The Army of Two series has done well to see three entries into its franchise. After the first title’s mediocre attempt at bro-op hyper masculine warfare, it was a lucky breath of fresh air to see its sequel Army of Two: The 40th Day take a noticeably self-mocking turn. It had a clear self-referential humour to it, acknowledging its own ridiculous sense of virility and mindless shooting by upping the flamboyance – turning an otherwise completely forgettable third-person shooter into something with perhaps a little brain to it. We all loved the air guitars and exaggerated combat, and the sense of fun made the more dumb aspects into a game that was enjoyably silly. The video game equivalent to Top Gun, if you will. The problem with its sequel, Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel, is that it completely lacks any of the sense of parody present before. It replaces this with a laughable seriousness that, because it fails to acknowledge its own stupidity, forces us to consider it as a sophisticated shooter. But it’s not. It never was, and never will be.
Taking the driver’s seat in place of series stalwarts Salem and Rios, is Alpha and Bravo: two rookie upstarts looking to prove their worth as super army soldiers. After a bit of their back story and an assassination attempt on a political figure in Mexico, the plot takes a few predictable twists and turns that revolve around skirmishes with a local drug cartel. It’s an incredibly dull story told with the finesse of a dancing hippopotamus. What little plot element that drives the game is consistently interrupted by the briefness of the levels: a concession designed to allow frequent opportunities for the player to upgrade their equipment. Likewise, loading screens take the form of annoying invisible walls that tell you to wait for your partner. You could blame this on the slow AI teammate when playing alone, but it tells you the exact same thing and still makes you wait even when you’re playing with a friend in multiplayer. No invisible wall, I will not wait any longer, we are both here and ready to shoot things. The story is also delivered by the most boringly dead-pan two protagonists ever. Alpha and Bravo prove to be nothing more than great, soulless husks: gurning out an occasional woman based witticism or command of ‘hold tight!’ with all the lout passion of a Bruce Willis film. They are nothing more than a canvas of false masculinity for the player to project the games’ many visual customisations on to.
For those unfamiliar with the experience of Army of Two, the latest game opts for the same co-op centred combat of the previous titles: based around a look-and-tap-to-move covering system in the vein of Gears of War. There’s a lot of shooting and a lot of explosions, but the level design requires you to cover each other and flank groups, machine gun turrets and snipers in order to progress. Returning is also Overkill mode, a special ability acquired by getting enough kills that allows invincibility, increased damage and bullets that are capable of blowing up environments. Adding to the experience is a deeper customisation to your characters than previous titles. Masks can now be user-created, as well as the usual unlockables, and there’s a wide range of weapons that can be upgraded using cash earned by kills. This includes anything from gun butt and magazines to scope and grip.
In theory, it sounds like a reasonable attempt at what is currently popular amongst shooter fans. While cash based upgrades have been done to death, there’s no denying that they can prove a viable way to add to an experience. However, while a good shot to the head has a satisfying enough kick to it, combat ultimately remains incredibly underwhelming. In spite of the many customisation options, there is a sincere lack of distinctive quality to the weapons, as well as a lack of a sense of power. For a game sold on the premise of co-operative gaming, this latest instalment has worked hard to remove most, if not all moments where you actually feel like you’re helping each other. Back-to-back, a trivial but entertaining feature in the old titles is gone, along with most other interactions, such as rock, paper, scissors. The game might occasionally force you to cover each other, but you never really feel like the addition of another player is anything more than just extra firepower. This isn’t helped by the stupidity of the AI, in which enemies throw themselves at you like their boss asked them to prove their commitment to the cartel by demonstrating who can die the most pathetically.
However, in a game that gets so many things wrong, it’s very easy to miss what it does get right. As a standard shooter to play with your friends, The Devil’s Cartel remains a solid enough combat experience with a few epic set pieces. Level design is arguably its most impressive feature, if only by default. The Day of the Dead decorations of the city setting provide enough colour and imagination to remind me of Grim Fandango (which is a massive compliment). Certain moments in the game also do have their charm, such as one sewer mission in which using your pistol sidearm’s torch is the only way to see enemies as they pounce out on you from the darkness. Likewise, the customisation options are enough to keep a player entertained for a good many hours.
To sum up
It is possible to argue that in a game like Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel, the story is not important, but there simply as a means to give purpose to the action combat gaming. However, due to the lack of excitement present in enemy encounters, it proves that it isn’t a case of focusing itself in another area, but simply that the game is very lazy in all its aspects. As the over-the-top, outrageous and repetitive strings of the main menu music demonstrate, this is a game trying to act like a big-boy in the genre of shooters. But like the most precociously annoying child that begs its parent to take it seriously, Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel appears all the more irritating.
Version reviewed: PlayStation 3