I first tried a demo build of the third game in the Army of Two franchise back in November. I was not impressed and I wasn't expecting much from this second hands-on session.
The shoddy state of the early version shown, the mediocre visuals, and a general sense of lack of ambition had left me utterly disillusioned about the prospects of the third game in the testosterone oozing series. A pleasant surprise then was to see the improvements evident in the couple or so acts we got to sample at a recent preview event.
This demo saw us negotiate a few levels close to a church, resulting in shootouts in a graveyard, and a survival horror inspired trek through catacombs.
Visceral Games really wants games journalists to mention stuff like "The Expendables" and "popcorn action" in previews of Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel. The Expandables angle is easy to see - this is all about over-the-top action. The game takes you from scene to scene, each encompassing 5-10 minutes of gameplay - some of these levels are linear as you go from point A to B, while others have more in common with Gears of War's Horde mode as you're faced with waves of enemies in what I jokingly referred to as an "arena of death".
You'll face melee Mexicans, mid-ranged Mexicans, and sniping Mexicans (unless the cartel is making use of foreign man power) in these arenas and well, the artificial intelligence isn't very impressive. At one point I was looking for the last remaining sniper fellow, and it turned out I couldn't spot him at first as he was just a couple of yards away behind a pillar.
As far as "popcorn action" goes, well, the sections or acts are short enough that you're able to grab a handful of popcorn every 10 minutes or so. So you won't go hungry. I'm of the opinion that co-op always improves any gaming experience, and this is even more true of a game that has been designed from the ground up for co-operative play. But the enjoyment I took out of playing Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel - was it mainly just a case of "it's good to play together" or is the game actually good? The jury is still out on that. I'd venture to say it's mostly the former, but if you plan on playing this with a friend maybe it doesn't matter.
This extended hands-on session also gave me some further insight into the "overkill" system, and how the points add up. The basics are simple - there's a base score for killing an enemy, extra points for a head shot, extra points if you're flanking (i.e. your partner takes aggro) - more points gives you access to "overkill" mode quicker (you do more damage, you're invulnerable, infinite ammo, increased destruction) - trigger overkill at the same time as your co-op buddy and your "overkill" is even more potent. The system isn't as intuitive as I would have wanted - instead of rewarding players for actual flanking (taking out enemies from behind or the side), you're rewarded with the flank bonus only if your partner has high enough aggro (and there is no aggro meter - it's all under the hood).
At the end of each act you're getting cash bonuses you can use to customise weapons and your characters - and the amount is the same for both players. A winner is also proclaimed - and I "won" all acts - even if I clearly wasn't as effective - however, taking aggro and getting points that way seems superior to actually making kills when this is decided. There are naturally more stats factoring into who's proclaimed the winner, but it seems an unnecessary feature as it produces strange results.
At first I was a bit worried that the game would only have one gear - all about frantic firefights and destruction. But then we entered the catacombs. One player carries the flashlight (and is now only capable of using a handgun), and he has to shine his light on enemies so his partner can see the enemies. You can switch to a two handed weapon if you want, but complete darkness isn't a very appealing prospect. This mechanic made for some hilarious co-operative moments as thugs were jumping out from the corners and the player carrying the flashlight really had to be mindful of where he pointed it. This section also brought on some examples of quick-time events (as you're struggling with knife wielding enemies up close) - killing off an enemy who was engaged in a quick time event with your partner resulted in a rather hefty bonus.
One issue that remains is a cover-system that doesn't feel anywhere near as good as in the Gears of War series or the upcoming Fuse from Insomniac Games. There is just something a little bit different, that feels off, about how you make your way from cover to cover and what objects you can actually use as shelter.
Story is something of a paradox with Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel. While, the developers maintain that the story is more serious this time around, it also seems as if characters and story aren't very important. Naming the main characters Alpha and Bravo speaks volumes about how much character progression and personality you'll find in this game. This is not necessarilly a bad thing, as the attitude rich antics of Rios and Salem felt tired already by the second installment. And to be honest, when I'm fighting off angry Mexican thugs I don't really need a lot of dialogue or cutscenes. It's meant to be a brain-dead experience and having to turn on your brain for story bits only serves as a distraction.
Overall, Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel comes across as an unambitious project. It's really rather pointless. But perhaps there is enough entertainment here simply thanks to strong co-operative mechanics. Let's just hope Visceral have enough time to truly polish this game prior to release.