Review: Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel

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If you’ve seen an action movie made since 1990–not a lot of action movies, an action movie–and you saw a poster for a cinematic excursion called The Devil’s Cartel that featured someone with a gun, you would know the main beats of the plot and execution of that movie. Some guy, or small group of guys, are going to go into Mexico to get some MacGuffin, they are going to kill a lot of people in the process and most of those people are going to be covered in gang tattoos, miss the heroes a lot, and scream things in Spanish. Basically it is special forces dudes against raggedy-looking, brown-skinned people armed with machine guns and machetes who are decidedly foreign, criminal and possibly criminally foreign.

Anyone wanting to argue that many games want to imitate Hollywood summer blockbusters can use Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel as a prime example because this is exactly what you think it is. Alpha and Bravo, two new members of the private military company T.W.O., are charged to protect a VIP called Cordova who is wanted dead by a massive drug cartel La Guadana. The motivations for why this criminal enterprise wants this particular politician dead so much that they are willing to thrown hundreds, if not thousands, of foot soldiers into the jaws of Alpha and Bravo’s guns are not fully fleshed out, but they do want him muy muerto. Over a reasonably long campaign that can be played either in single player or with a friend online, the T.W.O. boys will go from point to point clashing heads with the cartel and its primary antagonist named–I swear to Christ–El Diablo. It might be impossible to ask for a more tired setup and villain name which is all executed poorly with many yellings of “We have to get to _______!” and “We gotta take out that ________!”  None of the characters or enemies are even remotely memorable or well acted and the dialogue they blurt out must have been pulled from someone’s final assignment at their screenwriting class “How to Write an Action Movie that Will Release Directly to Redbox and Netflix.”

Anyone that can get past the cookie-cutter setup will find a very solid third-person action game. Aside from a very limited number of times when the T.W.O. split up to kill people in a foreign country on their lonesome, most of the game features both Alpha and Bravo moving in urban environments blasting behind cover together.  Like many third-person shooters that have come since the first Gears of War sold a bunch of copies, the guns for hire will do most of their gunning from behind cover. Cover is not a sanctuary of grace however as most cover spots can be destroyed after a few dozen rounds are shot into them and the enemies will try to toss grenades and flank our beloved, generic mercenaries. But as these same tactics and mechanics can be used on the enemies to great effect, it is possible to prevent being overrun by enemies. Shooting all of the various shotguns, SMGs, LMGs and assault rifles feels responsive and even on the Hard difficulty setting the weapons do a satisfying amount of damage. Except for the mostly heavily armored cartel thugs, most of the enemies take less shot to kill than the playable characters, but not so few as to make everything a cakewalk and not so many as to make the foes seem like little sons of Krypton. Put simply: the shooting feels great.

One really sharp addition to the standard run up stop and pop cover mechanic is the ability to select the next bit of cover from the cover you are in. Hitting the cover button next to a barrel or wall pops the masked merc behind the barrier where he can blind fire and peek out for aimed shots as usual. But he can also look to the next cover he would like to sit behind and a little icon will appear saying that that is a cover spot. Then on hitting the cover button again he will dash to that new piece of cover, usually sliding the last few feet to safety. This automation of the typical roadie run in these sorts of games makes it less likely that the character will get caught in some sort of animation/collision error when dashing and getting stuck on a corner and it makes these dashes for safety and position more dramatic. This was a very smart design decision as players can ignore it and play the old pull out of cover and manually dash way if they want, but probably won’t in the face of the more elegant means of control.

What is not as well done is the explanation of why certain actions are better than others as far as the game is concerned. It is universally accepted in the game that murder is good, but beyond that the game is a mystery. Each kill is awarded a certain amount of points that eventually counts towards what can be bought in the game’s Armory in between missions. Basic death is worth 10 points, headshots are worth a few more points, but then serving as a decoy and flanking are worth far more points and it is never clear what is required to get them. The game’s ideal point combo seems to be one player using a massive machine gun with hundreds of rounds in the clip, blind firing from cover and distracting all of the enemies while the other player sneaks up and kills all the enemies while they are distracted, but nothing communicates this or when enemies are attracted or focused on one player or the other. As a consequence of not knowing what caused more or less arbitrary numbers to be assigned to the killing when the end result is always the same bunch of corpses, the points system seems entirely random and, well, pointless.

