The first Army of Two game came out at a time when co-op play was starting to gain traction in this console generation. It wasn't a magnificent game, but the scenarios that called for real co-op action and good action pieces made it enjoyable at the time. When The 40th Day hit the scene, co-op play was more common, but the game was saved by morality choices that contributed to a more serious story that still contained lots of good gunplay. With both games enjoying some level of success, hearing about a third game wasn't surprising. What is surprising, though, is how The Devil's Cartel doesn't improve on the experience and simply goes through the paces.
Instead of playing the roles of Salem and Rios from the first two games, you play as both Alpha and Bravo, two of the newest members of Trans World Operations, the private military company from the second game. The duo is sent to protect a politician in Mexico who has pledged to rid the country of drug cartels, and while things seem to be going fine, an ambush results in the politician going missing. From there, it's the duo's job to recover the politician from the cartel's grasp.
That's the game's first mistake. The stories of the first two games weren't masterpieces but at least the characters had some personality. Salem was the brash one who liked to dive into action while Rios always displayed some thought before doing anything. All of that was hidden behind some groan-inducing dialogue, but there were hints of character development. Here, the cookie-cutter story remains, but the characters are quite bland. Alpha and Bravo try to be clones of Rios and Salem, respectively, but they fall flat. They'll crack a few jokes or say some funny lines, but there's no camaraderie. The dialogue is exactly the type of juvenile stuff you'd expect, and with most of the one-liners covering the same topics, the humor quickly wears thin.
Just as in the previous titles, this is a standard third-person shooter with an emphasis on cover and co-op play. Restricted to two firearms — a pistol and grenades — you'll be darting from cover while the enemy does the same. You'll try to catch them at just the right time to put a few rounds in them, and you'll be doing this with a partner in tow who stands in as an extra gun and as a healer if you become incapacitated.
With sequels, you expect the mechanics and principles of the game to improve over the original. The improvements vary from minute to substantial, but the player should be able to tell that there was some improvement upon the original offering. This is a rare case where some of the game mechanics have regressed. In particular, two big areas in the game feel like it was the first time that the team had tried the mechanics; it's baffling since this is the developer's second attempt at the series.
The first thing The Devil's Cartel gets wrong is the cover system. On paper, the system doesn't do anything that hasn't been done in other games. You aim for where you want to take cover and hit a button. You can slide from cover point to cover point and vault over cover if it's low enough. Peeking around cover is expected, as is blind fire with any weapon. The problem is that the mechanics are hard to pull off, let alone effectively. Cover spots only seem to activate if there's an arrow indicating you can do so, and that arrow often disappears, mostly when you're near the spot. This quirk often makes you retreat and get hit a few times before you can see the arrow and slam your body against the object. Moving from cover spot to spot is also a troublesome affair since it follows the same mechanics, and you'll often leave cover unintentionally when all you wanted to do was vault or find a new spot. With the system being this unreliable, there's a huge temptation to either stay in one spot or rush through it.
The second thing the game gets wrong is the actual co-op, which is much more surprising since that's the title's "hook." Gone are some of the more memorable co-op moves you could make, like going back-to-back for 360-degree fire, taking car doors as impromptu shields, and drawing out fire so your partner can flank. The same goes for dragging a fallen partner to cover or faking surrender to get the drop on an enemy. What you're left with are co-op moves that other games have done for a long time and simplified versions of the series' signature elements.
About the only new element is the Overkill maneuver. Grabbing lots of kills fills up an aggression meter, and a button press brings your soldier into this mode, where you're invincible for a limited time and have an infinite amount of explosive ammo. Both you and your partner have this ability, and any time one of you activates it, the other one gains the same power. You'll have fun with the ability but quickly realize that it makes you too powerful.
Even if you were at peace with the limited moves in co-op, you might not accept the other changes in this category. Unlike the previous titles, there are no competitive modes in The Devil's Cartel. The game is now a purely cooperative experience that's limited to the main story missions and Contracts mode, which consists of small arenas where you get a high score in a limited amount of time. Given the limitations, there isn't much incentive for one to play through the game after beating it once.
If that weren't bad enough, you still have to suffer through the online co-op, which isn't as refined as it should be. There's no drop-in/drop-out co-op, so if you make yourself available for an online match, you'll be met with constant game interruptions from others wanting to play with you. Should you accept the request, you'll be forced to restart the chapter. Likewise, if someone drops out of the game in the middle of a chapter, you'll have to restart it. Luckily, the chapters aren't too long, but the functionality is annoying and discourages anyone from playing alongside random players online.
