“A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow.” -William Shakespeare
Rios and Salem were the ultimate tale of bro-mance. From fist-bump to back-to-back combat strategies, they were the definition of two bros that could never be separated. That is, until the worst decision the franchise has ever made in the Devil’s Cartel completely ruined that. Let’s start with the first installment of Army of Two, which enamored fans with the dynamic duo. The following three sections will recap (briefly) the plot/story from the three Army of Two titles, the implication is that there are spoilers. Lots of spoilers.
Army of Two (the first game)
The first title began in Somalia (1993) where Elliot Salem and Tyson Rios (more commonly referred to as Rios and Salem) who are a pair of Army Rangers are tasked to work with a private military contractor (PMC) to assassinate a local warlord. With skill and thousands of bullets, they’re offered an opportunity to join a private contractor known as Security and Strategy Corporation which leads them to Afghanistan and Iraq where they fend off near-death experience(s), manage tactical assassinations, and see a string of suspicious actions which lead the pair to a handful of conspiracy theories. After a few questionable missions, the pair decide to call it quits until they come across Alice and decide to finish with a bang. The first game ends with the duo recruiting Alice as they form their own PMC titled Trans World Operations (T.W.O.). Sounds like a dynamic duo that could never be separated. Brothers to the end.
Army of Two: 40th Day (the second game)
The self-employed badass duo picks up where they left off, running T.W.O. which leads the duo to Shanghai where a sequence of morality options determine the direction of certain story elements (such as killing or leaving JB, a former SSC Operative). Shortly after Shanghai is on fire from a string of explosions and mercenaries are swarming the city. After rescuing Alice they make their escape, shooting their way through hundreds upon hundreds of mercenaries. This leads the trio to the hospital after Salem is knocked unconscious after a long fall, and another firefight to escape the hospital. Alice manages to secure an extraction but the helicopter carrying Alice is destroyed, and presumed dead. Rios and Salem are alone again, and they turn their gears towards revenge against the 40th Day Initiative’s leader, Jonah Wade. The game ends with a decision, after they find Jonah Wade with a trigger to a nuclear device – Rios and Salem are posed with the decision to have one shoot the other and he will stop the detonation, otherwise seven million will die. The decision leads to one of two endings: The mourning of the surviving partner for his friends loss, or killing Jonah.
Aside from a terribly complicated lore-perspective ending, the decision was one that shocked several players at first. It was one that pitted two brothers, two friends, two partners to make the ultimate sacrifice to save millions, or risk the loss of millions of lives. For others, it was a decision that frustrated and annoyed gamers because it was such an awkward ending regardless of the decision you took. Either way, for the sake of this argument we’re going to assume that neither partner shot the other since they are both alive and well in the third installment.
Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel
The Devil’s Cartel shifts the story away from the dynamic duo of Rios and Salem, and replaces them with the characterless, emotionless, boring pair only known as Alpha and Bravo. The game starts with a hostage rescue operation for T.W.O. (Tactical Worldwide Operations – note the name change). During the operation the pair find a girl named Fiona, and Salem just wants to leave (leaving Fiona as a prisoner of the cartel) but Alpha, Bravo and Rios decide to rescue her. Salem bolts away unexpectedly and is presumed to be dead a few minutes later after a car explosion. Throughout the story the game pits Alpha and Bravo against a mysterious operative only known as El Diablo (The Devil), the Lieutenant to Bautista.
Long story short, Fiona is separated from Alpha and Bravo throughout the progression of the story and eventually they regroup towards the end to successfully take down Bautista. Shortly after, El Diablo (who is revealed to be Salem) kills Fiona in front of Rios, who wanted to bring Salem back alive. There is a half-assed attempt by Salem to explain the purpose behind the betrayal as having something to do with Alice’s death (note, originally there was a lot of confusion about whether or not Alice died in Shanghai, but it was apparently cleared up and she did die there), but it never really makes any sense, leading to a fight between Rios and Salem which ends up with Rios shot in the abdomen and falling down a balcony. Alpha and Bravo chase down Salem and successfully capture him, and Salem is seen etching Alice’s name in his prison cell wall. The post-credits show Salem smiling after an unknown individual approaches the door – leading to the implication of either DLC or another title.
But will they ever make another Army of Two?
“Friendship isn’t about who you’ve known the longest. It’s about who walked into your life, said ‘I’m here for you’ and proved it.” -Unknown
Let’s take a step back to analyze the relationship of Rios and Salem, who were marketed and designed to epitomise the bro-mance, the bro-therhood. Even Barney Stinson would have been proud to have Rios and Salem as his wingmen, because they would always suit up. That sense of brotherhood and camaraderie does not come lightly, someone does not simply become a bro. It is a badge of honor that is worn between two beings brought together by a common cause. The development of a powerful relationship like that originated with their time spent as army rangers, where they had to watch one another’s back around every corner – one misstep, poor judgment, or lack of trust could have easily landed either of the two in a coffin.
