I’m thoroughly under-dressed for the occasion. My partner – whose name is Alpha – is sporting Day-Glo combat threads, a vomit-yellow light machine gun with more accessories than a Bond car and a hockey mask decked with two symmetrical rows of offensive golden teeth. The occasion is murder party. Respect be damned.
The story goes, so I’ve gleaned from my half hour with Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel, that drugs are bad and Cartels too, but dead Cartels are good and exploding graves are even better. The Devil’s Cartel – the third entry in the Army of Two franchise and the first developed by Visceral Games – casts players as one of two personality-starved chappies who go by the names Alpha and Bravo; hulking, faceless dudes clutching guns that boast thrice the character they do thanks to a cavernous and impressive customisation system that lets you tinker with everything from stocks to mags, sights to mounts, muzzles to barrels, bullets, camos, paints and so on. It’s gun-porn, certainly, but there’s something swell about modifying weapons that harks back to the days of Rainbow Six. Everybody can appreciate explosive sniper rifle ammunition, right?
We’ll sweep aside any more story presumptions and assume the full game is a little more rounded. In our demo, the good times kick off in a gloomy graveyard where Cartel Bad Guys are doing drugs or drug deals or something else to do with drugs. Whatever it is, Team America Academy dropouts Alpha and Bravo are having none of it. The pair arrive to the scene a couple of human wrecking balls, dealing death like it were chips in a Vegas casino on a holiday weekend. Limbs soar through the murkiness, tombs crumble with gay abandon and graves explode leaving behind oversized, over-emphasised photographs of the recently deceased. It’s not quite taking its cues from Bulletstorm – and Visceral’s choice to stage the game in the midst of a current and bloody conflict might come back to bite it on the ass – but it’s reasonably amusing, if only for how ludicrous the whole scenario is.
We’ve seen shooters attempt to tackle thorny topics in the past and the usual case is for the story to be a mile apart from the whiz-bang gameplay; relayed through cutscenes and voiceovers set well aside from the mindless action. There’s nothing to suggest The Devil’s Cartel will break that mould or, perhaps even, that the choice of backdrop will have any profound affect on the story at large. This is still a game that conjures an atmosphere somewhere between irreverent and derisible, but it’s certainly an odd decision to locate an Army of Two game somewhere so topical.
Regardless, from a level design perspective The Devil’s Cartel could be staged anywhere on planet Earth or otherwise. Its thinly guised corridors are punctuated with clear arenas and through both your task is to shoot, shoot, shoot. Moment-to-moment play sees you move forward in and out of cover until you arrive at an arena where you shoot more chaps until the goon-tap has been turned off. Then you do it again. And then again.
The cover system is slick, magnetic so you need never fret about slipping out mistakenly, but loose enough that you can zip between cover without a hitch. Shooting feels solid too, if never quite as tactile as something like Gears of War. It’s given a degree of oomph by the aggrandized claret that’s ejaculated from every gore geyser or severed limb. At one stage my partner-in-crime performed impromptu amputation, blowing both legs off a gent with a rifle. It’s silly as all hell, but probably rightfully so being an Army of Two game.
Enemies, meanwhile, boast the gumption of drunken gadflies, darting in and out of cover with little regard for the tide of battle. They storm toward you, peer oafishly over walls and generally don’t make playing Grim Reaper all that challenging, which is good because it’s a hell of a lot more fun embracing the tone of the game and stomping around like John McClane (that’s to say, I didn’t spend much time cowering behind knee-high cover and I got to know the Desert Eagle very well indeed).
What your adversaries lack in smarts they make up for in numbers, and there were times playing where we were clearly being overrun. It’s during these more frantic moments spent hunting for cover like a chicken gone mad with fear that the game’s Overkill mode comes into its own. You earn Overkill through killing and teamwork (headshots, co-op kills, acting as bait and handful or more other factors reward with Overkill). Once the overkill bar is charged, you and your partner are transformed into human T-1000s; invincible and wielding weapons that spit explosive bullets from bottomless magazines. Activating overkill kick-starts a brilliant 30-second stretch that serves to shine light on how irreverent and extravagant the series remains.
Despite the shift in backdrop, new characters, a new developer and a new engine, this still feels very much like an Army of Two game, even if the bromance has been dialled back another couple of notches. It’s probably safe to peg this one as a thunderous, bloody and mindless shooter best enjoyed in the company of others, brains uninvited. I’ll leave you to make of that what you will.
This preview was originally published on Strategy Informer.