It’s roughly thirty minutes into the seven hour campaign before you realise that Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel isn’t actually very good. Newbies to the franchise will find the slick opening thrilling, as it sets up the main plot of rescuing a kidnapped Mexican politician whilst simultaneously introducing us to the two new protagonists: Alpha and Bravo. Their origin story, set five years earlier, concisely outlines the reasons for making Salem and Rios (from the first two instalments) bit-part characters. The lushly drawn environments make an exciting canvas on which the smartly animated duo let loose with all manner of weaponry. The Frostbite 2 engine expertly renders the damage inflicted by bullets as pillars crumble, cars explode and crates are reduced to splinters. There’s even a point where the script makes a comment about exploding red barrels in video games, planting the idea that we may be taken on a Whedonesque journey of sassy asides and deadpan self-reference.
Then something unexpected happens. After the initial impact, the glitz and sheen become more obviously superficial and the game loses its footing. As you move from area to area and from cover to cover the same waves of suicidal opponents queue up to get shot. The titular cartel is vast and comprises hundreds of enemies but they’re fairly indistinct. Influences from other games aren’t so much hinted at as stolen in their entirety and put into play. Whether it’s the super-armoured Grunts who can take more damage than your standard foe, the Call of Duty slow-motion breaches and aerial cover segments, the regenerating health or the AI which offers bulk but no smarts, it all feels too familiar.
Cover-based shooters are a divisive breed and if you’re not a fan of the Gears of War series then Army of Two certainly won’t endear itself to you. It’s safe to say that when a game mechanic such as cover forms the lynchpin of the gameplay, it needs to be spot on and co-developers EA Montreal and Visceral have dropped the ball here. Moving between points is done with a button press and works well, but the problems start when you’re actually in cover. You’re glued to whatever pillar or wall you happen to be hiding behind and trying to move away from that spot in a hurry (for instance, when a grenade is thrown your way) is far more fraught than it should be thanks to unresponsive controls and the lack of a roll ability. Similarly, twisting around to try and see who is shooting you from the side pulls you out of cover and leaves you exposed. It’s an all-or-nothing approach that is manageable when enemies are in front of you but becomes tiresome as you progress and foes start appearing from all sides, including behind you.
Other than the standard run-and-gun mechanics, you’re granted two extra tools to help with the onslaught. TWO Vision is activated by the Back button and highlights any weapons and ammo in the field as well as suggesting possible routes to take. The environments are cluttered enough to make the first function work well, but the route-finder is little more than a gimmick. With enemies constantly flanking you, a single path is unlikely to be much use and you’ll rely on running between cover yourself depending on where you’re being shot from.
The other feature is Overkill, which makes a return from the first game in the series. As your kills rack up, a meter is slowly filled. Tapping the left bumper once it’s full will grant you and your partner invulnerability and extra damage for a short time, as well as infinite ammo and grenades. Time it to coincide with your partner’s activation and you’ll enter Double Overkill which is a slow-motion version of the same mode, allowing you to wreak significant damage on the environment and your enemies. However, thanks to the stupidity of your foes you’ll only really need to use it to take out Grunts or for respite when you’re nearing death. Your partner’s AI is better, healing you when you’re taken down and providing decent support throughout the game.
Each sub-chapter of a level flashes up a scoreboard on completion, showing you how much cash you’ve made. This is accumulated through variations on kills, with co-op and flanked kills netting you more than a standard shotgun to the chest. The Armory is where you’ll spend your money, but despite a good selection of weapons ranging from shotguns and assault rifles to machine guns and sniper rifles, the variations on each rarely feel like you’re using anything different. You have the option to modify guns to improve accuracy, damage, clip size and so on, but ultimately it doesn’t seem to be noticeably different in-game. More superfluous window dressing comes in the form of different masks, gear and tattoos which let you customise your character.
Presumably the shiny trinkets were meant to help distinguish players online but competitive multiplayer from the first two games has been jettisoned, leaving just local and online co-op as alternatives to the single-player campaign. The problem with restricting the available modes is that the co-op is ultimately unnecessary, since other than boosting your buddy over walls or covering each other in a handful of mounted gun scenarios, you will rarely interact. This, alongside the game’s insistence on splitting you up on a number of occasions to shake things up a bit, limits the fun you’ll have. The co-op experience is not that far removed from being a single-player campaign with two people who happen to share the same game environment. For a co-op game, that should ring all sorts of alarm bells.
Fundamentally though, the biggest criticism of the game comes down to how utterly tedious and derivative it is. There is nothing in The Devil’s Cartel that hasn’t been done before, and better, by other games. At one point in the game, one of the characters remarks, “Careful, man. You’re starting to grow a personality.” It’s a threat that is sadly never carried out. As polished as the exterior is, it can’t hide the fact that you’re mowing down the same waves of enemies in the same formation or completing the same melee quick-time event for the twentieth time. Nor do the varying environments provide anything other than the same four enemies - Grunts, snipers, RPGs and standard fodder. Decent weather effects are countered by barbed wire that is left with bullet hole marks where you shoot it and invisible walls which prevent you progressing until the next map section loads.
Gears of War may have its detractors, but whilst it opted for over-the-top machismo and a sci-fi setting, The Devil’s Cartel offers an approximation of banter between its two leads and a plot that is squandered after a promising start. Worse still, ludicrous plot twists are thrown into the mix late on which will both confuse and annoy Army of Two veterans. The series wasn’t known for its subtlety but it did have its moments. Here it’s been reduced to toilet humour and a character repeatedly shouting “BOOM! Headshot!” without any hint of irony. Whilst not a bad game by any means, it certainly doesn’t aspire to be anything other than a mediocre shooter which soon outstays its welcome. A further sequel is threatened during the credit roll, but on the basis of this instalment it might be wiser to hang up the masks and put the franchise quietly to bed.