Army of Two: The 40th Day
Few people would have rallied for the return of high-spirited frat-pair Salem and Rios after the mess the two made in their chest-bumping, fist-pumping, mass murdering lads tour through the first Army of Two back in 2008. But return they have, complete with a character select screen where they jostle for your attention and finish by flexing their considerable bulk and psyching themselves up in front of the camera before loading your last checkpoint. Lads!
Despite the many flaws of the original, there was one thing that stood out: underneath Army of Two was a competent and promising, albeit slightly generic, shooting mechanic. The sequel finds itself amidst a sea of similar co-op experiences, but thankfully EA Montreal have used their (admittedly thrifty) development time to implement a degree of polish and precision that was discernibly lacking in the duo's previous outing. They've also, surprisingly, toned down the excessive machismo and their pair's reliance on violence for their kicks and giggles: if The 40th Day versions of Salem and Rios covered up all their tattoos, wore something a bit more appropriate and did their best to stay quiet, they might even be able to land jobs working for the civil service.
The PMC pair have set up shop in Shanghai this time around, and as the game starts they find themselves caught up in the middle of a terrorist attack on the city. Subtlety has never been the game's strong suit, and finding shocking ways to tear through architecture seems to have been a design priority: if a building can be blown up, torn in two or crashed into by public transport there's a good chance it will. It's exploitative, sure, but at times quite impressive - such as near the start of a game when a building rips in two with you in it.
The 40th Day also rides another current bandwagon and includes various morality choices. Instead of breaking into a room and shooting everyone there's the option to subdue enemies, and throughout various cutscenes you're forced to choose between two options. The scenarios are rarely more ethically complex than hug a baby/kick a puppy, although the developer's ability to discard good taste leads to some horrific situations, but after making your decision the game interjects with a stylish animated movie of the eventual consequence of your actions. These can be interesting, although the system rarely affects gameplay more than the occasional line of dialog and the odd late-game weapon.
The game still revolves entirely around its conceit of being a co-op experience. When you're not mowing down screen upon screen of inexhaustible enemy manpower you'll be opening doors together, planting objectives together and playing rock paper scissors together. It also takes two to achieve the new, more tactical and altogether fiddlier hostage and supply crate rescues. Your AI compatriot isn't the sharpest tool in the box and requires an (expected, admittedly) inordinate amount of work to have him shuffling around with any degree of tactical know-how. But this isn't Army of One, so a proper enjoyment of the game comes from saddling up with a fellow human being - either online or with splitscreen - and journeying with them around the game's rather diminutive six levels.
Playing with somebody else changes the game entirely. While it's easy to write off - almost every shooter is better in co-op, after all - it would be unfair to downplay EA Montreal's design efforts. Take the Aggro system, which concentrates enemy attention on vociferous players: the entire concept is built around two human players working together, and The 40th Day overcomes the first game's flaky implementation to provide a continually useful source of flanking opportunities.
But it's hindered somewhat by the game's simplicity. It's more than possible, especially on easier difficulties, to play the entire game with you both ducking behind the same piece of cover and popping up every now and then. It's also impossible to use Aggro at all with the AI, whose entire collection of offensive and defensive strategies seems to revolve around standing four feet behind you and hoping for the best. It becomes far more effective when you ramp the game up to its Contractor difficulty and have one character (we chose Rios, because he's huge) customise his weapons to be noisy whilst the other pops a silencer on everything.
The developers go to great lengths to offer up plenty of other special manoeuvres. You can feign both death and surrender, which gives your partner an opportunity to creep up and attack in both instances, but the feature has no use - it's not worth the time and effort it takes to do it - so becomes wholly unnecessary, like serving a side salad with Rios's thrice-daily meal of a 14oz steak and protein shake. Co-op sniping also makes a return from the first game, but is offered as a whenever-you-want-it feature as opposed to being shoehorned in at various sequences. In my game it was used to get an achievement and was never seen again.
There's also a heavy emphasis on modifying your weapons with aftermarket parts. This, too, was a feature from the first game that has been suitably enhanced for the sequel: weapons can now be modified at any time, and the amount of customisation options has been vastly expanded. Customisations are only saved at the next checkpoint, though, so it's all too easy to find yourselves repeating the same process over and over again at tricky points of the game. It's also rare to see your mods make much of a noticeable difference, but it's fun to play around with your guns and get into the spirit of the game by slapping a Zebra print on an AK. Besides, you've got to have something to buy with the copious amounts of in-game currency you accrue. In the same vein you can also customise your own mask print online and import that into the game, which is a nice touch.
It's a cover-based shooter, but for the first couple of levels - if you've not played the first game - the cover system will feel inexorably runny and imprecise. It's a very different beast to the ultra-sticky standard set by Gears of War: pushing in a direction past the edges of the game's many chest-high objectives will cause the character to detach and run around in the open. This is not a negative feature, despite an awkward teething period, as it provides the necessary means to dart about the environment to react to the game's speedy enemies who attack from multiple angles. /p>
Plain to see is how Army of Two draws its obvious inspiration from multiple superior games. The game's inherent aping of Gears of War (its primary source of ideas) was especially apparent in my consciousness as I instinctively tapped the right bumper to reload - which, in this, has your character fling a grenade - for the best part of my first hour. It incorporates its inspiration well, but the experience rarely becomes more than the sum of its parts. All too often the game descends into a plain shooting gallery, with you and your partner taking turns at popping countless headshots into thousands of identical enemy soldiers.
The game now sports competitive online multiplayer, too, although with limited content, as well as players at time of writing, and the bizarre choice of segregating the market to provide modes for pre-order customers only, it won't be drawing people away from Modern Warfare 2 for long. I've given up on it already.
Anyone who found themselves enjoying the original, or any pair of gamers who fancy another fairly entertaining co-op shooter to get them through the first half of 2010, will find themselves suitably smitten by EA Montreal's competent return to the franchise: it's far more than an ersatz Gears of War, but is hardly an essential purchase. Its high production values don't help the game's longevity, either, which will ultimately make it difficult for the game to compete with the other co-op experiences on the market. Fun, then, but heaven forbid you play it by yourself.