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What's the deal with Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel?

Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel is coming whether you asked for it or not. Dave Cook plays some more of the bromantic comedy, interviews Visceral, then ponders why the game exists in the first place.

When I last played Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel I found it to be a rather silly thrill-ride with little substance and a playful nature. Although I wasn't wowed by it, I could still see it speaking to a select demographic of action film and shooter enthusiasts.

My latest hands-on session confirmed that it's a game without that one, glittering proposition worthy of a marketing marquee or trailer sting. I slogged through a single campaign mission with a second player thinking to myself repeatedly, "Where's the hook?"

You might reply, "Well, it has co-op," but so do most shooters these days. That's not a unique mechanic any more. It was sort-of new when the first Army of Two released back in 2008, but here it feels standard. Natural.

The game also has a score tally based on teamwork kills. Visceral is heavily billing the system as strategic, but in reality it feels scrappy. Your score is linked to Overkill mode, which is a burst of invincibility and increased firepower. That's not a new mechanic. Pac-Man's power pill did this in 1980.

What is somewhat tactical however, is the need to constantly take cover behind your partner's back. My team-mate and I died often as a result of straying apart recklessly, only to be picked off by the game's aggressive enemy AI.

But again, this isn't a killer hook, I asked EA producer Greg Rizzer for his thoughts on the game's alleged tactical play. He replied: "Our AI's the best it's ever been. We understand how to set up these combat environments, how tactical players have to be, how much they have to work together, and all those things are coming together now.

"It's a challenge, but the thing about is - I don't mind challenging video games when I realise it was me not playing smart. I play Dark Souls, where nine times out of ten it was my own stupid fault, and not the game's.

"In this game it's the same thing. It's like, 'Look, take cover. If the AI shoots you have to move. You have to keep moving, keep talking with your partner about flanking to earn surprise kills because you need that Overkill'".

Despite this enthusiasm, I really had to dig deep to find something worth punching the air about when playing Among the Dead, the game's 19th mission. It saw mercenaries Alpha and Bravo battling Cartel militia through a Mexican graveyard during the Day of the Dead festival.

As our bros trundled through the level I couldn't fight the fact that the controls felt sluggish, and it became clear that Visceral had taken its third-person handling back a step. It makes Dead Space 3 feel like Call of Duty by comparison.

Our first - and perhaps greatest - trial during the entire mission was a freight container door that Alpha and Bravo had to breach in order to proceed. I stacked up next to it with my companion yet the breach didn't trigger. We ran around in circles trying to get the scene to engage but it didn't work.

To be fair this was still early code and the problem is likely to be fixed before launch, but my first impressions were already crumbling as we hadn't even faced an enemy or fired a single round. It was frustrating, and we saw other writers in the room encountering the same issue.

We did it eventually, and entered a clearing full of tombstones. I then got my first taste of the game's cover system. Sliding behind scenery is enacted by pointing your aiming reticule at cover and hitting the required button. It feels alien when compared to other cover shooters.

I can't think of why Visceral would want to change the template birthed by Gears of War, Winback and Kill.Switch. It works. We know it works because everyone else copies it and gamers have understood it for years, but this method felt fiddly and confused by comparison.

Frostbite 2 was shown off as we returned fire at Cartel goons using our assault rifles and shotguns. Tombstones crumbled under the velocity of our buckshot, forcing enemies to turn tail and seek new cover.

The flimsy nature of the tombstones did give rise to rush tactics, but aside from one section that saw me boosting my partner up to a high vantage point, I didn't see enough to convince me that the game will spice up the co-op genre in any meaningful way. Rizzer told me later that Visceral's aim is to create "the best co-op campaign on the market." Currently it feels well wide of the mark.

But what might bring people around is the return of the series's weapon customisation suite. Rizzer told me that it's deeper and bigger than ever, complete with sights, camos, different clip types and a whole manner of ludicrous and violent tools to help craft your dream Cartel-slayer.

When customising weapons, Rizzer's team wants people to think, "Can you see a discernible difference in the gameplay from the choices that you made?" He was confident you will, and added, "You really feel like the risk-reward for using - say - a double drum clip which holds more but is slower because of the weight."

If Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel can really go big on its gun crafting, then players should be more willing to overlook shallow areas. This was a fun element of previous titles, and Rizzer explained that at previous demo events he had seen critics getting distracted and spending most of their session making new weapons. Despite the potential of gun customisation, the bland Overkill mode still seems to be billed as the game's 'big thing'.

When players trigger Overkill, Frostbite 2 destruction ramps up and bodies burst with ease, but the whole thing just feels old. Sure it's a dose of 'shock and awe' for fans of the action genre, but this is not a killer feature. It's been done before.

You might be thinking, "It's Army of Two: it's supposed to be dumb and simple to play". Sure, but is there enough here to get involved on launch day? I love wanton destruction and I enjoyed both of the Army of Two games released so far, because I understand and appreciate the petty thrills of a cheap action flick, or the sight of a body evaporating under buckshot. However, I also want at least a modicum of depth if I'm going to pay top dollar for a new game.

I'm hoping to be proven wrong here, but Visceral has to do something bloody spectacular to bring me around by the time the game launches Stateside on March 26.

Disclosure: To write this preview, Dave attended a recent EA showcase event in London. All travel and food was paid for by VG247.

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