Friday, August 2, 2013

Army Of Two: The Devil's Cartel review

The original Army of Two was one of the first games I bought for my X-Box 360, because I wanted a good split-screen multiplayer game and it was one of the only ones I knew of that made team-work a priority. While the cover-based shooting in the later stages grew very annoying, overall I really enjoyed the game. I actually liked the story (you're equal-opportunity murderers; Arabs, Americans, Chinese, you don't care) and the teamwork mechanics were pretty good, with a combination of organic gameplay elements and more structured game sections. I would have liked to see even more coordination opportunities or demands during normal gameplay (perhaps more teamwork moves like the shield, or using the step-jump organically to find secret areas or paths), but I thought it was a good start. I expected sequels to take that teamwork-centric gameplay and improve and expand upon it, but somehow it doesn't quite seem to have worked out that way.

The Devil's Cartel is the third game in the series. I'm afraid I missed the second, but I found this one slightly disappointing. The elements that I liked from the original - the emphasis on teamwork and the slightly less racist story - have been scaled back in favour of more generic third person gameplay about killing people who aren't American. That's probably a consequence of the game being developed by a different studio; there's no reason to try to include every feature of a game some other guys made if you don't feel the need for them in your game, it just feels like some of what made the original different has been lost.

I should mention that I played most of Devil's Cartel on my own (this is what happens when your friends get married), so naturally I didn't get the same multiplayer experience that I did from the first. However there are definitely changes to the teamwork elements, and I'll try to be objective when comparing the two.

The back-to-back segments (which I actually really liked) are gone. The parachute/sniper sections are gone - OK, those were a bit weird, but they were interesting. The vehicle sections, where one player drives and the other shoots, are gone. Aggro is still present but less prominent (it's barely even touched upon in the training and the "aggro-meter" is gone) making less likely that you will coordinate it with your partner. Tandem sniping is gone (no great loss to be honest). You can't swap weapons with your partner any more. As far as I can tell you can no longer drag your partner to safety when he's wounded, you just wait for him to crawl there on his own. You can't feign death any more either.

Shields show up later in the game but don't really seem to have much impact as most of the levels featuring shields are small and have lots of cover, and as you can now shoot your pistol while holding a shield you can happily take advantage of it on your own while before there was no point of using one without your partner's help - plus half the time when I picked up a shield I would immediately go through a brief story section and lose it without ever having used it. It's a small thing, but you used to have more manual control over the step-jump, which made it a bit more like an actual gameplay element and a bit less of a fancy transition animation - for example, you could grab a ledge and take a peek over it to see if there were any enemies before pulling yourself all the way up, while now it's a single un-interruptible animation.

There are however some additions to the multiplayer formula. You get point bonuses for coordinating your fire against enemies - bonuses for flanking and double-teaming opponents and aiding him during melee - which helps if you care about that sort of thing. At the very least it's a way to make the game more interesting as you try to combo effects for maximum points rather than just shoot the enemies and move on. There's some sequences where one of you will cover the other from a vantage point with a sniper rifle or some form of heavy weapon while they advance, which I thought worked quite well but could have been better if there was a more compelling reason to need to do it.

In a lot of levels you have one or more additional AI partners, although personally I felt that it took away from the teamwork dynamic rather than adding to it, as you now had other characters you couldn't really control getting in the way. In truth I'm generally not a fan of AI team-mates in games, although there are exceptions that include the original Army of Two. I just felt I had more control over my partner when I played that game in single player than I did in this one; there were more specific commands available, for example.

While the original's story had you battling a variety (thematically at least, if not in gameplay terms) of opponents in a variety of environments across the globe, in this game you kill Mexicans. In rather same-y looking environments in Mexico. The scale seemed smaller, the stakes lower. Some of the characters and relationships had the potential to be more interesting, but the game just didn't seem to be able to take that extra step to make them work.

Also I didn't like the "reboot" of Salem and Rios - at least I assume that's what it was, I couldn't believe those were supposed to be the same characters I played as before. I suppose it ties the game thematically with the previous two iterations, but I would have preferred either a completely fresh start or a more familiar take on the two characters. And what was with that talk of Alice, did something happen to her? Did I miss something?

OK, now I've spent a lot of time complaining about the differences between this game and the original, so you might be thinking that it's a bad game or that I didn't like it. Well, that's not actually the case. It's a solid third person shooter which controls better than  the original; in fact it controls better than many of the big name third person shooters I've played. They've fixed a strange problem that I remember the original having; there was a small lag between pulling the trigger and firing that was noticeable with some weapons, which made shotguns for example tricky to use effectively. I'm not personally fond of the cover system, which lets you just look at a distant piece of cover and press a single button to run up and duck behind it, but I think it did make some transitions easier than they would have been with the old manual system. Cover is also destructible, which actually helped mitigate some of the worst issues of cover based shooters - no longer will you statically hide behind the same piece of cover for ten minutes while trying to kill enemies that you can't see or hit behind their own little chest-high wall.