Despite the two big hooks of the game performing poorly, the basic shooting mechanics aren't that bad. Part of this is attributed to the feel of the guns, which should be nearly perfect by now, and another part of this can be credited to partner AI. Save for a few occasions, your partner rarely gets in the way of your fire, and he seems to be a pretty good shot, taking out a good number of enemies while you're doing the same. He's always around when you fall in combat, and he rarely falls himself, so you don't have to babysit him. You'll likely never have to issue any commands since he already does a good job of anticipating your moves and taking care of himself, a rarity among partner AI in this console generation.
The shooting is helped out by the destruction you can unleash. Similar to games like Battlefield 3 and the Red Faction series, just about everything can be destroyed with amazing detail. Buildings and pillars chip away before being destroyed instead of crumbling with a few shots. Fire actually consumes things, and there are plenty of set pieces that can be decimated. While it doesn't completely change the battlefield with every playthrough, it makes things more dynamic.
The shooting helps offset the basic gameplay flow that has been run into the ground. Just about every level has you walking through quiet hallways or alleyways before dumping you in a room or area where you're swarmed by enemies. Clear out the area, and you'll go through another passageway that leads into another room full of seemingly endless enemies. The action is broken up by either a fixed gun sequence or you manning a weapon with an infinite ammo supply, but the flow follows the same beats.
There are a few other things that The Devil's Cartel manages to muck up. While your partner AI is great, the opposite is true for the enemy AI. Regular soldiers either do their best to rush you, hide in exactly the same spots comrades got killed at, or run into cover that happens to expose themselves to you rather easily. Brute soldiers march slowly toward you, doing a good job of imitating bullet sponges until they die. Speaking of bullet sponges, the regular soldiers you face take in plenty of shots before being downed, something that seems illogical due to many lacking shirts.
The game also has a big problem with load times. Major chapter breaks take quite a while to load up — both with and without the optional installation on the Xbox 360 HDD. This wouldn't have been too bad if the screens had useful tips to impart to the player. Worse yet, the levels often have artificial walls so that the rest of the level could load up. Seeing a message asking you to wait before opening a door is one thing, but seeing an electric blue wall appear in your path for no reason is out of place, since this isn't a sci-fi game but a modern-day shooter. Mistakes like this only degrade the quality of the game instead of offering up a clever solution to a problem.
The only other thing the game does well is the customization, albeit in a limited fashion. Your character always retains the same build and facial structure. The outfits are limited sets with non-interchangeable pieces and the tattoos, and while they're nice, they follow the same principle of not mixing and matching different styles. The weapons offer a little more freedom in customization due to the numerous available skins, and the different attachments can have some statistical benefit.
The masks are where the customization really shines, as you can make your own mask with a variety of colors and shapes, similar to how those pieces are used in something like the Forza Motorsport series. If you don't possess the patience or skill to come up with your own mask designs, you can pick from a variety of pre-made masks. It is a nice addition, though one has to wonder why you'd bother doing something if there's not much of an opportunity for others to view them.
Like the rest of the game, the sound does the bare minimum. As expected, the sounds of gunfire and explosions are especially loud, which is fitting for the series. The music is decent action fare; it isn't too exciting, but it is predictable as it only appears during intense action situations and cut scenes, leaving a good chunk of the game fairly silent when you're walking from hotspot to hotspot. The voice acting is fine, as the voices feel like they match the characters well, though the use of rappers B.o.B. and Big Boi feel like stunt casting since you barely see them in the main game and their lines range from generic to terrible. With each soldier trying to increase the bro attitude, the dialogue becomes tiresome and makes you wish that there would be more attempts to play things straight.
At the very least, the game does well from a graphics standpoint. There's nothing here that can be considered revolutionary, as character models and environments look fine, even though everything seems to be slathered in the usual shades of brown. Animations also look good, and the frame rate is solid despite the number of effects populating the screen. With the game running off of the Frostbite 2 engine, you get an enhanced level of destruction. Columns eventually fall apart as more bullets hit them, and when hit with massive explosions, buildings crumble to pieces instead of as a whole. That element really adds something to the game since the rest looks quite average by today's standards, and you'll often try to shoot at more than enemies just to see things break all around you. On the flipside, you need to install 1.5 GB worth of textures to the hard drive to make it look good, so prepare some room if you want this to look its best.
The best thing that can be said about Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel is that it is competent. The shooting is fine thanks to some good partner AI, and the destruction looks good. The bland characters and presentation are some things you can easily overlook, but the same can't be said for the regression in the cover system and co-op mechanics, both of which stop at the bare minimum. With those hooks failing to be executed properly, it is difficult to recommend this as a purchase even to those who are big fans of the series or genre. If you haven't had the chance to play the first two games, do that instead. If you've already gone through those titles, rent this if you feel like blowing through something disposable for an afternoon.
More articles about Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel