The recent announcement of Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel was met with mild bewilderment in some gaming circles. The series is often categorised as Electronic Arts’ multiplatform response to Microsoft’s Gears of War franchise – a response with more fist bumping, steroid rage, and latent homoerotic tension than Epic’s offering, if such a thing were thought possible.
The Army of Two series least held marks for self-awareness. It drew attention to the exaggerations, and unrepentantly pandered to a particular audience, but it also failed to create gameplay worthy of revisiting several times, or sympathetic characters players could heavily invest in, let alone relate to.
Neither game was fundamentally flawed; Army of Two was simply at the upper end of middling – one of those games produced on a middling budget, presumably in anticipation of middling sales.
That middle market has all but evaporated in the last two years, and brought a number of studios and publishers to the brink of ruin in the process. So to learn that EA is resurrecting the series and releasing it in the same month as the next Gears of War game – and, perhaps, in the looming shadow of the leviathan, Grand Theft Auto V – is news that raised one or two eyebrows.
To even the scoreboard, EA has brought both Dead Space studio Visceral, and its own immensely attractive Frostbite 2.0 engine to the development of The Devil’s Cartel. Visceral has somewhat unceremoniously ditched EA Montreal’s thuggish, pea-brained protagonists, Rios and Salem, and replaced them with the more proportioned, more reserved characters, Alpha and Bravo.
In doing so, the studio hopes to create a more immersive experience, says game producer Zach Mumbach. “One thing that drew me out of [the previous Army of Two] games is that you’d be in the middle of a fire-fight and they’d crack a joke, or in the middle of a fire-fight maybe [they’d] give each other a slap on the butt. I think the light-hearted moments are important, you don’t just want to nail your player with [unremitting] stress, you do want that levity, but you do have to pick the right moments.”
Presentation aside, Army of Two has always been able to boast more advanced cooperative gameplay. Rather than simply adding another character to a single player’s game, the series has used aggression, suppression and cover systems that add a welcome layer of strategy to navigating rooms laden with waist-high cover.
“There are a lot of games that are coop in the sense that two people can play together, but the Army games did a good job of making that cooperation tactical,” agrees Mumbach. To develop that further, Visceral is adding different levels of artificial intelligence that adjusts its tactics based on the players’ playstyle. “One thing about the original Army games is that you can kind of figure out ways to manipulate the AI, and almost cheat it.
“We’re really trying to work on a robust AI system with a lot of different, dynamic behaviours that will react based on how you’re playing.”
Mercenaries, Alpha and Bravo have been contracted to undertake a dangerous mission in Mexican drug cartel territory. It’s serendipitously topical, says Mumbach, but it’s also very sensitive subject matter. “We started making this game a while ago, and recently the cartels have become much more front-page. They’re cutting people’s heads off and leaving them on people’s front doors. They’re getting really crazy, and we have to be careful about that because people are dying right now.”
The mission demonstrated takes place in a warehouse come clandestine drug lab in Mexico. Together with another journalist, we moved from room to room gunning down poorly armed cartel thugs. As with previous titles, Alpha and Bravo will occasionally be deliberately separated, and each will be need to perform a particular task in order for the two to be reunited and move forward.
As players work together, Alpha and Bravo build up an Overkill meter. When full and triggered, the player deals additional damage for a short period of time. If both players trigger simultaneously, both will also benefit from slow motion. Visceral appears to have been careful about including scenarios – such as a heavily armed and armoured opponent – that ensure it’s not simply a superfluous feature, but one that has practical applications within the game.
As in the last instalment, morality will also feature in The Devil’s Cartel, albeit in a more robust fashion. “I can’t give away too much about our story, but I will say that another thing about 40th Day is that it broke you out of the game to make those moral choices,” says Mumbach. “It wasn’t like your actions were moral choices, it was, ‘Here’s a menu, do you want to be evil or nice?’ We’re not going to do [that]. That’s not to say you’re not making choices in the game, but your choices are going to be through gameplay. It won’t be forced.”
Unsurprisingly, the Frostbite 2.0 engine enables a significant dollop of spectacle and destructibility to The Devil’s Cartel. As Alpha and Bravo fire, chunks are blown from cement pillars until only the warped rods remain. The crescendo of the level demonstrated also features an antenna that must be downed to create a bridge, and a rogue helicopter aimlessly slamming into a building, both created using in-game physics.
Visceral now believes it can bring new, wider interest to the Army of Two franchise, and it should be said that what was shown greatly exceeded expectations. “Our core mechanics, the core of the game is there,” concludes Mumbach. “It’s really about bringing everything together. We have all the ingredients, it’s time to put together the meal.”
Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel will be released on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in March 2013.