The Devil's Cartel proves that the power of co-op can heal many things.
I remember my excitement when the Army of TWO franchise was first announced years ago at E3 (2007 I believe). It was a great concept, and the fact that it not only supported co-op play but was built around it, including split-screen support, was great. The end result was a very good game when played with a buddy. The sequel, The 40th Day, improved upon the experience, but still made you feel like there was a lot of room for improvement. I had high hopes for Army of TWO The Devil's Cartel (AoT3) being that sort of 'third time's the charm' release, but it just isn't. The disappointment aside, it's still a fun game with high replay value.
So the story takes place in Mexico. A dedicated and passionate mayor in the town of La Puerta named Cordova is intent on breaking up the cartels to bring hope and prosperity back to his town. His nemesis, Esteban Bautista, head of the incredibly massive drug cartel known as the La Guadana, wants to turn Cordova corrupt so that he continue his empire unfettered. TWO, the merc group that series veterans Salem and Rios work for, are tasked with protecting Cordova, but that quickly goes wrong when he's captured. Interestingly, Salem and Rios are not playable in AoT3, but they are a huge part of the story, and in ways that may surprise you.
After a short introduction, the story goes back five years to explain some key parts in the history of Salem, Rios, and the new duo, Alpha and Bravo, who are the playable characters in AoT3. A very brief explanation of another key NPC is also given before the action returns to the present day crime-ridden town of La Puerta. The story is largely forgettable, honestly. Played on Normal with the AI as my partner, I completed the dozen or so chapters (split into fifty stages) in roughly eight hours. The entire time, Alpha and Bravo are pursuing one NPC or another -- Cordova, Fiona, Bautista, his right hand butcher enforcer, other previously unannounced TWO members -- and you may roll your eyes a time or two when you see them get so close, yet come up just short yet again. The story gives ample opportunity for disappointment, both in how generic it is and with some real facepalm moments, especially at the end.
Of course, you're not playing the AoT games for their story -- it's all about the customization and co-op action, which Devil's Cartel handles nicely. Being mercs, Alpha and Bravo receive funds based on performance. To move up the ranks (there are twenty-five, each with a name like Senior Operative, Veteran Operative, etc), you have to earn money. Playing through the campaign, I unlocked almost seventeen of the available twenty-five levels. Each new level unlocks access to something new, although not necessarily interesting. These include the ability to purchase new weapons, arm tattoos, cloths, masks, and weapon upgrades. Only the weapons and their upgrades make an actual gameplay difference, but the tats, masks, and clothes do at least give you a sense of expression in online play. On that note, I found the desert mask and weapon paint themes to be my favorite. I used the desert camo scheme for most of the game (which fits the dusty, beige and brown environments of the game nicely) and later switched to the desert digital schemes when they were unlocked.
Visual customizations are nice, but the weapons and their upgrades do the talking, so to speak. Plenty of weapons are at your disposal too; you'll carry a Primary, Secondary, and Sidearm, with types including SMG, LMG, Sniper, Assault, and Shotgun. Weapon upgrades include changes to your muzzle, stock, magazine, rails, and other goodies that effect stats like mobility, reload time, magazine capacity, damage, aggro, and accuracy. Somewhere around the halfway point of the game I had a fully tricked out BR-12 (similar to a FN FAL) and a S-12 (semi-auto combat shotgun) with a P226. I was set; despite unlocking additional weapons, I never felt the need to change, even with other weapons being unlocked for purchase and my available funds continually increasing, but it was nice to have the option.
