Army of Two : The Devil’s Cartel is the third installment in the Army of Two series.  The first two games in the series followed Salem and Rios; two bad@$$ mercenaries who’s entire M.O. was taking names and kicking butt.  And they’re back, sort of, for the third game.  In this entry to the series, we follow Alpha and Bravo, two entirely different team members as the main characters.  Salem and Rios are here and important to the story, but they’re not the characters that the player controls as they move through Mexican drug cartel territory.

For starters, it’s nice to see that the morality system introduced in the second game is gone, long gone.  The morality choices made were arbitrary, shallow and ultimately meant nothing, as your “good” choices still resulted in bad things happening to people.  The aggro system is also a lot less prevalent and clunky mechanics like the mock surrender and dual sniping opportunities are long gone.  All of these subtractions are actually big boons to the game as a whole, making the game a lot less mechanical and much more organic.  Yes, aggro still exists but its more subtle in this one.  Yes, the enemies are going to focus on the person shooting at them because they’re the threat.  But with the elimination of the meter staring in your face, you can move through more naturally, relying more on actual smarts to tell you if the enemy is likely to ignore you.  I even found on occasion that the enemy would run right past me and go attack my partner; apparently failing to recognize me as a threat because I wasn’t actively shooting at that moment.

In fact, I was using the cover system that the game employs to generally good use.  Cover in a shooting game is a wonderful thing and it helps take away the sting of enemy gunfire. Bad pun intended. With The Devil’s Cartel, cover in the game is also more dynamic and natural, adding a nice layer of complexity to the game.  A bunch of abandoned cars in the street might be perfect cover when trying to move up to a building, but if you’re not careful that car you’re hiding behind can become a fiery inferno of death and destruction.  Cars blow up and catch on fire. Flimsy cover can be shot apart, meaning that crates and barrels can be left in shreds, providing no cover. And certain concrete slabs can be blown apart with the right firepower.  Does it make the game harder when trying to find cover? Absolutely.  Does it mean that you can do the same thing to the enemies and destroy their cover right in front of them, leaving them vulnerable to your righteous fury? AB-SO-LUTELY.

The more realistic cover system here is very nice, but it the actual execution of it left a little to be desired.  Cover can be moved to by pointing your reticule at a spot and clicking once a little blue icon appears. Sounds easy enough and generally worked to help the character slid from cover to cover while under fire.  I found on several occasions, however, that my character would choose to slid to cover in such a way that he would be stopped on an obstacle in his way, leaving him vulnerable to damage.  The game simply couldn’t handle moving him to the cover it said was available from my position.  And sometimes a piece of cover that should have been accessible was very difficult to attach to, leaving me running back and forth in front of it until the game would let me use it.  The distance at which you could move to cover was also not always reliable.  And the riot shield which can be used as mobile cover was notoriously difficult to correctly use: when playing with a human partner who was holding it, my guy just didn’t want to stick to his back to use the cover provided.  Considering that the areas we were using the shield in were difficult sections with no other cover, it was very frustrating.

Combat in Devil’s Cartel was generally fun and occasionally exciting, with fairly intelligent enemy AI that made the fights more complex.  At every opportunity they could, the enemies would try to flank me and shoot me from the back and sides.  It meant that I had to be on my toes, making sure that I was taking care of threats appropriately.  However, a few sections in the game took the enemies and started having them maneuver around in very aggravating ways.  Some sections had enemies ambushing from behind because they were jumping over pieces of scenery that weren’t passable to the player.  And the amount of enemies that used grenades was excessively annoying and only got more so as the game progressed.  Dodging one grenade is fine; having three thrown at your face at the same time is not fun, especially when there’s nowhere to run that won’t get you killed anyway.

Adding insult to injury, there are several sections of the game where the players have to stand their ground and defend a position.  The game pulls you into a cut scene and then repositions your characters when it’s over.  I found myself repositioned and facing the entirely wrong way on multiple occasions, leaving me scrambling to get behind appropriate cover.  I resent a game shifting my character into a purposefully incorrect orientation, then throwing lots of machine gun wielding enemies at me.

And speaking of machine guns, boy, were they overly fond of the mounted ones.  It seemed like whenever they wanted to make a segment hard, that was the go-to mechanic. Add a mounted machine gun! Force the players to draw fire and try to flank while dealing with other enemies.  It became old and stale after a while.  Another attempt at increasing the difficulty was with the Brute character, an enemy type that takes massive amount of damage.  Early in the game, it’s easy to confuse Brutes with normal enemies.  And needless to say, while running at a normal enemy and trying to shank them to death will generally work, doing it to a Brute is likely to get you dead.  A little more clarity in the way Brutes were modeled in the first part of the game would be nice.  Because let’s face it, many of the enemies you are fighting are hiding behind cover, running around and shooting at your face.  You catch glancing looks at them.  And at a quick look (which is all you have before needing to react), the Brutes looked like everyone else.

