Last time we played EA Montreal's co-op shooter Army of Two: The 40th Day, we did so on the side of a partially collapsed building. Yesterday, we played it amongst the corpses of rhinos, hippos and elephants.
Our two-player session, played with Electronic Arts own Matt Turner, producer on the Army of Two sequel, dropped us into a Beijing zoo. Probably the worst zoo ever, considering the dead wildlife scattered about and the fact that everywhere we looked, everything seemed to be on fire.
I should back up a bit. Because the first thing we actually got a peek at was Army of Two: The 40th Day's weapon customization features. And whenever someone asks why I think The 40th Day will be a hell of a lot better than its predecessor, I point to features like this.
Weapons customization was something that the original Army of Two did well. But EA Montreal is adding a little more to the formula. As in the original, players will be able to swap bits and pieces from gun to gun, letting them combine the stock of an AK 47, for example, with the barrel of an HK G36, add a front mount, scope, unique cartridge, whatever, as long as those guns are within the same class. Turner says The 40th Day will have some 8,000 combinations, including some special "homebrew" additions.
Turner showed a handful of those during our preview, including a pair of bayonets made from a screwdriver and a kitchen knife, a stock that appeared to be fashioned out of scrap metal, and a suppressor made from a soda can. Some of those will be found in the world of Army of Two, not from the in-game store. Whether players will actually covet some of these D.I.Y. parts remains to be seen.
With our weapon loadout readied, we, as Rios and Salem, headed into the hippo pit, ready to do battle with whomever was pointing a gun in our direction. We attempted to put the suppressors on our sniper rifles to good use, taking out a handful of well armored grunts patrolling the pit. Turner succeeded in staying stealthy. I did not, missing the skull of my target and alerting the rest of the group.
Turner talked at this point about "enemy symmetry," the feature that supposedly gives Army of Two: The 40th Day's AI-controlled bad guys the same abilities that the player has. That includes taking cover and the ability to feign death, making it harder than facing a group of baddies that simply run and gun, hoping to overwhelm you with force.
That symmetry made it noticeably difficult to tackle the dozen or so grunts that swarmed in. Taking refuge behind the bodies of rhinos and hippos worked for a while, but the AI soldiers we were up against were all crack shots. So was the Heavy, an incredibly well armored mini-boss type whose only vulnerability was his protective helmet, a carry-over from the first Army of Two. Eventually, with the help of the more skilled Turner, we made it out of the pit, through a tram tunnel and into the next encounter.
The next encounter, Turner took time to explain the "pre-combat" buzzword he'd dropped, basically the planning stages of how one wants to handle a volatile situation. Our previous pre-combat tactic—attempting to snipe the heads off each grunt in the hippo pit—was a failure. This one, however, worked well.
Turner sneaked up behind the commanding officer in the section of the level, taking him hostage and ordering a trio of grunts to drop their weapons. They complied and I took the opportunity to tie down the three remaining prisoners, a non-violent solution that gave us a positive morality boost. That less lethal option also gave us access to a weapons cache—a new sniper, scope and some cash—which we wouldn't have been able to plunder if we'd simply killed everyone in that portion of the zoo.
Our successful completion of that portion kicked off another Heavy mini-boss encounter. This one was similarly armored, but instead of wielding a shotgun, he was carrying a grenade launcher, hip pockets packed with ammunition. Turner explained that we had to target the grenades on each hip to take him down. But it didn't quite go that smoothly. Both of us died amid the swarm of new grunts.
Like our previous hands-on experiences with Army of Two: The 40th Day, we walked away impressed. While the first game had its share of problems, many of them seem to be addressed in the sequel. We'll know for sure when The 40th Day arrives on January 12, 2010.