Army of Two: The 40th Day Preview: They're Better, We're BestS

Co-op shooter gaming is now so common that it can no longer be a selling point on its own. So what does the new 2010-scheduled Army of Two have to offer? Finally playing the game unsupervised, Kotaku learned things.

Michael McWhertor and I had both seen the game multiple times and, to honest, the somewhat apathetic response among some of our readers led me to think this game wasn't that big a deal, that its collection of interesting game mechanics and sequel status to a game that sold well just wasn't cutting it.

Then I was at an investors conference, of all places, and saw an EA executive put the first Army of Two and Mass Effect on the same slide and refer to the two games with roughly the same sales figures. (A couple of million each.) Mass Effect is big around these parts; maybe Army of Two is just big elsewhere.

With that as backdrop, I recently secured from EA a disc with a complete review-ready copy of Army of Two: The 40th Day. What was on my mind was something different than fun or features. It was relevance. Would and should a gamer care about this game?

Maybe that's a harsh context, but we're leaving a season of stellar holiday games and about to find ourselves in a winter surprisingly stuffed with other games of star pedigree. How does an Army of Two fit into that?

Having played the first two chapters of the game at home, I can say that the new Army of Two might fit into the winter quite well. It plays better than expected, though is marred by some flaws of artificial intelligence. And it pushes co-op design forward enough that series both echoes popular co-op counterparts such as Gears of War and Resident Evil 5 and finds ways, in terms of co-op, to transcend them.

As we've covered before, Army of Two: The 40th Day takes place in Shanghai in the near future. It stars the two private military contractors of the first game, Salem and Rios. A gamer can control one and leave the other to the computer, or, as the game is intended to be played, two players can proceed in control of each guy, either split-screen offline or online.

The game opens with Shanghai on the verge of some sort of cataclysm. Gears of War famously occurs amid ruins, its characters surrounded by Epic Games' noted "destroyed beauty." The 40th day occurs as beauty is being destroyed. A common sight early in the game is the collapse of a skyscraper in the background, while you shoot at military bad men in a crumbled skyscraper of your own. Helicopters crash in the distance. Citizens stumble and yell. That sort of chaos.

You would think a lot about Gears when playing this game because we've got big, muscled men running to cover positions and barking combat one-liners over the thunder of their machine guns. The comparison is not always a flattering one. The characters' stickiness to cover in the new Army of Two isn't as reliable as that of Gears. Playing as Rios, I found that I could only get him to auto-stick to certain columns and walls, not to anything and everything I thought I needed.

The Gears comparison is more favorable in that Army of Two appears to possess a Gears strength, one that is often an EA Achilles' heel: Good level design. I've played enough Simpsons Game and GoldenEye Rogue Agent to know that EA, while superb at high concept, themes and graphics, often falters in the moment-to-moment design of game levels. That is something excelled at in Gears, and it is something that is evident in good flashes in the 40th Day. For sustained minutes at a time, the developers are able to offer a tumble of well-design sequences: the second chapter's skyscraper raid, broken into dramatic floor-by-floor shootouts, then a partners-are-separated-across-a-chasm sniping sequence (a la Resident Evil 5), then a dramatic slow-motion sequence in which the two main characters are lowered hundreds of feet by a crane while taking fire from all sides, and then a highway shootout... What we've got is an EA game with memorable levels that feel like they'd be fun to be replayed, a good thing perhaps considering that the menus for the game suggest that the two chapters I played could be a quarter of the game or more.

But what about transcending its predecessor and those games it can be compared to? That's where Army of Two: The 40th Day shows promise. I played the first chapter both by myself and with a partner. I played the second on my own. In any configuration I felt both the relevance of having a co-op character at my side and a sustained interest in how that could make conventional situations play out in more interesting ways. The designers of the game have smartly presented a varied sequence of co-op opportunities. More interesting than the presence of a wall which the two characters need to help each other surmount are the occasional run-ins with enemies who have taken hostages and other sudden instances that are best sorted out not by one man but by two.

A co-op opportunity emerges: Swiftly shoot the hostage-takers? Sneak up on one and make them a hostage? Or risk civilian death by going in guns firing?

Another co-op opportunity: A nervous, well-meaning security guard wants you to put back the guns you found in a locker. This time the game is offering a moral choice. Obey or ignore? The first player to press a button determines the decision and an animation plays showing how that choice affects the future of that character's loved ones.

Another co-op opportunity: Two unsuspecting enemies are just hanging out, and none have their backs fully turned. Shoot them right away? Or try the "mock surrender" co-op technique, walking up while your partner takes aim and then quick-drawing your gun to finish the other guy off?

And another co-op opportunity: Guys run past you and you can't score a shot. But you can laser-tag them so your buddy can see them and he can take them out.

And another: Two hostage-takers are far across a chasm. You can take out a sniper rifle and "co-op snipe" with perfect synchronicity.

One more: In the elevator, time to play rock-paper-scissors.

What is evident after playing almost two hours of this is that the level design and the things that can be done within the game's levels are not just memorable but open to player ingenuity. It seems clear that the designers have gotten better, that this sequel is an improvement.

What's also clear, however, is that a human ally is best. We're smarter than an artificial intelligence character would be. And, more alarming, we're way smarter than the enemies. If Army of Two: The 40th Day has a weakness, it's that its enemies are still quite stupid. Some stand around unaffected by combat, unmotivated to join the fight. Some walk right into our traps. They're not crafty, not as crafty as us. The game compensates by sending hordes rushing in. And against those hordes there is plenty of opportunity for strategy. It's fun to take them out. And, well, it's been fun to play this game.

So ignore this one at your own risk. But otherwise, keep an eye out. And find a friend who is doing the same.

Army of Two: The 40th Day will be released in North America on January 12 for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.