Back in 2008, the video game landscape was changing. No longer was a decent single player experience good enough for the gamer holding the purse strings, instead the demand was high for as good a multiplayer element as it was for any solo campaign, setting developers a tough task.
One idea many developers utilised was to make the campaign itself multiplayer by introducing co-op. Gears Of War was already setting the standard for such a social gameplay element, and Halo was soon to follow suit so Electronic Arts chose to jump on the bandwagon, the result of which was Army Of Two. Telling the tale of mercenaries Salem and Rios, the game saw you undertake objectives which relied entirely on your ability to co-operate, celebrating each boss take down with ridiculous amounts of air-guitaring and high-fiving. A wise-cracking macho load of old posturing nonsense with mildly flawed AI if playing solo, the game was, nevertheless, huge fun and sold enough to warrant a sequel.
The 40th Day built on the successful formula, making everything bigger and louder, adding morality moments to choose between and a greater sense of scenic destructibility. Moving away from the Afghanistan conflict, the game took in the sights and sounds of Shanghai but still kept with the terrorism theme. The cover system was improved (hiding behind a dead rhino in the zoo level being a particular highlight) and the game delivered a decent story which expanded the AOT universe, leading us nicely to today and the third game in the series, The Devil’s Cartel.
Perhaps concerned that doing the ‘global terror nutjob’ thing was stepping on Call Of Duty’s toes a little too much, this third game in the series is a far more localised effort. Taking place in Mexico, the game moves away from Salem and Rios and focuses on two Trans World Operations (see what they did there?) agents, Alpha and Bravo as they attempt to take down the deadly drug cartel La Guadana.
The original characters do still feature in the game, and the crazy masks are all present and correct, but there is a lot less of the over-the-top machismo, preferring to leave the banter to a few post-firefight wise-cracks. It seems a shame to have the original characters sidelined in this way, especially in the first three quarters of the game, and to not build up any sort of back story for the new playable heroes (other than one has ‘a girl’ back home, yawn) is a touch odd, but at the end of the day this is a game about destruction on an epic scale and that’s one way in which it truly delivers.
Despite the reliance on cover-based shooting, you never feel 100% safe behind your crumbling position and coupled with your enemy’s unerring accuracy with grenades, this adds a huge amount of tension to proceedings. You’re aided throughout by the returning Overkill system which turns you invincible and increases the power of your bullets for a short time, but with both yourself and your partner able to trigger this ability, it does make things a little too easy at times, even if it is fun to destroy reams of scenery in one ridiculously fiery 30 second burst.
The scoring system will also probably divide people, as the game splits itself into 50-odd sections, interspersed with brief ‘how many kills did you get’ calculations. Personally, I preferred these short interludes as an opportunity to reset my weaponry and buy new gear, and they do a good job of getting rid of chunky loading times completely, but it’s never abundantly clear how to get the big, big points or how you will be rewarded for obtaining them.
As for the setting, Mexico is really pretty in all its HD glory but it also seems to be a heck of a desolate place. You don’t come across any locals other than those who want to shoot your brains out (and even they all look pretty similar) and although the game looks very good graphically, it does all feel a bit done to death in the shooter genre, with the traditional quarries, mansions, churches and inner city slums all playing a part in the story.
The third game in the AOT series also feels a lot more stripped down than previous instalments. On my play through I didn’t control any vehicles, instead I only had the option to man helicopter machine guns or occasionally jump on the back of a truck to decimate small armies. These sections were still enjoyable, if mindless, but the lack of variety and linearity to the levels will challenge those used to choosing your own way through a game.
It’s probably in this mindlessness that The Devil’s Cartel lets itself down the most. I’m not a huge fan of strategy titles but the first two games in the series did at least make you use simple decisioning to get through most levels. This time out, it’s generally enough just to shoot everything in sight with little consideration for how to flank shielded foes or use your ally intelligently. The ability to team up behind a single shield is still there, but I only realised this right at the end in a set-piece that gave me no other choice.
There were also a couple of major glitches which required either a complete Xbox reboot or at least a trip back to the not-that-recent previous checkpoint, all of which should really have been patched a couple of months as it is after release. Moving from cover to cover is also frustrating on occasion, with the complete lack of ability for your character to roll or jump almost heresy in this day and age.
Yes, it is possible to rattle through The Devil’s Cartel in a day or two, but after the initial realisation that you’re just going to be shooting bandana man and cowboy hat man (oh, and the odd bulletproof vest man) for a few hours, the game is actually fun. The story is a little cliched but still takes the franchise further and there is more to it than just taking down a generic Mexican drug lord, but I’ll leave it spoiler-free for now. The shooting itself is solid, despite the customisable weaponry being a little soulless, and the explosions can be absolutely joyful to witness. Plus let’s face it, if you’re a fan of the franchise, you know exactly what you’re letting yourself in for.
Army Of Two: The Devil’s Cartel may set its own universe on fire frequently but it wont do the same to the real world. Nevertheless, this is still a solid enough addition to the franchise, staying just about fun and brash enough to stand toe-to-toe with its rivals. Next time out though, EA are going to have to come up with something a bit more special or it’ll be over and out from the masked marauders once and for all.