Army Of Two: The Devil’s Cartel Review
There’s a videogame first that happens in Army Of Two: The Devil’s Cartel, which we’re pretty sure shouldn’t happen in a game that’s entirely devoted to Shooting Things. And that thing is this – shooting the environments is more fun than shooting the generic bad guys. Far more fun.
It’s not that the shooting is bad, per se. Like previous outings in the series, Army Of Two: The Devil’s Cartel sees you and a partner team up to work your way through streets of endless bad guys, who are armed with guns, grenades and AI that means they never quite learn to keep their heads fully tucked behind cover when they’re not firing back.
You’re now playing as Alpha and Bravo, who replace Salem and Rios. Alpha and Bravo still suffer from the same verbal diarrhea that plagued the previous duo, as though the biggest threat they face on a mission is an awkward silence. And yes, the dialogue will still make you cringe. Alpha and Bravo no longer high-five each other or play air guitar after murdering an entire drug cartel though, so there is that.
Army Of Two Working Together (Sort Of)
The idea is that you work in tandem with your partner, one of you drawing fire while the other flanks around the threats to take them out. This works best when the map design forces it through split pathways or obvious side-routes that offer new angles to shoot back. It’s not a revolutionary or new idea any more but when it works, it still feels fresh and interesting enough that it engages you.
The key part being ‘when it works’. More often than not, the map design is messy and confusing to the point that it’s hard to really lock down any sort of tactic beyond surviving and fighting back. When The Devil’s Cartel moves from narrow streets into more open areas, threats appear all around you and it’s hard enough to figure out which bit of cover is safest, let alone how to initiate any fire-and-flank tactics.
This doesn’t make The Devil’s Cartel difficult, as it’s surprisingly generous with how many shots you can take before you have to be revived. It’s more that when you’re shot at from all directions, working in tandem with your partner is the first thing to suffer and when that disappears, the action feels clumsy. It happens surprisingly often for a game where co-op play is the main calling card.
What makes things worse is the cover system. You look at cover, a small cover symbol appears and you hit the appropriate button to begin an animation to slide towards safety. From here, you can then line up a symbol on the next bit of cover, the idea being that you spring from cover to cover without breaking a sweat.
Again, this works best on narrow streets when you have time to ‘aim’ where the cover symbol will appear and all the angles of cover ahead of you are flat. In wide-open areas, as you’re panicking under fire from all directions, it’s too easy to accidentally select the side of the cover you wanted rather than behind it simply because you didn’t have time to fine-tune the aim on where you wanted to go. Then there’s the additional panic of cancelling the run-to-cover animation – do I press the cover button again? Do I hold back? – followed by further panic when you successfully and unexpectedly cancel the automatic spring, leading to you standing upright in a hail of gunfire.
It’s not exactly elegant and it’s a cover system you’ll spend most of the game wrestling with. As a result, you’ll find one spot of cover and stick to it rather than engaging with the game’s cover-to-cover mechanic, just to avoid the frequent mishaps when something goes wrong.
The Devil’s Cartel High Scores
Still, what’s important is that in a game where you’re either shooting or moving to the next location where you’ll be shooting, The Devil’s Cartel offers a punchy sense of feedback across all the weapons – the sound, the recoil, the animation of hit soldiers, the ragdoll effects, everything comes together to make your arsenal of weaponry surprisingly potent.
Score bonuses also reinforce the sense of feedback. Flanking enemies, headshots and shooting the same grunt as your partner are a few of the examples that award you points and encourage you to play in a different way that aiming in the general direction of distant movement and squeezing the trigger.
Some score bonuses serve as unintended rewards than a pat on the back – “SURPRISE! 25 points. DECOY! 25 points.” – but even so, they all contribute towards your Overkill meter, which slowly fills up.
Then you activate Overkill and everything changes.
Shooting The Environments > Shooting The Bad Guys
Score enough points between both players and you unlock Overkill, which temporarily awards you invincibility, infinite ammo and a new destructive tint to the weapon you’re holding. Watching the scenery crumble and shatter under your new-found strength is empowering in a way that most shooters fail to achieve, possibly because so few of them put attention in that sort of area and rarely do they do it so well. It’s why shooting the environments is more fun than shooting bad guys.
It’s a thrill that never really gets old and will justify unwarranted use of Overkill at the least appropriate times. There’s one guard left and you shouldn’t really use Overkill… but look at all the untouched scenery behind him! Activate Overkill. Watch bullets fizz off metal, cover splinter and crack, walls spit out concrete chunks.
It’s something that Visceral has clearly cottoned onto during development, because there are plenty of environment targets sprinkled around each mission, daring you to attack it with an Overkill onslaught. It starts with explosive barrels and oil tanks moves onto fireworks and toppling water tanks as you race through town firing a mounted machine-gun at anything that looks like it will react to your gunfire.
It’s a surprise that shooting at environments should be as engaging and thrilling as it is in The Devil’s Cartel but it’s not the biggest surprise here.
The Devil Cartel’s Co-Op Fail
The biggest surprise is how poorly online co-op is implemented, given that’s the entire reason for this game – this series, even – existing in the first place.
It’s not drop-in drop-out co-op. Well, you can drop out without any problems, so that’s half the problem solved, we suppose. But drop in? When a player wants to join your game, you’re asked if you want to allow him in (yes, fine) and then you’re warned that doing so will boot you back to the start of the chapter (wait, what?).
Co-op is supposed to be Army of Two’s speciality, the one thing it does right, and this clunky design feels like a 2008 throwback when co-op was a new and wonderful thing developers were trying out for the first time. Army Of Two has had three games to get this right. That it hasn’t managed to do so is bizarre.
Are You Human?
That in itself would be forgivable if playing alongside a human partner had some sort of impact on the gameplay itself but again, The Devil’s Cartel comes up short. There’s no indication that you’re playing with a human player rather than an AI bot once both players are locked in, which makes the co-op experience feel bland. Customisation is one of two things that separates a human Alpha or Bravo from an AI partner and even then, mask and weapon aside, it’s simply one set of drab mercenary uniform replaced by another.
The only other indicator of a human player is the occasional splash of head-smacking behaviour, such as the player who charges headfirst into a throng of enemies and then screams slurs at you until you revive his fallen body.
Each completed mission shows you a small table comparing stats in different areas and which player ‘won’ the mission but it’s too understated and impersonal to matter. Having a scoring mechanic like that prominent and in your face during the game itself might encourage a sense of competition, a tug-of-war between the players as they hunt down the last few soldiers to grab vital points. As it is, it’s too easy to ignore.
The end result is that playing with another player isn’t really different enough to playing with an AI bot and at times, is actually more inconvenient than going through campaign alone. It’s not a problem if you have friends planning on picking the game up as well but it is a clear issue if you were planning on playing with random players online, which will be an inevitable state of affairs when your friends move on or if you come to this game later in its life.
There are a lot of faults here – the messy map design, the awkward cover system, the surprising co-op fumble – but Army Of Two: The Devil’s Cartel manages to make its core action of shooting things engaging and fun, and that’s what will pull you through the game.
It’s not the co-op that makes The Devil’s Cartel unique in any way but rather, the destructive environments, which explode and shatter in a way that will leave even Battlefield fans nodding their heads with approval. It’s a shame that beyond the shooting that The Devil’s Cartel comes up short in almost every other area, leaving this as yet another fun but flawed outing in the Army Of Two series.
Version Tested: Xbox 360