Army of Two has always had a rough time of it. When the first game came out, it lacked polish, featured morally-ambiguous lead characters, and was dismissed by many as a Gears of War clone before it even hit the shelves. Gamers who were intrigued enough by what they saw to pick up a copy were treated with a lavish 'gun playground' and a truly memorable leading duo mixed with a painfully short campaign. The 40th Day cranked up the franchise's 'ridiculous' factor even further while attempting to add more emotional and interactive depth to what many gamers felt were simply fratboys in ballistic masks, but it also suffered from a lack of improvement in many technical and gameplay aspects, leaving critics less than excited.
Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel comes to us three years later, and switches the narrative focus from blood brothers Tyson Rios and Elliot Salem to Alpha and Bravo, two codenamed operatives serving in Trans-World Operations, who are part of the security detail of La Puerta mayor Cordova who has sworn to wipe out destructive Mexican cartel La Guadana (The Scythe). Of course, La Guadana isn't too happy about that, and things go about as bad as humanly possible, thrusting Alpha and Bravo into the worst, and possibly last 24 hours of their careers.
With such a dramatic change from the established formula, fans of the series probably have a lot of questions. The answer to (probably) all of those questions is a resounding..."Sort of."
"A gold-plated grenade launcher? Of course this was necessary."
Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel (PS3, XBOX360 [Reviewed]) Developer: Visceral Montreal, EA Montreal Publisher: Electronic Arts Released: March 26, 2013 MSRP: $59.99
For fans of the series' signature gameplay and gunplay, there's sweet and sour here; the franchise's organic 'natural movement' cover has been replaced with a more traditional 'press a button to do X' cover system. While this isn't necessarily a bad thing (even though I was a fan of the older system), there are certainly some hiccups: cover is chosen by the player's crosshair, which can be exceptionally useful for picking cover farther away, but can also force the player to lose sight of the battle if they're trying to move more horizontally. Similarly, moving around corners while in cover seems to be a crapshoot, with Alpha (the default singleplayer character) simply standing up in the middle of a gunfight half the time instead of moving around the ledge like a person that doesn't want to get shot in the face. Level design has also been streamlined, and by streamlined, I mean that it feels like you could go through it without a partner and nothing would feel out of place. The few times you do split up have less to do with covering each other and more to do with simply facing enemies alone.
Luckily, that gunfighting is exceptionally tight: aiming and firing is incredibly responsive (if a little too accurate at times thanks to a generous helping of aim-assist) melee encounters are quick and brutal, and the sound design provides excellent, visceral feedback which is a damn good thing, since you're going to be fighting an almost obscene amount of enemies in every encounter, even for an Army of Two game. Luckily all that death gives you a Bulletstorm-esque opportunity to rack up points through creative killing and partner cooperation, which will in turn give you cash that raises your Agent Level...which will in turn unlock new weapons and customization items to use that cash on during the campaign's lengthy-but-not-too-long run.
Alpha is just so glad he brought his Digital Camo-covered assault rifle to Mexico.
And speaking of...the joy of guns is further enhanced by TDC's bombastic weapon-customization suite, which is inarguably the best in the series so far. There are at least 5 weapons in each category, and each one feels lethal in its own special way, making weapon choice less a matter of 'what's the weapon with the highest stats' and more a matter of 'what's the weapon that suits my playstyle the best?' Gun design goes a step further with a huge number of skins and materials to apply to your weapon, allowing operatives to go as tacticool or as crazy-town-bananapants with colors and patterns as they want. The only limits are the player's imagination, cashflow, and Agent Level.
In keeping with the spirit of the weapon suite, TDC sports an incredibly deep mask design function that allows players to play Picasso on a blank ballistic mask, then save the result for use and show-off later. Additional decals are unlocked as the player ranks up, and the tools are so varied and precise that you can create just about anything you want, provided you've got the patience to put them together. However, there are a ton of custom-designed ballistic masks to choose from as well, with some of them truly being works of art. Players can further customize their in-game operative with tactical clothing, although this is limited to complete outfits at once instead of mixing and matching tops, bottoms, gloves, etc. It's a little annoying given the depth of everything else, but is easy to let pass since each outfit looks unique.
Environmental destruction is impressive as all get-out. Too bad you can't wield an electric fan to blow all that dust away before the enemies who can see through it perfectly kill you.
Unfortunately, the same can't be said for a lot of the in-game visuals. Maybe it's just because the 40th Day forces were so flamboyant and everything-and-the-kitchen-sink about their armor, but the La Guadana forces that you'll spend the entire game mowing down are about as generic as you could possibly get, with even the tough-as-nails Elites soaked in drab colors that obscure what might actually be cool visual designs. The game world itself suffers from similar issues, no doubt in part due to the franchise's switch from Unreal Engine 3 to the Frostbite 2 engine, which has become rather infamous amongst Battlefield 3 players for its washed-out lighting. These issues are exacerbated further when taking into account the truly impressive amount of structural destruction you can wreak without even being in Overkill mode (which, of course, makes a gun-blazing, torso-de-limbing return) which causes massive dust clouds that obscure your vision for minutes at a time - though of course enemies can see you just fine. The fact that every single enemy in the game seems to only have one of two equally-annoying voices just adds to the annoyance: get ready to camp behind smoke clouds as a chorus of grenades and cries of "PENDEJO!" rain down on you.