The co-op gameplay is largely unchanged from what I remember from the previous two games, but AoT3 does include Overkill and TWO vision. I found TWO vision not all that useful, nor used in the online games I played. It's meant to help players communicate by highlighting cover positions, weapons, and enemies on screen, but eh, it's really an unnecessary feature in my experience. Overkill, and Double Overkill, is pretty amazing though. As you battle, a meter fills up that can then be activated by pressing L2 when it's full. Your partner is building up their meter at the same time. When in Overkill mode, the game-world slows down, Alpha and Bravo are invincible, and ammo (including grenades) are unlimited; hell, you don't even stop to reload. Each player can start Overkill at their discretion, but if you launch Overkill together, even more damage is dealt. This ability makes it almost too easy to take out Brutes and enemy vehicles, but it's more of a positive to the game than a negative. It's also handy to use whenever you need to buy a little time to get over to your partner to insta-heal them. Step jumps, pushing objects together, using riot shields, and breaching doors are all back from the previous games.
A handful (less than ten) times during the game, Alpha has to decide which route to take, leaving Bravo to do the other path. One example would be Alpha choosing to take a ride in a TWO helicopter to provide cover fire while Bravo stays on the ground to smoke out RPG enemies. There are also opportunities, not that many though, where Alpha and Bravo can briefly split up in a pretty significant way for a short period. This is helpful for flanking and a little variety. Each player has a good amount of freedom, but should either partner die, it's game over (turns out this is pretty hard to do with both the friendly AI and an average online player). There are also regular 'reconvergence' points where both players have to be present at the same time for the story to continue. Sometimes these points are the end of a stage or section, whichever term you prefer. At this points, you can change your loadout, mask, upgrades, and so on. When you come back, your ammo and grenade supply is magically full again.
Customization and co-op play are two defining gameplay elements of AoT, but let's not forget cover. Moving between cover and firing from behind cover is just as vital a part of the experience in AoT3 as it was with the previous two. The cover system works well enough, but it's a little quirky. You can only truly enter cover by pressing X when an on-screen prompt appears. Often, numerous cover prompts pop-up on screen as the range for you to see and activate these prompts is rather far-reaching. Many covers can be shot through, so you have to take into consideration what it is you're ducking behind. Enemies have the same problem, and one of the more satisfying but not overly common things to do is blast through an enemy's cover rather than waiting for him to pop out of it or flank him. Most cover can be vaulted over, and you can move between adjacent cover spots easily by pressing in the direction you want to go and then activating the prompt that appears. This is very helpful to get a better shooting angle and to escape grenades since there is no way to roll away and running is kind of clunky.
For the most part, AoT3 gets the core gameplay elements and mechanics the series is known for done up proper. But, besides the story issues mentioned earlier, there are several other points of concern. First, you just have to take this game for what it is, and that's something I realized a few hours in. This is not a polished AAA experience, it's a launchpad for some fun co-op run-and-gun sessions. Ultimately, the fun factor overshadows a lot of the game's flaws, which is something I would say for the first two games as well. That's why I feel like AoT3 should have been more and turned that corner to where the quality of rest of the game catches up to the amount of fun.
As is, the level design is very linear and often boring. Some areas bring in a 'vertical game' where you have enemies above or below you, not just on the same plane as you. That adds a little bit of spice, as do the set pieces with vehicles or mounted machine guns, but those aren't as exciting as they were ten years ago, right? How about massive, standout red propane and fuel barrels all over the place, just waiting to be blasted as enemy after enemy uses them for cover? I think every doorway in the game, when stepped through, resulted in about a two second decision as to what direction Alpha and Bravo had to go. That is, you would step through a door, look left or right, see that there was some pile of debris or something, and you knew instantly that what looked like a possible multi-route path was instantly dropped down to one, linear route. There's never a question about which direction your going (partly due to the ever-present objective marker), no reasons to explore, and more than a few areas feel too much like another area you've already blasted through. I think the game could have benefited from more set-pieces and interactive objects. As it stands, it's one of the most A to B linear shooters I have played.