The aim assist could be a little overly-aggressive at times, but I didn't mind, and it made sniper rifles a lot of fun to use even at somewhat close ranges. The grenade indicator was really obvious and eye-catching, thank God. I really like the weapon swap system; pressing a button switches between your two main weapons and double clicking the same button quickly draws your pistol; it's fast and easy to use, although I found it took practice to get used to drawing the pistol when stressed. I did have a strange problem when playing single player; for some reason overkill would trigger sometimes when I pressed L3, which is the sprint button, and not when I pressed L2. It seemed to sprint normally when I was pushing up on the analogue stick when I clicked it, I think it only happened when I pressed L3 while the stick was centred. There was nothing I could do to fix it though as you have almost not options to modify the controls, which I personally consider to be unforgivable (yes, I know there's a chance players will pick a "bad" control scheme and not enjoy the game, but I reject that assumption of player stupidity in favour of allowing players to play the game the way that works best for them).

The character customisation can be a lot of fun. Some of the masks are pretty cool, and being able to design your own is a nice touch. Customising weapons is a lot of fun, and being able to try before you buy is a nice feature. Having said that there's a few strange omissions; you can upgrade a weapon's magazine size, but it doesn't actually tell you how many rounds it will have, and even if you use the "test" mode the HUD is missing so you still can't tell. The effect of some weapon attachments such as the blind-fire camera is not explained, and as you can't move or duck behind cover in the test mode it's not always possible to figure it out there either. I still don't know if my ballistic shield actually did anything or if it was purely cosmetic.

Unfortunately there is one big problem with the game that I have to mark it down for. Invisible walls. Often in the game I would try to walk through an open doorway or passage only to be stopped by an invisible wall and a glowing blue icon. Sometimes I was supposed to wait for my partner to catch up or for something else to happen, but sometimes it was something else, like a path I had just come from and apparently wasn't supposed to go back down.

You still sometimes get invisible walls in large open-world games, driving games and the like, but as they tend to be only around the very edge of the map you rarely run into them, and ultimately they are understandable as it's not always possible to make a natural-looking world that is completely enclosed without it looking more out-of-place than the invisible wall would be. But to have invisible walls in a big-name linear shooter in this day and age is very hard to forgive. It shouldn't really be a big issue, it doesn't really ruin the gameplay or anything, but it's just very hard to accept such an outdated hangover of older game's limitations, and I actually found it to be quite obtrusive. Maybe I'm just spoilt.

I enjoyed the game enough to give it a 7/10, it's definitely worth playing if you like to be in the same room as other people, but I can't help feeling it should have been better than it is.


I was looking forwards to the confrontation between Salem and Rios, but when it happened it felt rushed; Salem threw a few vague accusations about being left behind, Rios didn't really say anything back (I was kind of expecting him to respond with something like, oh, I don't know, "You drove off and left US behind, and I STILL lost a leg trying to pull you from the fire, you backstabbing traitor!", or just anything really), then bullets started flying and that was it. By the way, what were those tiny scenes with Salem in jail during the credits? I guess that means he's going to escape?

They didn't seem to know what they wanted to do with Fiona. She doesn't say a single word at first, then five years later she suddenly shows up and she's a completely different person, and one minute she's fighting alongside you then she's kidnapped and needs to be rescued then she rescues herself only it's a trap then her story arc is done then she dies. Kudos for having the guts to kill her I guess, but I just felt they didn't know how to handle the character or what they wanted for her; she had an interesting backstory but they never took advantage of that, I never really felt as if she had a connection with the other characters despite them saving her years ago, and then you never really even avenge her death.

Check behind doors Goddamnit! Aren't you guys supposed to have, like, training or something? How come you keep letting people ambush you in really obvious ways? And when there's three of you facing one guy with a gun to someone's head, how do you keep letting him kill two people then escape without being shot? There's three of you, surely you can surround him and get an easy shot, or at least cut off his escape route and force him to negotiate? How is it that the moment Salem pulled the trigger on Fiona he wasn't instantly filled with so much lead that there would be no organic material left, just a man-shaped outline made of gently cooling bullets? Ditto for Bautista and Chuy. Neither of those two identical scenes made much sense to me.

Soooo many dead Mexicans...

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