Mexico, as you know from the stereotypes and clichés perpetuated by countless games, films and TV shows is a place of lawlessness. Criminal gangs, the drug cartels, ruthlessly rule over Mexico’s city streets with an iron fist and a loaded gun. That’s the Mexico we’re presented with in Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel, a game that clings to such stereotypes and clichés like an insecure child to his mother’s apron strings.
Of course there’s a politician involved, one who wants to clean the streets of this criminal underworld – and of course there’s a cartel leader who’s trying to buy said politician, or kill him if his morals are immovable. That’s where our Army of Two comes in. Series stalwarts Salem and Rios have been displaced, assigned to a mentor role to make way for new heroes in the way of Alpha and Bravo, a new set of meatheads with masks who manage to be even more one-dimensional and unrelatable than their forebears. Expect all the character development of your average sea anemone.
Of course one of them’s a stoic, by-the-books kind of guy, while the other is a little more unhinged, favouring reckless abandon. They’re tasked with protecting said politician, and of course it all goes awry. And of course there’s a plot twist, that you’ll probably see coming a mile away.
What follows is seven to ten hours of you and your co-op partner sticking to the third-person shooter template of shooting absolutely everything that moves.
The Army of Two games have never billed themselves as anything more than big, dumb, fun shooters, but The Devil’s Cartel retains only the the first two of those qualifiers. Devoid of that irreverent bombastic, over-the-top, fist-bumping humour and roguish charm, The Devil’s Cartel strips the series down to its fundamentals, revealing a rotten core.
Mindlessly shooting at things can, and should be fun in a game like this, but the actual gameplay mechanics get in the way of it being a good time. It’s a cover-based co-op shooter that features a fussy, almost broken cover system. Contextual cover locations are denoted by a small cover symbol, and the appropriate button slides you to safety. From this bit of respite, you can then line up a symbol on the next bit of cover, with the idea being that you should be able to slip in and out of cover. That would be great, if it worked. Instead, you’ll find yourself frequently dying as you relentlessly bang your knees against yet another conveniently placed wall, absorbing the bullets you’ve been trying desperately to avoid.
Most egregiously, it destroys anything resembling real co-operative play. Gone is the series aggression meter, back-to-back takedown anarchy, co-op sniping, moral quandaries and just about everything that made previous Army of Two games fun, but forgettable co-operative experiences. Instead, the sparse co-op mechanics that are in place; flanking, set-pieces where each character takes on a different section of the level, breaching doors and the like are overused to the point of monotony.
Worse is that for a game billed as having a “very intense co-op campaign,” the co-op system is backwards. There’s no real drop-in, drop-out co-op; bring a partner in and you’ll be sent back to the beginning of the level. They drop out, and you’ll be treated to the same. There’s an attempt to bring in some competitive co-op with an arcade-style scoring system that punctuates each section of level, declaring a “winner” for each area but even that lacks any finesse, or real point. Scoring does unlock new weapons and skins, which ascribes to the Xzibit “Pimp my Ride” school of customisation. Want a flame-embellished, chromed scoped rifle with a laser sight, under-barrel grenade launcher and armour piercing rounds? Sure, why not.
The game’s single saving grace, and the mechanic that will drive you though the tedium is the Overkill mode. Fill up a meter (by what else, shooting people!) and you’ll be able to go in to overkill, unleashing a relentless torrent of explosive gunfire that makes good use of the Frostbite engine’s destructible terrain. There’s a certain fun to be had in absolutely demolishing everything and watching it burn, but that’s about all the fun it’ll deliver.
It’s unfortunate, because like Spec Ops: The Line, Army of Two: the Devil’s Cartel could have served as a deconstruction of its genre, a delightful parody of itself. Instead, it’s an insipid, lifeless and ultimately forgettable shooter; real paint-by-numbers stuff, that’s not explicitly bad, but does nothing to elevate it to being good.