If you're after fist bumping and brostepping, this franchise has you covered. Army of Two has developed a signature coop multiplayer game design full of wisecracks and attitude, and The Devil's Cartel continues in the same vein. It's a highly playable third-person shooter with a refined cover mechanic, but unless you're a huge fan of the formula you'll probably feel it beginning to get a bit stale.
This new instalment in the series sees a new tag team, Alpha and Bravo, take the reins of the action rollercoaster. They are sent by TWO (Trans World Organisation) to Mexico, to guard the incorruptible Mayor Cordova, who refuses to play ball with the Cartel. Plenty of action violence, some gory melee attacks and themes of drug running earns this game its R18+ rating in Australia. All this sets the scene for the iconic action that the series is known for, and this part of the game doesn't fail to impress.
Cooperation is essential to the gameplay: the combat, light puzzles, and scoring system is all based on two-player coordination, and especially in key moments or higher difficulty levels it is simply impossible to survive without working closely together. For example, turret emplacements do a great deal of damage and one player has to draw fire while the other flanks to take out the operator. Couch co-op is one of the highlights here, as it seems to be a bit of an endangered species. If you don't have a friend to play with, the game supplies a teammate, but shoddy AI and a non-responsive command system means that single player is largely pointless, and occasionally quite frustrating. This over-the-top kind of action is best shared, anyway.
The Devil's Cartel uses the Frostbite 2 engine, which produces spectacular results. Animations are lifelike and explosions are dynamic, and the general activity on the screen can almost lead to sensory overload. Some elements of the environment are destructible, and its sometimes difficult to see precisely which brick wall is likely to crumble under a hail of bullets. Nonetheless this destructibility requires a lot of responsiveness in both offensive and defensive situations, and gives a lot more interest to the core cover mechanic.
This cover system is now pretty familiar to players and, for the most part, works smoothly. Taking cover against a surface requires you to align your reticule with the surface and a blue chevron marker will appear, allowing a quick button press to scramble to that cover. This is a great mechanic, and allows for clear and quick transitions between cover, which is really the only way to get by. It does, however, make it difficult to take cover when you are right behind a wall, and sometimes the cover is just a little too sticky, making it hard to extricate yourself. All this is nicely supplemeted by some passable vehicle sequences and sections which require teammates to split up temporarily, which adds some welcome variety into the formula.
Another new addition is Overkill mode: a meter on the HUD rises in response to coop achievements, and allows you to enter a slow-motion super-destructive mode where you are invincible, have unlimited ammo and grenades, and every bullet you fire causes an explosion. This is pure fish-in-a-barrel gaming: it's great fun to start with but ultimately makes things too easy to have much longevity as a core mechanic. It's also intensely frustrating to begin Overkill mode unless it is well-timed, and it's possible to waste the whole meter waiting for some enemies to come out for punishment.
The Devil's Cartel also introduces some upgrading and customisation options. You are able to upgrade your weapons with the usual power, ammo, and scope upgrades, as well as some more fun options: Devil's Breath on a shotgun turns your enemies into cinders. Costumes, tattoos and masks (with a colourful Mexican wrestler aesthetic) are also customisable, and you can even submit your own designs for masks which is a fun gimmick.
Having said all that, there is a lot of missed potential in this game. Narrative and dialogue range from the formulaic to the woeful, and the witty banter rarely gets beyond "your mother". Opportunities to build dramatic tension are missed and there is very little use of Mexico as a vibrant and interesting setting, or indeed anything other than a mostly monochrome backdrop for the type of action that we've seen a lot of already. Visceral have taken the safe option, and by sticking to the franchise's established tone and register, they risk typecasting every entry in this series.
There is no doubt that The Devil's Cartel can provide plenty of fun, and there is no shortage of faeces and giggles to be had here, especially if you can find a friend to play coop with. Unfortunately, though, it's all too reminiscent of classic arcade shooters, without the scale, license appeal and arcade context. At this stage of a console generation, with games like Tomb Raider and Bioshock Infinite on-shelf at the same time, vanilla just doesn't cut it.
Chad Habel likes long walks on an irradiated beach, and surviving deadly test chambers. His favourite dish is hadouken stirfry, and his Achilles Heel is gibbing headshots. In an alternate reality he works at a University.