Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel (Electronic Arts, Visceral Games, 2013)

Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel

EA's Army of Two series has somehow made it to three installments, despite none of the releases ever having generated much buzz or acclaim, despite the fact that it almost seems like a redundant franchise for the publisher, which already has in its stable two other established military shooters—the commercially and critically reliable Battlefield and the far-fallen and embarrassing Medal of Honor. I assume the Army of Two games must sell okay (or at least the first two must have), most likely filling a gap during that slower first quarter of the year. The first one made "Platinum Hits" status on the Xbox 360. I know because the Platinum Hits version is the one I own. Indeed, as someone who has paid for all three Army of Two games with my own money, I've followed the series because I appreciate some of its unique qualities that distinguish it from other military shooters—namely, its all-in commitment to cooperative play as not just a feature but core to the experience, its relative honesty concerning the murky ethics of profiting off gun violence, and its many poorly executed yet intriguing gameplay gimmicks.

The number of gimmicks in these games has, sadly, declined with each installment. The original Army of Two (2008) had nutty back-to-back sequences, tandem parachute jumps, and the ability to feign death. The featured mechanic of the second game, Army of Two: The 40th Day (2010), was the morality system, presenting players with moral choices to make at several points throughout the campaign. Like most of Army of Two's gimmicks, it sounded better than it worked—the message of The 40th Day seemed to be that, no matter how you chose, bad things would happen (in which case, why should we even be morally invested?)—but, even in its failures, it added something novel to break up the shoot-shoot-shoot tedium that makes so many military shooters difficult to bear. This third installment, Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel, has dispensed with almost all gimmicks, and, although it is by far the most polished and mechanically competent shooter Army of Two has ever been, it is also a game suddenly devoid of a lot of the personality that formerly set the series apart from its peers. The "Aggro" system, which encouraged players to take turns alternating between drawing fire and flanking the enemy, remains in play, but it has been deemphasized. There's no longer a visible "Aggrometer" informing you which player is Aggro at the moment, and it often doesn't seem to matter anyway; it's a significantly less tactical experience than the previous games. Even the one inspired and fairly well-implemented mechanic—the ability to drag your wounded partner to safety before healing them—has been axed. You can't even press a button to give your partner kudos anymore. Granted, that was an Army of Two feature that was enjoyed more mockingly than anything else, but still it is missed.

The upside to new-to-the-series (and now already defunct) developer Visceral Montreal's decision to focus in on the fundamentals is that, after two oftentimes frustratingly stiff and dodgy games from EA Montreal, The Devil's Cartel actually delivers a fundamentally solid experience. For me, Epic's Gears of War series has always been the gold standard among third-person cover-based shooters, but, even after playing this right after Gears of War: Judgment (2013), The Devil's Cartel didn't feel like a massive step down. Some occasionally wonky stickiness to the cover system notwithstanding, the game controls smoothly, and everything basically operates as it should. That probably doesn't sound too glowing—"operates as it should" should more likely be the bare minimum requirement for a game rather than a selling point—but it is a huge step up from the previous games in the series. Where it still lags way behind the Gears of War series, however, is in the thoughtfulness (or lack thereof) of the level and enemy designs. When I discussed Gears of War: Judgment on this blog, I noted that, for a series that popularized the stick-to-cover mechanic, that last installment had evolved things to where it actually involved very little time spent in cover, because enemy groups were just too varied and aggressive for players to safely stay in one spot too long. In The Devil's Cartel, meanwhile, I'd say 90 percent of my experience was spent behind cover, gunning down one enemy after another from long range. The other 10 percent was fending off the Mexican drug cartel's sword-wielding ninjas(?!) with my knife. The enemy would toss grenades to force me out of cover, but then I'd just take cover again in a different (or even the same) spot. So, basically, it took three installments for Army of Two to get to a point where it plays just like Gears of War circa 2006.

As repetitive as it is, at least the action moves quickly, the campaign broken into dozens of very brief stages. One of the enjoyable returning mechanics, which is also among the less gimmicky, is "Overdrive," an arcade-style power-up mode that, when activated, slows everything down and fills players' guns with infinite rounds that will tear through brick walls. Other than that and the occasional vehicle stage, the most thrilling parts of playing The Devil's Cartel are probably the "breach" moments, where players stack up and count down before bursting through doors to slow-mo kill everyone in the room. Yes, it's a page right out of Call of Duty's playbook. Hard to believe that, three games into a series where you play as mercenaries, Army of Two still can be said to have "sold out," but there you have it.

Another thing that made the first Army of Two interesting was that it actually felt more topical than most shooters, dealing as it did with modern mercenaries. As a product that itself knowingly profited off the American people's addiction to gun violence, the game was obviously limited in the level of commentary it could make, but what I appreciated was that it really didn't try to present the player characters, Salem and Rios, as heroic figures. They were morally ambiguous characters (Salem more so than Rios, who at least had a conscience, even if all that meant was that he occasionally felt bad about the things they did), for whom war was simply business. There was none of that narrative dissonance that critics complain about when discussing Grand Theft Auto IV's Niko Bellic, who is supposed to be sympathetic but, between story missions, will gleefully gun down cops and civilians for the player's pleasure, or Uncharted's Nathan Drake, that lovable rogue, who, between cinema scenes, shoots dead some 900 guys. If you actually paid attention to Salem's dialogue, you would even have found that the writers were really trying to get across that this was not a nice guy, and profit was all he cared about. It was kind of an honest and unflattering depiction of a soldier of fortune.