The metrics which are never fully explained are used in order to determine what amount of digital cash to spend at the Armory to acquire new guns and looks. New tattoos and costumes and scary masks can be used to make a sustainably impressive gunslinger. Or, if you’re like me and don’t take anything any of the people in the game say seriously, you can dress your hardcore PMC bro in brightly colored fatigues with a smiley face mask. The artistically inclined can even design their own mask designs in the game’s creation tool. It’s just a shame you have to go through all of these customization options to try and inject some character into the game. More meaningful to the action is the ability to buy several different types of guns and modifications for them. Given all of the guns available as well as the host of modifications, it is possible to have thousands of different combinations of firearms available, of which the mercs can equip two and a sidearm.  Even better is the ability to test fire each one of the guns before buying it to see if the reload time and action is up to snuff. The best weapon for the job can then be further modified to make it perfect by adding parts that will subtract from some area but add to another (i.e. more ammo in the clip for longer reloads or quieter bullets with less stopping power or visa versa). It would be possible to go fairly deep into the customization, but it is not necessary to complete the game. And since weapons and ammo can be picked up in the game, it would be entirely possible to run through the adventure without ever buying or customizing anything.

There are not very many set pieces in the game to interact with and the few that do exist are the tried and true “man the turret” sequences players have seen time and time again. In single player mode the AI partner can be ordered to man a turret, pick up a shield or help move the very few pieces of movable cover, but is otherwise just a warm body to liven up the battlefield and get player-controlled Alpha back up if he gets shot enough to go down. The game is forgiving about letting the team members get each other back up if they get shot too many times so long as a grenade or rocket does not explode next to the pair when they are participating in the handshake of life. It would be nice if when Bravo is controlled by AI the player had more control over what guns he used to have a partner to play off of, arming him with a big machine gun so that players could use a complementary sniper rifle to headshot pinned down opposing forces, but he does not seem to change much throughout the game in terms of looks or arms.

Army of Two 3 is not going to win any awards in the graphics category, but it looks fine. The world consists of detailed shanty towns and abandoned buildings that have been taken over by thugs and conveniently have lots of waist high debris strewn about. It is clear where the enemies are coming from based upon muzzle flashes and tracer rounds and grenades give birth to joyous particle explosions. The action only looks impressive when enough Overkill is built up.  Each merc has an Overkill meter that is built up when enemies are ended. When full, Overkill mode can be triggered by one character to have infinite health and ammo for a short period of time, or by both mercs to enter Double Overkill mode while will also grant unlimited health and ammo and also slow the game down and make every bullet explosive. Spraying a machine gun back and forth in this mode, which may happen once a chapter if Overkill is conserved, will cause entire walls to burst into flames temporarily as all enemies and destructible objects are removed from the board. Fun as these omnipotent moments are they do feel very out of place in the otherwise down to Earth, no sci-fi or magic powers shooter. Additionally they are not necessary to complete most sections of the game as even the hairiest fights are manageable without going into what seems like an integrated cheat code option. It is nice eye candy but it feels a bit like giving up whenever I set it off.

I know there are people in 2013 out there with Xbox 360s that do not have a hard drive. What I do not know is how such a person would have made the decisions in their life to reach that point and still come to this site to read up on the third entry in a shooter franchise before deciding to buy or rent it. To those few, or realistically, that person let me say this: buy a hard drive if you want to play this game. The new Army of Two is built on the Frostbite 2 engine which means that in order to see it at its best, not at its muddy worst, a large texture pack must be installed. It is less than two gigabytes and takes about five minutes to install, but the game is essentially unviewable by today’s standards without the installation. Another technical issue is that the game’s cutscenes feature a noticeable amount of graphical tearing. This issue does not occur during gameplay, but it does happen when watching the setup explaining why two people are shooting scarily tattooed, shirtless men from an abandoned gas station.

This game would be easier to recommend if it had some sort of spawn installation feature that allowed anyone that bought the game to give a friend a code or somehow let them install the game to their hard drive but could only play the game with the purchaser. The game is very clearly meant to be played co-op and given the solid action it is a blast to play, online or otherwise, but two people paying sixty dollars each for this game is nuts. One would think that to build an online community or to get consumers to play their game in the way it was meant to be played, Electronic Arts would take a step necessary to make that easier for consumers. If you and a friend could play through the campaign once or twice for sixty bucks, absolutely this game would be a fun game for a month or two. But you can’t spawn install, this isn’t Starcraft One, its story falls flat, a pair of dudes will need two copies to play together on different TVs, and so it’s hard to recommend to all but the most diehard shooter fans. Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel is a fine action game but its throwaway cast and bland setting turn what could have been a great game into a forgettable distraction.

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Pros:
+ Fun, cover based shooting
+ A lot of customization options
+ If you’ve got a dorm mate, you’ve got split screen

Cons:
– Horrible story and characters
– Not much reason to replay
– Few people playing online

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on Xbox 360, also available for PS3
Publisher: EA
Developer: Visceral Montreal
Release Date: 3/26/2013
Genre: Action
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-2 (split-screen and online)
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.