Army of Two: The 40th Day
Bringing back Salem and Rios was never going to be easy. It would be like inviting a pair of frat-boys back to a party after they stole your toilet seat and urinated in the punch. It's hard to imagine the direction EA would take with the sequel, but it was never assumed they were going to try and tone it down. Instead of cruising into their sequel in a party wagon with pounding hangovers, they show up to Army of Two: The 40th Day in casual attire, menacing hockey masks nowhere to be seen, and casually saunter about downtown Shanghai. To report for work, of all things. Which is probably for the best: Salem and Rios were about one fist-bump away from causing serious damage to their hands.
The game starts in a Shanghai back alley, with pedestrians bustling over a bridge, traffic driving past and the wind kicking up garbage on the pavement. There's a clear emphasis on EA trying to create a more realistic world to complement the game's more bombastic sensibilities. But, even still, not too much has changed within TransWorld Operations. There's still an ineffable whiff of the game being desperate to transform into Pimp My Mercenary, but the efforts EA are taking to transform Salem and Rios into more genuine characters are definitely paying off. Outside of combat, those exquisitely designed masks spring up and reveal the faces underneath - our army of two are now presented as people, and treated as such, complete with choices, options and opinions. You'll still be downing your opposition with round after round from shimmering golden AK-47's, but the two of you will be given more responsibility in choosing the path you take. Excessive bravado is still an option, of course.
It certainly doesn't take long for everything to kick off. Shanghai is about to get invaded by the large, presumably evil forces of The 40th Day initiative, and before long you're running around a world that seems to be either crashing to the ground or just exploding. "You're in this catastrophe that's happening. You're in this disaster," says producer Matt Turner, who goes on to explain that Army of Two: The 40th Day will take place in a calamity-strewn city that's getting ruined right in front of you, as opposed to the usual trope of turning up after the event and roaming around pre-destroyed cities.
There's also an element of crafting catchy levels, far removed from the genre's usual generic trappings. Matt explains it as "taking the players out of the conventional shooter spaces. We don't want to have any missile silos, or enemy box factories, or y'know, bunkers. It's all going to be these real-world Shanghai locations that have been converted into warzones as a result of this invasion." Setting the game in Shanghai is a good start, and the game's Eastern architecture will likely catch the eye of anyone viewing the game from a Western perspective. To further prove their point, EA let us play a level set in bright and bubbly Shanghai Zoo, although a plane crashes by as soon as we start. Set-pieces in the game always tend to start with a bang.
Whilst the setting might be about taking Salem and Rios out of the traditional shooter environment, the gameplay looks to be more than happy to stick with the familial. Army of Two's aggro system makes a return, which draws enemy attention towards louder players and allows the quieter of the two to manoeuvre into advantageous positions. The essentials of the game are still very much the same as they were before: nipping in and out of cover, taking shots, flinging grenades and working as a team. Co-op buddy moves stick around, and tricks like co-op sniping rebrand themselves into moments left to the player instead of at heavily arbitrated sections of the game. Whilst it's all recognisable, and much of it is carried over from the first game, most elements have been suitably tweaked and adjusted to play better. Which is certainly reassuring.
EA are toying with the formula, though, and to go along with their desire to create organic environments they're also working on creating enemies that have more purpose in the world than simply sucking up your blinging bullets. In gameplay terms, this allows Salem and Rios to get the drop on unsuspecting enemies, diffuse situations non-violently and generally act in a less ostentatious manner. The game assists you in moments like these by allowing you to 'mark' targets in a way not entirely dissimilar to Rainbow Six: Vegas. These tactics aren't forced, but playing the game like this looks like it will offer up its own in-game rewards, from giving you bonus morality points to delivering you rarer gun parts to customise your beloved weaponry.
Whereas the first game offered you basic customisation at specific points, the sequel likes to paint itself as 'Lego with guns' - giving you the option to customise your guns with a combination of the game's (current) 255 parts, including wacky homebrew options like coke-can silencers. Matt explains that "the idea is really to give players the opportunity and the chance to build the guns they really want to build. It's kind of our version of the player character, it's like you make your guns, you make the game you want to play". There will be no "super gun", though, with Matt quick to explain that all guns have their "checks and balances". He likes his guns with bayonets, for the record.
The ability to bling up your shooters is still there, and cruising around Shanghai with a gun finished in a Zebra print is positively encouraged. It's basically gun porn. Or, as Matt puts it: "The guns themselves, the way they sound, it has to feel visceral. It's got to sound powerful. It's got to have variety, right? We had a big, big gun recording in LA. It was huge. We got tons of amazing raw material of all kinds of calibres, all kinds of gun firing. It's really cool. It adds a lot to the experience."
There's a very definite image of what EA what the game to be. Matt explained it to me as the first game being Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys, and the sequel being Bruce Willis in Die Hard. I can't exactly complain, although the only way to go from here would be if Martin Lawrence and Bruce Willis worked together to create the ultimate buddy experience.
It's clear that EA haven't exactly reinvented the Army of Two formula, but it's obvious they're not trying to. Instead what we have is a series that's in the process of readjustment, playing up the things that work and toning down the bits that don't. The game's still being tweaked and finalised, but our brief jaunt through Shanghai Zoo left us feeling optimistic. With the promise of excellent level variety, and untold customisation options, Army of Two: The 40th Day looks like it could be nothing short of a rollicking co-op ride.
Our thanks to Matt for putting up with our frankly ridiculous questions, including one about the possibility of using a live cat as a silencer. Army of Two: The 40th Day is scheduled for PS3 and 360 release on the 15th of January 2010.