Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel preview: not so gritty

In revealing Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel back in March, Electronic Arts promised a reboot of sorts that would introduce a "more intense, mature, and grittier tone." Well, the setting may be darker than before, but the gameplay certainly isn't. As shooters go, Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel has more in common with classic arcade games than whatever EA envisions as mature and intense. Its demo takes place in the small Mexican town of La Puerta, where it introduces the new player-controlled characters Alpha and Bravo as well as the original protagonists Rios and Salem. Their mission is to rescue a girl from the clutches of a drug cartel. They try to keep it quiet at first, but the scene soon erupts into violence and bloodshed ("Best stealth mission ever," cracks one of the characters in the middle of a firefight). focalbox This is where the arcade-like quality of Devil's Cartel becomes apparent. Everything from rescuing your partner when they go down to shooting down Cartel members in tandem is worth points. At the end of a mission, Army of Two presents a report card that's meant to serve as bragging rights for one side or another. There's also a super mode of sorts called Overkill. Killing Cartel members and earning points fills up a bar that can be activated when full. In Overkill mode, Alpha and Brave are invincible and have unlimited ammo. It's a time-honored action game trope that doesn't feel entirely out of place in Army of Two--it's rather fun to toss an unlimited number of grenades into crowds of hapless enemies--but it's a bit of an odd fit for a game that's supposedly trying to add a bit of gravitas to its story. Not that Army of Two is completely lacking in drama. At the end of the demo, after mowing down half a cartel's worth of soldiers, the four mercenaries finally find the object of their mission dead. However, Salem finds a young Mexican girl cowering in the back corner, and he decides to rescue her. This triggers a brief argument with Rios, but Salem silences his partner by growling, "She's an innocent." According to one EA representative at the event, this moment is meant to highlight some of the differences between Rios and Salem, as well as tell a deeper and meaningful story. But coming amid Overkills, combo points, and fist bumps (yes, there are still fist bumps), it feels a bit odd. It seems like Army of Two would do better to simply embrace the fact that it's widely seen as a rather silly action series and simply go crazy with the action. With additions like the Overkill mode, they're halfway there already. On the whole, Army of Two seems to be shaping up to be an adequate if not particularly interesting shooter. The Frostbite 2 Engine, so impressive in Battlefield 3, seems oddly flat in Devil's Cartel. Neither the textures, enemies, nor the gunfire are particularly impressive. That said, Army of Two does play around a bit with Frostbite 2's signature feature--destructible environments. Specifically, the cover around La Puerta can be destroyed, which in turn lends the action a chaotic, unpredictable element that feels welcome in a game like this.

Rios and Salem take plenty of fire from cartel bad guys

The town of La Puerta itself, however, is actually rather boring. Little more than a long, winding corridor of buildings with destructible cover thrown into the bargain, it's at its most interesting when the two characters are forced to split up and take different routes through the town to get to the same objective. The EA rep proudly notes that their research shows that players have more fun when they split up and eventually come back together; but in Army of Two, it doesn't feel all that organic. To be honest, it feels like it was added in from focus test feedback. And so, once again, we have a third-person shooter that seems to take itself too seriously while seemingly embracing the genre's hoary design clichés. Once again, Army of Two's main saving grace is its co-op, which is capable of being pretty fun at times. One gets the sense that if Army of Two were to actually embrace the madness that seems to be bubbling below the surface, it could be wildly entertaining. Why are Salem and Rios and the rest even fighting drug cartels anyway? Given mechanics like the Overkill mode, it feels like they should be fighting robots or something at this point. Instead, the direction that EA has opted to take is serviceable, but it feels like an odd fit in the context of Army of Two's actual gameplay. Based on the demo, it seems as if Army of Two will be far from the worst shooter ever released. Like its predecessors though, this "gritty" shooter is apt to be quickly buried by the competition when it arrives on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on March 26.