People sometimes ask me if it's hard to write about the really bad games. It isn't. Those are the easiest to write about, as their obvious flaws create a natural shape for the review and demand to be explored. No, the hardest games to review are games like Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel. Games about which there is almost literally nothing to say. This is gaming as a plain cheese sandwich; blockbuster action as supermarket muzak.
It has always been thus. Army of Two is a franchise that has made its way to three games without generating much passion, urgency or momentum. Gameplay is functional but, after the passably decent first game, no extra effort has been spent to give the series anything that might resemble a personality of its own. Beefy men in hockey masks shoot hundreds of bad guys across hundreds of rubble-strewn courtyards, drop a few macho quips, then stomp off to the next shoot-out. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
There can be entertainment in such a well worn template, and The Devil's Cartel sticks so slavishly to what's expected that it can't help but deliver basic point-and-shoot amusement. Yet despite explosions and headshots and bloody melee kills galore, it never musters enough energy or character to pull you all the way in. It's the world's most violent interactive screensaver.
This lack of ambition and drive is most keenly felt in the story, strangely enough, as it's here that the game is at least trying to shake things up. Regular series heroes Rios and Salem are sidelined, reduced to a mentoring role for new mercenary bruisers Alpha and Bravo. They're as bland and anonymous as their names suggest, and since they're functionally identical to the meatheads that preceded them, it's a curiously pointless decision.
Pointless, that is, until a couple of almost worthwhile plot twists put a new spin on things. There's a flicker of life in the game when these moments occur, but they depend on us caring about the wafer-thin Army of Two story so far and investing in characters that are little more than action-movie cyphers. Those flickers of life, welcome as they are, can't flesh out this join-the-dots game.
The story this time takes us to Mexico, where the real-life carnage inflicted by drug cartels is used as a backdrop for more cartoon violence. The setting offers a few interesting locations - the Day of the Dead carnival, for example - but it quickly becomes spicy wallpaper against which the flavourless white bread action takes place. Mostly, you'll know you're in Mexico because of the constant stream of cheesy hombres malos who come running towards you with their do-rags, tattoos and dirty jeans.
The emphasis is still very much on co-operative play, but almost every interesting two-player interaction from the previous games has been been ditched. There's no mock surrender, no tag-and-snipe, no back-to-back takedowns, no hostage grabbing or using the environment to create shields. You move, you shoot. Your partner does the same. Basic orders can be given, but are rarely needed.
There is a scoring system based on how well you work with your partner, but it doesn't hold up to scrutiny. A basic kill will earn you $10 in the game's monetary XP system. A flanked kill, however, is worth $75. Also worthy of a bonus are surprise kills, acting as a distraction and combining your efforts to take down the same enemy. However, the way the game works out these bonuses is often inexplicable, awarding you high scores for things you didn't even know you were doing. An enemy can come dashing towards you, engage in a prolonged melee tussle, and when he goes down you get a "surprise kill" bonus. Before long, you stop trying to play clever with tactics and just do whatever works. That, ironically, tends to lead to much better scores.
It could almost be a brutal parody of modern action gaming - if it wasn't played so straight
The game's sole bright spot is Overkill. As you mow your way through the hordes of villains, you're filling an Overkill gauge. Once full, you can activate this and become an Arnie-esque killing machine. You're invulnerable, you have infinite ammo, your shots do ludicrous damage and time slows down. There are even two layers of Overkill, one solo layer that only effects you, and a team Overkill that applies the effect to both players. Activate both at the same time and the result is insanely explosive, as you demolish everything in your path in an orgy of particle effects.
Those moments are hilariously over the top, and get maximum bang from the Frostbite 2 engine as scenery gets turned into shrapnel. It's not an original idea, but it is the only thing that elevates The Devil's Cartel to the sort of hyperactive level of mayhem that it needs.
Those bursts of manic destruction stand in stark contrast to the derivative ideas dusted off elsewhere. You'll take control of a mounted gun on a helicopter more than once. You'll shoot from the back of a speeding truck at pursuing vehicles that flip and explode at the slightest provocation. You'll be glued to a sniper scope to provide cover for tiny characters in the distance. It could almost be a brutal parody of modern action gaming - if it wasn't played so straight.
On a technical level, the game feels like an unloved obligation rather than a passion project, and irritating bugs and glitches abound. Cover is sticky and the targeting reticle needed to dash from one safe spot to another appears inconsistently. Characters stumble around each other, the scenery can violently jiggle up and down for no reason and friendly characters will decide they're not going any further and block your way with mule-like tenacity. More than once I had to restart a checkpoint because the game simply didn't trigger the events needed to progress. Lone enemies can get lodged in the scenery, or simply don't emerge from hiding on rooftops, making it impossible to end levels.
The Devil's Cartel delivers the expected genre tropes with as little imagination and as much bluster as possible
In one particularly hilarious moment, I was forced to backtrack to my inexplicably immobile partner and physically push him across the now-empty level to a checkpoint, so the game would lower its invisible wall and let me continue. While the game generally looks OK, there's a basic lack of care and polish in the construction.
Most damaging, the online co-op is a clunky thing. If a player joins your open game, you're asked to restart the level to accommodate them. If they leave, you're kicked out as well. You'll definitely want to play with a friend rather than risk losing progress to unreliable strangers, but the game's unwillingness to make allowances for such issues is unforgivable.
These technical blunders are the closest The Devil's Cartel gets to being bad, but for the most part it's simply not very interesting, a failure of ambition rather than skill. Once you've beaten the campaign there's nothing else to do apart from play it again or seek out the few bonus "contracts" missions that are bizarrely hidden in the menus. There are no multiplayer modes, no four-player survival maps, nothing that might give the game some longevity beyond a weekend. It's as no-frills as a full price game can be.
The Devil's Cartel is functional and fuss-free, a game that delivers the expected genre tropes with as little imagination and as much bluster as possible. It's not a bad game, but nor does it have anything beyond basic mechanical competence to mark it out as "good" - and even that competence wobbles more than it should. In a few years' time, I'll probably look back over my Xbox Live profile and be surprised to see that not only did they make a third Army of Two game, but that I apparently played and completed it.