Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel is pure, yet very forgettable, fun - especially with a friend.
A new developer usually means new ideas, and while Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel doesn't have a lot of them, it is obvious Visceral Games tried to do things a different way. For starters, the narrative doesn't follow the two protagonists from the previous games, Rios and Salem, but chooses to introduce two fresh faces that answer to the names Alpha and Bravo (not too original). If you watched any cop movie in the last 30 years, you'll quickly recognize the pair's clashing and cliché personalities. Alpha plays the role of the meticulous and level-headed leader, while Bravo is more hot-headed and quick on the trigger. Of course there's no real difference between the two when it comes down to actually playing the game, but the two serve their purpose rather well – giving the player a healthy dose of machismo and high-octane action.
In fact, the whole game revolves around these two aspects. The story is almost non-existent. It has something to do with Mexican drug cartels, global politics and personal vendetta, or at least I think it does since it's really hard to remember anything about it. Not because it's complicated, but the exact opposite: there's nothing there to remember apart from one twist towards the end you can see coming from miles and miles away. This isn't a story to get invested in, nor is it bad or boring either; the narrative is simply there to give context to all the shooting. And boy, you'll be doing a lot of shooting.
Much like the game's narrative, the combat too is stripped down to its most basic elements – point your gun at something you don't like and pull the trigger to make it go away; it's really fun and fulfilling in a primitive kind of way. Cover is destructible, alongside most of the environment, so the combat is always fast paced and the player is constantly encouraged to move forward, sometimes even recklessly. Enemies keep pouring in, so there's always something to shoot at while you sprint from cover to cover, and if the odds get a bit overwhelming, well, that's what the new Overkill mode is for. When activating Overkill you and your partner become invincible for a short while, causing a ridiculous amount of damage to everything around you. If both players activate Overkill mode together, the carnage lasts longer as time slows down so you can completely destroy the environment and anyone in it. It can either feel very empowering or a bit like cheating, depending on the type of player you are.
But the single-player campaign isn't all running-and-gunning (though it mostly is). There is a little variety here and there to break up the action, like a short sniping sequence or a level centered on stealth (at least the game's definition of stealth). The most exciting parts of the campaign are when the duo splits up and one has to cover the other from afar, usually with a turret or a grenade launcher. But mostly each mission involves the two just running around the level and shooting everything.
Since neither the story nor the action offer anything special, Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel can get boring if you play it alone. The friendly A.I. isn't the best company in the world, and the hostile one presents little challenge. Thus playing with a friend is crucial to your enjoyment. Though less like the "bro-op" in previous AoT games, the cooperative play in The Devil's Cartel is still very fun and even allows for shallow tactical thinking. For example, while one player draws the attention of enemy soldiers, the other can flank them or retreat to a better sniping position. The game's scoring system makes sure you always know how your partner is doing, and rewards the two of you for pulling off co-op kills or baiting an enemy to come into the open so your partner can blow his head off. The lack of over-the-top moments, like the one in the original game where Salem and Rios stood back to back and shot down waves of suicide bombers, does stand out, but then again The Devil's Cartel does take itself a little more seriously (just a little).
It's hard though to take the game seriously when Alpha and Bravo wear clown masks, or big yellow smiley faces. You see, the operatives of TWO (Trans World Operations) all wear bulletproof masks in addition to their standard tactical gear, usually looking all badass and tough. However, The Devil's Cartel lets the player customize its operative's mask – either choosing from a variety of different designs, or even create one himself. Weapons can also be upgraded and outfitted with many attachments and colorful skins, though nowhere nearly as colorful as the jewel-encrusted assault rifles we saw in earlier entries in the series. This customization is mostly skin deep, and doesn't affect the gameplay in any way; it just looks nice.
Speaking of which, the game does indeed look nice. Nice, but not great. Character models are detailed enough for each to have its own personal visual style, and the destructible environments mostly look ok. The game takes place in Mexico around the time of Dia de los Muertos, so while most levels are concrete grey or dirt brown, colorful skull ornaments and glowing candles do manage to set some sort of atmosphere in some of them. Sound and voice work are fine as well, but again – very forgettable. I can't remember a single line of dialog or music track for the game, but I do remember enjoying the sound my gun made while raining bullets on sadistic drug lords.
Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel is average in almost every way. The story is generic and forgettable; the gameplay is simplistic but fun, especially with a friend; the graphics and environments are satisfactory but unimpressive. If you're looking for a fun but dumb shooter to play with a friend over the weekend, you can do a lot worse than this game. Just remember that once you finish the campaign, Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel will never see the inside of your console again, and you'll probably forget where in the devil you left your copy.