of a franchise? The death of a studio.
I keep mentioning Visceral Montreal as the developers of this title, but you’ll be hard pressed to know that without having followed it. This game was the last title they developed before their studio was shuttered. That alone may explain a great deal about the state in which The Devil’s Cartel was released. There is little in the way of tactics here, cooperative or otherwise, and much of what brought audiences to play the two previous titles has been gutted from this game. Wide open spaces allow us to spread out a bit, but empty buildings and nothing to find outside of more brain dead enemies leaves us no reason to leave the obvious path. Even the weapons you can unlock and modify serve only as fleeting distractions from the non-stop explosions and formulaic shooting. Nothing about the game (other than the bugs) is particularly bad, but there is very little to recommend here either. As a single-player experience there are much better ways to spend your cash, and even in cooperative play I’d only recommend it pulled from the bargain bin. I guess those two bargain-bin rappers should have been my first clue…