Enemy AI takes an uninspired, cheap route out as well. The phrase 'quantity over quality' explains it. Waves upon waves of dumb, repetitive enemies do not carry the same merit as more deadly and interesting enemies would have. Then again this is essentially a two player Rambo game, so you have to have to have the massive quantity of enemies I suppose. More variety, not only in appearance, but in tactics and characteristics, would have gone a long way. I'm not saying I have all of the solutions, but for a third outing, it would have been really great to see more creativity all around. At least Bravo does very well for himself in single player -- only a few times did I have to worry about him getting mortally wounded and lesser still were the amount of times he got stuck or didn't heal me.
A third area of concern is a little less 'wide' in scope, but noteworthy nonetheless, are a some things that demonstrated a lack of polish. At one point, there was an enemy perched above with an RPG. I spotted him at range, and proceeded to light him up, and blood appeared as expected. Despite appearing to take damage, he wasn't actually taking any. Turns out, I had to walk a little closer for his HP meter to "kick-in." That sort of game-breaking moment doesn't ruin the experience, but it does compound some of the negative sentiments I have about AoT3. Other lesser examples include enemies disappearing as soon as I crossed a checkpoint, and how Alpha or Bravo auto-healed despite being mortally wounded during the final boss fight after simultaneously reaching a particular scripted checkpoint.
AoT3's flaws are not just contained to gameplay problems, though. The presentation has negatives of its own, and yes, positives as well. On the positive side, I had no framerate issues, the variety of visual customizations is very nice, the destruction of some parts of the environment during a firefight is cool, and there are a few (literally) briefly interesting areas. On the flip side, the graphics are flat and repetitive. Part of that may be due to the fact that the entire game takes place in La Puerta. You'll visit a church, graveyard, a massive house, mines, a pot-growing warehouse, and plenty of back streets and alleys. Colors range from beige and brown to gray, with honestly not a hell of a lot of variety in between. There are probably about ten different looking enemies, or at least it felt like maybe that much, so expect to see the same dudes over and over again. And as alluded to earlier, the screen or HUD is littered with prompts and messages. The objective messages are often completely useless; how about pro-tips like "Proceed to the next area" or "Clear out the Cartel," for example. One part oddly enough pops up both "Find Fiona" and a second later "Locate Fiona" -- that goes back to the lack of polish I was talking about earlier. Dropped weapons and ammo are a shiny blue, the yellow objective marker is ever-present as is the "B" marker to show where Bravo is, and all of the cover markers, along with the constant stream of kill messages, is a bit much I thought, not to mention TWO Vision if you use it. I'm more of a "don't use visual cues too much to remind me it's a game" type of gamer, but nothing about AoT3 is meant to be discreet.
Furthermore, blood and gore effects look like something out of a bad B movie and instead of possibly making a statement about the grit and intensity of the game, serve only to make it feel rushed and careless (even if only in a minor way). Cutscenes, like the rest of the visual presentation, gets the job done, but not in impressive or memorable fashion. The audio package is similarly more about function than being something special. The soundtrack, absent much of the time, contains few tracks, none of them outstanding. Voiceovers are ok, but the dialogue is grating and, like much of the story, encourages some eye-rolling and facepalming. Effects are pretty good, with a decent aural punch coming out of the constant explosions and gun-fire.
Online play works well once you're in a game in my experience. You can either host or find a game to join. In hosting, you can only select story missions that you have unlocked already, plus your current Level is whatever it is from the story. It makes plenty of sense to play through the story either by yourself or with someone that wants to play it through in order. Alternatively, you can hop into someone else's game if they'll allow it. You can peruse available games to see the player's name and what map they're playing. If you select to join, you might get in, or you will get an error message like "session full," "host refused," or "time out." Despite being a solely co-op game, after each stage, a Best Team Player is determined by a simple system that takes into account five criteria including Deaths, Heals, Baits, Decoys, Saviours. The screen following this shows you your spot on the leaderboard based on how fast the stage was completed and money earned during that stage. The host plays Alpha, and thus determines which path you will take as Bravo in the eight or so times that a decision prompt appears. He can also skip cutscenes and pause the game should he choose to.
With that, let's get to the summary...