The two sequels have seemed less topical. Part of that must be because, let's face it, the masses are so over caring about that headline. The Devil's Cartel swaps out Salem and Rios for two new player characters, Alpha and Bravo, whose dynamic largely mirrors their predecessors'. Bravo, like Salem, is very material, always talking about the things he intends to buy with the money he'll get for the assignment. Alpha, like Rios, tends to be the positive moral influence, keeping his partner honest, although he's more sanctimonious than Rios ever was. Alpha and Bravo's bond never struck me as being as strong as Salem and Rios's, and, I have to say, part of that is because there's no button to make them high-five or duo air guitar—the little things that let us know these guys are more than just two professionals assigned to the same op. But the difference between The Devil's Cartel and the original Army of Two's story has less to do with the player characters and more to do with the antagonists. In the first game, Salem and Rios were up against other mercenaries. The conflict was part personal, part professional, but it wasn't arising out of any great moral obligation to combat evil. In The Devil's Cartel, on the other hand, the antagonists are very clearly evil and dangerous, so Alpha and Bravo consequently end up playing hero, but as defined more by who their enemy is than by any objective moral fiber of their own.

To get anything more out of The Devil's Cartel than a fairly simplistic "badasses take on a Mexican cartel" story, you need to have played the first two games. And if you did spend those two previous campaigns with Salem and Rios, The Devil's Cartel might just make you mad. Because, although Salem and Rios have been replaced as the player characters, they remain as prominent in the story as they have ever been, and the script goes to, frankly, outrageous lengths to ensure that, barring a reboot, you will never play as those characters again in any potential future Army of Two game. Again, this is something that won't mean anything if you didn't play the first two games, or if you did but still can't remember who the hell Salem and Rios were. If you did have any attachment to those characters, then what The Devil's Cartel does with them (and the degree to which it fully commits) is, I suppose, kind of daring, kind of fitting, actually kind of true to what I originally respected about the first game, and yet kind of disappointing.

As for that last great aspect of the previous Army of Two games—the incomparable co-op experience—The Devil's Cartel is inferior to its predecessors. As mentioned, it's far less tactical in its implementation of the Aggro mechanic. There are, inexplicably, sections of the game where Alpha and Bravo are completely separated from one another and cannot assist or even see one another. They'll just split up at a fork in the road, and each will have to clear their own route, a magical green wall barring any travel between the two. How is it even a co-op game in that situation?

Still, the gameplay was only ever part of what made these games so much better in co-op. Army of Two may be the only series I can think of whose narrative greatly benefits from and even relies upon your playing with a human partner. In Gears of War, the characters are Marcus and Dom, Baird and Cole, etc. When I play those games, I merely see myself as acting out their stories, but I never identify as any of those muscleheads sawing aliens in half on the TV screen. When I play Army of Two, the protagonists are, yes, Salem and Rios, but they are also me and my partner. In the first game, it was because the Aggro system and all the other back-to-back, tandem parachute, etc. gimmicks necessitated real teamwork through almost every part of the game. Thus, while Salem and Rios would have their in-game dialogue, there would also be this concurrent dialogue between me and my partner, and that too would shape the narrative of our experience. In The 40th Day, which was an easier game, the dialogue between me and my partner more often concerned how we would decide together on each of the moral choices, most notably the sadistic final choice, which asked players to choose between either killing their partner or allowing millions of innocent people to die. I can honestly say that my decision to say "f– the millions" was strongly informed by my having played with a human co-op partner, such that, when the choice was presented and I was asked to kill my partner, without even thinking, I identified "my partner" in this scenario not as a character named Salem but as my actual human co-op partner. Sure, it was just a game, but I was never going to pull that trigger on someone I had been through two whole campaigns with. On the other hand, had it just been some AI character I had spent the whole game with, my decision might have been harder.

There was a certain blurring of the lines between my reality and the player characters and their relationship. Playing as Rios, I inserted myself in his place, and I likewise identified my partner in the Salem role. In The Devil's Cartel, when things go south for those characters—two guys who previously chose each other over saving millions of lives—this blurring of the lines comes into play to especially confused effect, since they're not even the player characters anymore, but I'm still identifying with and projecting onto them all this previous history that is my own. So, when non-player character Salem and Rios are mad at one another, I too end up yelling at my real-life co-op partner (jokingly, of course, but still), "Why are you being such an ass, man? After all we've been through!" I'm still thinking in terms of how I would respond as Rios to Salem, even though my actual place should be as Alpha, this new character that I'm now playing as. Again, this won't mean anything for anyone who didn't play the previous games, but it's probably the most interesting part of the narrative experience in The Devil's Cartel.

Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel has lost a lot of the personality of the first two games, instead coming across as one of the more by-the-numbers third-person cover-based shooters on the market, offering little more than a lot of repetitive gunplay, punctuated by periodic and admittedly satisfying slow-mo sequences. What surprises there are to be had from the potentially shocking story entirely depend on your having played the earlier games, which themselves didn't have the most noteworthy stories. Still, it is a more playable shooter than any of the previous games in the series. It might even be the best co-op shooter campaign available on the PlayStation 3, where there is no Gears of War.

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