Besides the grenade happy enemies and the excessive use of mounted machine guns, the enemies became more difficulty purely by accident with some of the glitches.  I encountered almost invincible enemies, with people that refused to die after having an entire clip emptied into them at point blank range.  Enemies that looked similar to other people who crumpled after the same treatment.  It may be possible that there was another enemy type that the game didn’t tell me about, but generally speaking when someone isn’t wearing armor and has a whole bunch of machine rounds pumped into their face, they should be pushing daisies.  And I saw some enemies jumping up and down behind cover while in a full standing position.  Hilarious, but very glitch-tastic.

Now it wouldn’t be a shooting game without guns and lots of them, but I found the variety to be a little lacking.  The player is allowed to carry around three guns; a primary, secondary and a sidearm.  The primary and secondary guns can be either an assault rifle, sub machine gun, shotgun or sniper rifle.  Within each of these categories were several weapons to pick from and each of those weapons could be upgraded.  I found that once I’d gotten my hands on a weapon I liked, there was little incentive to purchase and upgrade another.  But to see the difference, I did purchase and buy several of the guns.  And after buying and upgrading a few, I either found that the difference in the guns were so small as to not matter, or that the guns were so inferior to the one I was using that it hadn’t been worth my time or money to buy.  I don’t know if the game simply needed more guns or less options in the customization to make them vary a bit more within each type category.  And I have to say, I miss the ability to upgrade your actual armor, making yourself more resistant to damage.  I was hoping to see that mechanic come back.  Instead, I’m spending my money on custom masks, armor and weapons skins which has no real function except to look cool.

Devil’s Cartel suffered from some player AI issues and glitches as well, that made playing single player  more of a chore than it really needed to be.  Playing the game two player is a wonderful experience; you can talk to your partner, suggest strategy and generally coordinate what you’re going to do.  When I played single player though, I could really feel the lack of a second player that my co-op experience gave me.  Bravo doesn’t always listen very well. Bravo doesn’t always make good combat choices, leaving you to go save his hide when you shouldn’t have to.  Bravo does a decent job of helping you up when you’re down, but maybe if he were a better partner I wouldn’t have gone down.  And Bravo also got stuck behind gates after cut scenes, meaning that I had to restart my game in order to continue.

The general lack of a distinguishable personality in the two main characters is also very disappointing.  It took until almost three quarters of the way through the game before I was able to distinguish which one was talking when they had their moments of banter.  And it took most of the way through the game before that banter approached anything near establishing a personality for the two.  The way they were named is very telling; Alpha and Bravo, first and second player. Nothing more significant than that. They might as well named them Player One and Player Two for all it tells us about the people behind the masks.

And the story itself was shallow and thin.  The big plot twist and the big baddie that’s introduced was very obvious from the beginning.  It wasn’t a surprise and wasn’t really a shock.  And the game developers know it, because Alpha (or is it Bravo?) makes fun of something that pretty much helps give it away.  They knew, we knew and it made the whole thing less dramatic and exciting.

I know that this is an action shooter and the main point is to blow stuff up and kill people.  But without something to distinguish the game and make it stand out, it’s just another generic shooter.  It’s just a lackluster collection of running around, shooting stuff and listening to the characters bro-five each other.  And I think it’s insulting to assume that a game like this only needs some good shooting action.  Did I enjoy myself? Heck yes.  Did I start to feel like I was just doing the exact same thing over and over again? Heck yes.  At a certain point, I was surprised the game wasn’t over yet. I kept waiting to get to the conclusion and the big boss fight at the end.  The game was a good decent length on normal difficulty, but became tedious after a while.

There were some awesomely exciting gun fights and some really cool moments where me and my partner really kicked butt.  But in the long run, I would never turn this game on again just to experience those moments.  This franchise is on the edge of falling completely into obscurity; between constantly changing game mechanics and a lack of real character building.  It has some good potential and generally functions well, but without something to make it more engaging, it’s nothing special.  I can safely suggest this game as a fun experience, but with the caveat that it’s got little to offer beyond mindless shooting.  If that’s what you’re in the mood for, go right ahead.  But that’s the sort of thing you can get in other games that have more dynamic and interesting stories and better characterization.