So that's it, right? An average shooter with awesome gun physics, boring enemies, and a series of customization suites that kick the ass of anything else on the market? Well, no, not quite, and here we finally come to The Devil's Cartel's greatest failing: the co-op narrative itself.
One of the most interesting aspects of the first two Army of Two games was not just the lead characters themselves, but the interactive aspects of playing as them. While gamers will always come up with new and inventive ways to communicate their feelings when mics aren't available, Army of Two actually gave players an in-game ability to physically interact with one another in way that no other game really has. Partner charges headlong into gunfire like a moron? Press a button and watch as your operative slaps his upside the head. Survive a particularly brutal shootout by the skin of your teeth? Give a nod and a fistbump to celebrate how you're not ventilated. Even the combat ramifications were fun - the Mock Surrender move was hilarious to pull off, and even funnier when the partner messed it up.
One of the most ironic pieces of promotional art ever, considering nothing even close to this happens in-game.
But all of that is gone in The Devil's Cartel. In its place, we have...T.W.O. Vision, an augmented-reality view that lasts for a few seconds and is supposed to point out ammunition, alternate routes, and enemies. I used it maybe five times in the entire campaign, and each time I used it, I immediately thought "Oh right, this is useless, why did I think this would help me? I shouldn't ever do this again," and then I forgot about it until the next time I accidentally hit the button. T.W.O. Vision contributes pretty much nothing but a neat screen effect: ammunition, even on Hard, is easy to find, alternate routes are painfully obvious since they always show up before a firefight, and enemy-revelation is spotty at best. The sacrifice of that organic, non-verbal interaction that added so much character to the first two games is a travesty. Like I mentioned earlier, level design has also been exceptionally simplified, with many environments simply feeling like they were designed for a single shooter instead of two. On top of that, fan-favorite Back-to-Back sequences are completely absent. The co-op experience suffers further when you realize that the 'drop-in/drop-out' co-op doesn't actually work that way: players must start the checkpoint over entirely for another player to join. At least the host gets a choice of whether they want to let someone else in or not.
Now it's not that I think Alpha and Bravo should be getting liberal with the air guitars and fist-bumps: the game makes it clear that these two are most definitely not the bosom buddies that Tyson and Salem were, at least at the beginning, and that's actually okay. Alpha brings a refreshingly professional approach to the Army of Two universe, and Bravo proves that you can be a bad boy and a good guy at the same time. It would've been easy just to keep the characters static over the course of the game (or worse, exaggerate them into tired stereotypes), but instead the audience gets to watch the two of them develop not just individually, but as coworkers and brothers-in-arms. Each one shows surprising depth at times, but unfortunately, we rarely get to see it, as many of the quirks are simply waved away with a 'Don't ask' or a 'Don't get him started on it.' Part of what made the first two games so entertaining was that Tyson and Salem would get into it whether anyone else wanted them to or not, so to see banter that's been a hallmark of the series now reduced to an occasional glimmer is quite disappointing.
This man is your ENEMY. He fights for KILLING YOU WITH WAVES AND WAVES OF FODDER.
And speaking of disappointing, nowhere is TDC's storytelling shortcomings more evident than in the second half/last third of the game. I won't spoil it (although many people figured it out hours after one of the trailers was released) but there's a major plot twist that pretty much sends the narrative off the rails and over a cliff for the remainder of the game. Double-crosses, about fifty different rescue attempts (most of them failed) by various characters on other various characters, and senseless shock deaths send the franchise's usually light-hearted storyline into a depressingly dark place, and what should be the triumphant close to a trilogy (and possible beginning of a second) feels more like the end of a grim second chapter, and an incredibly-forced one at that. Nearing the close of the game, I felt more enmity towards the writing staff than the villains themselves, and considering how absolutely ruthless the higher-ups of La Guadana are - one particular lieutenant, El Diablo, seems to have taken a page or five hundred from Philip Clyde's (aka Smiley from the first Army of Two) handbook - that's saying quite a lot.
To a certain extent, it feels unfair to complain about narrative in an action game - if I want a well-written story, I should probably go play an RPG, but then again, I've played plenty of shooters with satisfying, entertaining stories, so I can't just look the other way. Ultimately, if you love getting your bro-op on, Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel will give you a fresh, if not quite as enjoyable, fix for you and your brother-from-another-or-possibly-the-same mother, but if when the credits roll you find yourself feeling less than pumped, don't be surprised.
THE VERDICT : 7/10 The creative tools are a blast and the spirit of the series is mostly intact, but mechanics issues and some serious narrative missteps taint the experience.