Army of Two is a polarizing franchise. It had the one thing the original developer EA Montreal set out to create: exceptional cooperative gameplay. Everything else, with the exception of the over-the-top bromance comedy between the two private military contractors, fell to the wayside. Now with Dead Space developer Visceral Games at the helm, the franchise is being fine-tuned with a gold and chrome toolkit.
The Devil's Cartel doesn't remove anything that made Army of Two great, especially Aggro, which determined how enemies decided on which player to attack based on the player's aggressiveness. The more firepower one of two cooperative players lays on the enemy, the more the enemy combatants focus their attention on the rainmaker. Only in The Devil's Cartel, Aggro isn't a visible feature. It happens all in the background. Players don't get a bar that shows who's nearly invisible and who's the wedding singer; they'll just have to figure that out on their own.
In my playtime, that determination was easy to tell. It's common sense when the bad guys are more interested in your partner than you, or vice versa. Not having a gauge to tell players that they have a bigger target painted on their back actually makes the game a more challenging and fun. Of course, it also makes strategic strikes using Aggro more difficult to pull off…but more rewarding when done right.
Every other aspect of the game has undergone significant improvements, from graphics thanks to Frostbite 2 to the friendly AI for solo players actively changing its behavior based on player gameplay. Previously marketed features like gun customization and a wardrobe that would please an 18th century czarina return with little to no change. The biggest difference from switching developers is really the two protagonists, or rather, the toned down testosterone levels. Rookies to Tactical Worldwide Operations (TWO of Army of Two), both are just starting out for the PMC. There's hesitation, discretion, and minimal carefree swagger. That doesn't mean that Salem and Rios are gone for good; Visceral has confirmed that the buddies are still kicking it for TWO, but they aren't playable characters. What their role is has yet to be revealed.
The 10-hour campaign, while seemingly short, will include a number of different game modes beyond the drop-in cooperative play. They will all be cooperative, but Visceral declined to share details about those different modes. And to match with the story, cooperative play will always be two-player. If you're a solo gamer, you may end up enjoying the The Devil's Cartel even more because you don't have to deal with the most heinous of gamer problems: bad teammates. The friendly AI, while not yet fully developed, will be player-commanded via the D-pad, and its play style will be partially determined on the weapons loadout players assign. Give it a sniper rifle and it'll play a support role, or a shotgun to quickly take on Aggro early in a firefight.
Additionally Visceral has introduced a new feature called Overkill, which makes players practically invincible and super-powerful for a few seconds. One or both squad mates can activate it, and when combined they double the strength of firepower again. Destructible environments just turn into mush and enemies…well, into limbless husks.
The cooperative game wouldn't feel right without a lot of cinematic treatment and gusto from heavy action sequences, but it won't ever be just watching. The trailer showed just one aspect of that, where after one rookie catches the other from plummeting to his doom, a helicopter comes out of nowhere and the cinematic turns into a special section of gameplay where both players have to shoot the chopper down…while hanging on to each other. Cinematics will never be about sitting back and watching according to Visceral; if you're watching, you aren't playing.
Maybe the key to making a highly successful Army of Two game lies in the franchise's core concept — cooperation. EA Montreal set the play and passed the ball. Now it's up to Visceral to run with it.
Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel will release in March 2013.