Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel shines as an example of how not to market a video game. One, do not lay off the entire development team after their game goes gold; two, send outlets review codes before the release date; and three, advertise the game’s launch. Normally, I would never excuse a publisher for crooked business practices, but the longer I spent fighting hostile drug lords in modern Mexico, the more I sympathized with EA. The Devil’s Cartel loses what little soul had made Army of Two memorable. In its place, all fans receive is a lifeless, rudimentary shooter.
After a flashback to set up the villain’s motives and future plot involvement, the campaign begins in earnest. In the city of La Guadaña, a rebuilt T.W.O. (Trans World Operations) functioning under the guidance of Rios has been ordered to safeguard a politician and his anti-drug trafficking stance until the election comes to an end. Unfortunately, the military-grade convoy proves woefully ineffective against a cartel ambush. T.W.O.’s operatives are separated and their charge eventually murdered.
Right away, players will notice Visceral Montreal took one step to avoid the low bar previously set by the series, transplanting Army of Two's heroes with the more composed Alpha and Bravo. Playing air guitars or rock-paper-scissors in the middle of a combat zone always struck me as campy, so cutting back on the bro-op antics seemed sensible at first. Hindsight, however, can be one hell of a downer. Rios and Salem’s replacements somehow exhibit less personality than their masks, and the remainder of the game’s pitfalls bury the quality beneath a mountain of inadequacy.
Riot shields may guard Alpha and Bravo from leaded harm, but players cannot hide from the mediocrity forever.
The first strike goes to the writing. Although Visceral Montreal wanted players to accept the story’s serious new attitude, The Devil’s Cartel contains shallower dialogue than its forebears. During one co-op oriented sequence, Alpha and Bravo take control of a turret they previously outflanked. Of course, what an ideal time to trade more witless banter. As the cartel rushed the machine gun’s position, Alpha doubted such brainless tactics. When Bravo was quick to remind his partner they did the exact same not seconds ago, however, Alpha replied, “Yeah. But we’re fucking awesome.”
That one conversation (exchanged with straight faces) summarizes everything wrong about the characters. The Devil’s Cartel attempts to bring humor to the forefront with jokes about “bullet cancer” while still using rape and murder to dictate the tone. The middle ground does not work here, leaving the narrative with something of an identity crisis.
The game’s themes seem an excuse to make the story more worthy of a “Mature” rating, yet I question the gameplay’s disjointed structure, too. The developers divide each mission into brief shooting gallery-like segments, where the only objective for that level might be holding your position or driving a bomb-strapped pickup truck through the enemy’s base. Most sections last a couple minutes, and Gears of War: Judgment proved the format could be successful, but I was already feeling the strains of boredom before the chapters hit double digits (there’s 48).
Bravo shows the cartel his acute chiropractor skills.
The combat has also been stripped of defining qualities. The developers remove the morality choices intrinsic to The 40th Day, and the aggro system, which previously made one player invisible while the other drew hostile attention, has been relieved of a stealth component. Rather, Alpha and Bravo call upon separate Overkill meters. These moments of, well, overkill equip you with invincibility, explosive ammunition, and bottomless magazines. Should both players initiate Overkill simultaneously, time slows and accuracy increases. The results shred opponents, tearing arms, legs, and heads free of torsos while the environments suffer similar crippling fates.
For that, gamers have the Frostbite 2 engine to thank. Hotels, haciendas, train yards, slums, and cemeteries honoring the Day of the Dead are a surprising highlight, and the action remains on par with many current shooters instead of this generation’s launch titles. However, the number of textures does nothing to cure The Devil’s Cartel of a drab color palette. In arid regions such as Mexico, a saturation of brown, white, and gray tints seems perfectly logical. That does not make the game prettier to look at for long periods of time, especially one as padded in length.
The narrative plods from rescue mission to botched rescue mission, and the predictability of the whole affair starts to chafe. Allies rarely survive past their introductory chapter, and if you have not figured out the plot’s true antagonist by the end of the first mission, you need your common sense signals checked. I wanted to enjoy the more focused efforts of Alpha and Bravo, but without Rios and Salem's dynamism or the wedges driven between their relationship, The Devil’s Cartel feels robbed of personality.
Exploding red barrels, because video games!
Similarly, the frequency of co-op specific events has been cut to minimum. During the campaign’s derivative eight hours, you and your partner split up fewer than five times. These sections are revitalizing, albeit strictly by the books. One chapter forces Alpha or Bravo to cover the other’s approach with a sniper rifle, while another situation straps one player to a helicopter’s minigun so the second person may run ground control. These respites – when you do not have the AI to assist you with a revive or more firepower – are one of the few highlights. You have to trust your teammate to survive.
Otherwise, the best compliments I can pay are to the gameplay’s competence. The developers fixed the controls by mapping the revive and cover functions to separate buttons, and Frostbite 2 earns recognition again. Outside of Overkill’s capacity for complete cover disintegration, barricades crack and crumble depending on their composition. A wooden fence, for example, offers significantly less protection than a metal car.
Enemies also react to their sudden exposure by actively out-maneuvering you. I found myself surrounded by cartel fodder that had not kept me distracted, but when simply blind-firing a weapon exposes players to possible harm, skirmishes became frustrating when I could not pinpoint sources of rival shrapnel. Luckily, the friendly AI must have been eating its Wheaties. Bravo often braved maelstroms of machine guns to resuscitate my character or contribute to firefights.
Bulletproof vests: not guaranteed to protect one's arms.
Helping each other does more than keep Alpha and Bravo alive longer. Tag-teaming enemies provides mutual incentives, as missions score how well partners operate together. The more co-op actions undertaken, like acting as bait, flanking targets, or achieving multikills, the more money players earn for new masks, outfits, and weapon upgrades.
Players are still free to pimp out their assault rifles and shotguns with gaudy gold camo, but the unlockable weapons are unnecessary. I completed the entire game using the standard issue M4 and a large machine gun. That does not mean the customization has been excised of merit; it simply means the boilerplate shootouts never encouraged me to go silent or pick a firearm without the biggest magazine.
The Devil’s Cartel appeals to the lowest common denominator. Average. Generic. Ordinary. Pick your synonym, they all describe a narrative void of stimulation. The shooting appears equally mindless – smarter positioning rarely proves more effective than more bullets – yet the gameplay’s competence, going on a rampage with Overkill, and working together to increase your cash payout with a friend make the game’s padded length tolerable. Alpha and Bravo earn more groans and head shakes than the fist bumps the series deserved, but in selling its soul to the Devil, Army of Two finally meets modern shooter expectations.
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Visceral Montreal
Release Date: March 26, 2013
Number of Players: 1-2 (Campaign)
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3