Army of Two 3 struggles to find its voice
Mike is worried Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel has nothing to say
Something struck me when I played Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel at Gamescom a week ago. Without delving too deep into game design jargon, when developers are deciding on who their player character is going to be, they usually have to pick one of two options. Do they want a voiced or a silent protagonist? There are advantages and drawbacks to both, all of which must be weighed up against the tone and storyline.
There are trends. First-person games lean towards voiceless characters, because the player is inside the character's skull, making it strange to have a second consciousness crammed in there as well. Third-person games, meanwhile, are more likely to have a chatty protagonist, because the external perspective makes it feel like you're controlling a character rather than acting as them.
As with all rules, there are exceptions and nuances. Duke Nukem is the lead character in a first-person game, and he wanders around bellowing things no sane human would say with a straight face. Equally, Claude, the lead character of Grand Theft Auto III, remained mute even in the face of sustained abuse from the nightmarish ex-girlfriend who double-crossed him in the intro sequence.
There are problems with the mute approach. Just look at famous man of few words, Gordon Freeman. In Half-Life, his silence let you transpose your personality onto his character, making you feel involved in the Black Mesa disaster. By Half-Life 2: Episode Two, the plot was bouncing up against the limits of a tongue-tied hero, particularly as the writers attempted to weave a convincing romance between Alyx Vance and Gordon. Surely couples are supposed to stop talking after marriage. Am I right, guys? Try the fish.
In spite of those problems, the enormous bear trap developers are trying to dodge with a silent or near-silent protagonist is accidentally writing a character that is either, at best, someone the player fails to connect with or, at worst, someone they actively dislike. With their 'frat boy' humour and fist bumping, the stars of the previous two Army of Two games came perilously close to winding up a fair whack of the player base.
This is why the two leads in third-person shooter Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel (which makes an admirable attempt to include the number three its logo) are called 'Alpha' and 'Bravo' and don't really talk much. So I was told by the developers at Gamescom. They said they were going for a more 'gritty' and 'mature' tone. They've even taken out the fist bumps. This is an Army of Two game without fist bumps.
But take out the character and you lose, well, character. Army of Two: The 40th Day earned a cult following because Salem and Rios were more clearly defined characters in an interesting setting. This new game already has a setting that is less colourful and culturally fresh than Shanghai in the shape of dust-blown Mexico City. By scrubbing away the personality of its two heroes as well, it's becoming part of that indistinct miasma of brown shooters.
Don't get me wrong, it does the shooting bit really well. I don't think EA's in any danger of screwing that part up these days, particularly with Frostbite 2 turning the environment into confetti. But just being a co-op game, even with missions that occasionally divide you up and ask you to fight alone, isn't enough any more.
This is the first we've seen of the game, so there's still room for EA to pull something spectacular and unique out of their sleeves. But when things as fundamental as the setting and the two lead characters are set in stone, these aren't concerns that can be easily dismissed.
Far be it from me to come up with problems without offering a solution to the dilemma of a voiced or voiceless hero. That solution, as is the case with so many of humanity's problems, is Commander Shepard. By using dialogue trees, EA stable-mate Mass Effect creates a character that feels involved in the world he or she inhabits, but because the player chooses the responses in conversation, it's rare that Shepard will say or do something that doesn't jibe with the player's own personality. Apart from that freak tendency towards reporter punching.