So how did two brothers that have been through so much, from army rangers to private contractors, suddenly have the largest fallout any bromance has ever seen … over a random mysterious girl that was being held prisoner by a cartel? Twenty years of fighting side-by-side should not simply end over an argument regarding an unknown hostage.
The beginning is where the story falls apart, there’s no cohesiveness to the way the story unfolds (let alone the potential deal breaker at the end of 40th day). The story barely touches on any pre-existing conflict between the brothers, although the angry outburst over this girl seems to imply a rich and deep conflict that had been evolving ever since the death of Alice. Unfortunately, there is not a single word or nonverbal signal to cue the player to any of this. Even as the credits roll and you see Salem carving Alice’s name into the wall, the “conflict” is vague, unspoken, and unfortunately incredibly disappointing.
Had the developers spent just 30 minutes worth of gameplay near the beginning (or even a flashback scene at the end) discussing the way the relationship between the brothers fell apart, then most of this could have been forgiven. The way it unfolds simply makes no sense and it leaves gamers with this sense of confusion, frustration and anger.
Part of that anger stems from the franchise being the ultimate bro-mance with two wonderfully developed and thought out characters with magnetic personalities and awkward charisma, who are then replaced by the faceless, characterless, and dull duo of Alpha and Bravo. The other part is the frustration of not knowing what the hell is going on. Story continuity and character development is storytelling 101, and both have failed in the Devil’s Cartel (and many will argue in the 40th day).
The rest of the anger originates from the disappointment of character development, or lack thereof. The original title dedicated hours to develop Rios and Salem, only to ruin them in the long run. Alpha and Bravo on the other hand, we have zero information about them. The excuse was that they were supposed to be “open” characters for the player to fill in, but for that to be the case, players need to feel like they are the hero through customization. Without character customization (outside of outfits) there’s no identifying with these characters.
“The people who hear what I’m saying when I haven’t said a word… they are the ones I call friends.” -Katrina Mayer
One of the arguments fans have been making across several mediums is that in the 40th day there is a scene where Salem falls down in the hospital and is knocked unconscious, but he is reunited with Rios. Perfect. Then Alice disappears and there’s no real indication of a search, in fact most fans were confused as to whether or not she was even dead until it was cleared up much later. Then the backbreaker was that after the car crash in the Devil’s Cartel there was no attempt to even search for Salem … two former Army Rangers turned private who don’t confirm a KIA/MIA? Unlikely. If you’ve been fighting side-by-side with someone for 20 years where you depend on one another for survival, you at least make an attempt to find someone. You don’t just fly away on a helicopter like you’re on your way to the supermarket to pick up some sliced ham.
The relationship between Rios and Salem has been tested over and over again, and it has nothing to do with their interpersonal struggles. The failure to elaborate on their relationship has increased frustration and disappointment levels in fans of the franchise, and it has caused a steady decline since the first title released. Due to the hole the pair have been thrown into, I see no way to salvage or recover the franchise unless they develop new characters that are just as charismatic and unique as this pair. Alpha and Bravo simply won’t cut it, particularly if the plan is to release another title or supplemental DLC. If the intention is to continue the story then some amazing new personalities will have to be introduced, developed, and enamored to parallel the tale of Rios and Salem. Otherwise, none of it will even matter and this whole love/hate relationship will be wasted.
Most will argue that there is no coming back from this story that was woven, but Rios and Salem might have one last trick up their sleeve. There’s hope, or at least expectation that there will be something salvaged from these mistakes. There are so many plot holes and misunderstandings that its difficult to identify the direction the developers were moving towards, but it seems to me that they were looking at an epic saga involving two brothers, which inevitably falls apart.
If you take a step back and look at the overarching attempted story, it could be argued that the ideal plan was to develop this unbreakable bond through friendship, which turns into a bitter rivalry. Most stories attempt to bring together enemies to form bonding relationships through mutual cause, but Army of Two (might have) moved towards the opposite direction to shake things up. In Mass Effect we see the relationship between Commander Shepard and Cerberus nurture, unfold, and eventually collapse. In Naruto, Sasuke and Naruto have a bonding relationship that is fractured and confusing, yet it fosters this long-term struggle between heroes and villains.
The story of Rios and Salem is a bittersweet confusion of friends and enemies, brothers and nemesis, love and hate. Although it’s unlikely we’ll fully understand how this relationship collapsed, we can at least hope for closure to what was once an epic tale of brothers charging into battle shoulder-to-shoulder. For me, Rios and Salem rose and fell in the first title … and I find more comfort in believing the 40th day and Devil’s Cartel never happened.
“Friendship is a single soul dwelling in two bodies.” -Aristotle