Jonah Wade is a madman whose paid soldiers are blowing up Shanghai. Also, he used to make action movies to recruit soldiers. That's one of the many absurdly excellent ideas in the unfortunately choppy Army of Two: The 40th Day.
The mutli-million selling Army of Two series is back with a console sequel, the first big Electronic Arts release of 2010. And woe to those who expect simply a retread of the overly macho 2008 Army of Two, another third-person shooter designed to be played by a pair of gamers. Woe to those expecting just more of EA's spiritual sibling to Epic's Gear of War. This is an idea-packed game that signals co-op gaming at a crossroads.
Army of Two: The 40th Day starts pretty much where it ends: Two players (or a player plus the computer) assume control of Salem and Rios, a pair of mercenaries who appear to trigger and then wind up in the cross-hairs of a massive terrorist assault on Shanghai. Cooperation is the theme of almost all player actions, from the way you will shoot through a firefight to the moral decisions you need to make throughout the game. You're pinned down by enemy fire... you want to ask the little boy hiding on the sidelines to grab a sniper rifle and help you out? You sure? What does your friend think?
Ideas And More Ideas: For all the grunting machismo of Army of Two — its stars being muscle men action heroes who enter a ruined zoo and joke about having fornicated with a panda — there is something endearingly nerdy about the game. The 40th Day, you see, is actually an ideas game with experiments throughout. The co-op morality system is a winner, allowing either human player to decide the fate of several characters who you meet. There's no voting. First player to press the button determines whether you will steal the guns from the nice, nervous security guard or put them back where you found them. Animated scenes show the long-term outcome of these decisions. Other fantastic ideas include the game's use of a tiger, the ability to play rock-paper-scissors during down moments, and the system for adding zebra-stripes to machine guns.
Like A Marriage, But In A Warzone, With Guns: Army of Two, like Gears of War, is powered by the Unreal Engine 3, features burly men shooting at burly enemies, and is set in a disaster area. What's chiefly different is that Army of Two: The 40th Day's campaign is ultimately more about you and the person with whom you are playing the game than it is about Salem or Rios or than Gears of War is about Marcus and Dom. Through the co-op morality and the handful of co-op shooting tactics, the Army of Two sequel encourages players to strategically play together. More importantly, it encourages them to talk about what they're doing, be it as they decide on a moral choice or discuss plans for raiding a room. Consider, for example, the long boxes full of valuables that sit open in a room full of enemies but will close if you spend too much time fighting in the room too long. That's the game's way of nudging the players to decide to perform a Mock Surrender (I'll walk out, hands raised, while you run behind and snipe) or a stealth grab (I'll grab that commander in a chokehold, his buddies will surrender and you tie them down). Sometimes things don't work out or someone makes a rash move and feelings, not about the game but about the person you're playing with, linger. That's potent. [Note: Partner artificial intelligence is adequate, but a lot is lost if you play the game without a human ally.]
Needs More Zebra: College professors, prepare for the day one of your students writes about the philosophical divide between the gun-crazy Borderlands and the gun-crazy Army of Two: The 40th Day. The former game has over a million guns randomly generated from constituent parts and paintjobs. The weapons are doled out to players as prizes. Players keep the best of these random drops (such as a sniper rifle that sets guys on fire or a revolver that shoots really fast). The 40th Day, in a mode apparently lead-developed by the man who brought us EA's experimental dancing game Boogie, of all things, lets players assemble and paint the guns themselves. The further you play, the more parts you may buy, use, mix and match. Instead of leaving my gun-collection fate to the random lords of Borderlands, I joyfully embraced my agency to shape my guns. The result: A machine gun with a shotgun bolted to it, painted teal with bubbles on it; a sniper rifle with tiger stripes. I skipped attaching a screwdriver bayonet to my guns. Randomization vs. control? The latter is Army of Two's flavor.
Co-Op At A Crossroads: Army of Two's negatives (see below) suggest why The 40th Day shouldn't lead co-op design down its path. But the game's strengths show some wonderful potential. The co-operative play of so many 2009 shooters, from Resident Evil 5 to Borderlands to Modern Warfare 2's Spec Ops mode engage players with the tactics of tandem play but does far less than Army of Two: The 40th Day to toy with emotions and explore the psychological effects of playing a game's campaign through with another human being. All the way up to the crafty final moment of the game — a radical re-thinking of how boss encounters can work in co-op games — this new Army of Two shows the power of a game that makes co-op players think about each. You may help each other, foil each other, but still you will have to live through this fight with each other. That there's more to co-op than tactics is a great sign.
Co-Op At A Crossroads: All isn't so great about what Army of Two: The 40th Day augurs for co-op design. The game is hobbled by its uneven pacing and finish-it-in-a-day length. Left 4 Dead's co-op structure is designed for four players to blast through one of its campaigns in little more than an hour — making it easy to re-play it and experience the wonders of varied outcomes. Modern Warfare 2's Spec Ops doesn't waste time trying to stitch together a story (its single-player campaign does that) so it can get away with jumping from place to place and letting level design take priority over overall narrative flow. Army of Two: The 40th Day, unfortunately, features seven levels of uneven quality and pacing, some of which contain exciting set-piece battles, others of which are a slog and none of which does much to advance a story that begins with a massive bombing in Shanghai and then barely advances the players' or characters' understanding of what's happening.
Oversold Destruction: While it is impressive to watch skyscrapers collapse in the background of most of the levels — this is urban beauty being destroyed as we play rather than, as with Gears of War, before we started — it sends an expectation for destruction that is not met by the gameplay. If buildings can blow up, so too, it seems, should the desk the enemy is hiding behind. I can chip away at a pillar with my pistol, but I cannot exact any of the landscape damage that the chaos around me implies should be possible. It's asking a lot to allow a game to offer that level of destruction, but some games do offer that and, well, that is what's going on in the background.
Numerous Aggravations: Checkpointing is weird, sometimes saving progress before the unskippable cutscene that precedes a boss battle, sometimes right after. Some sequences that involve saving hostages begin with camera fly-throughs that suggest maybe the guys on the balcony need to be taken out — yet if you ignore them, they don't mess with you. The co-op move of attaching oneself to a player who has a shield, letting that player control movement while your own character can just shoot, results in a camera angle so obscured that maybe only a third of the screen doesn't have your buddy or your forearm in it. These are signs of an under-polished experience and some ideas that got beyond the game designers' best judgments. Some make the game more interesting, but not always better.
Other Games' Multiplayer: It's nice that Army of Two: The 40th Day has competitive multiplayer, but none of it feels special and befitting the level of ambition seen in the game's campaign. Co-op deathmatch is little different than team deathmatch, as none of the special tactics from the campaign are available in that or the other competitive modes. Extraction, which will be unlocked for all gamers a month after the 40th Day's release, is another survival mode, a la Gears of War Horde. Warzone is similar to Killzone 2 multiplayer, rolling competing teams of players through a series of timed variations on kill-the-VIP, set-the-bomb and so on. All these modes feel somewhat novel to play in pairs, but the absence of so much of the co-op tactical design of the main game makes them feel barely distinguishable from the superior versions of them found in competing games.
Army of Two: The 40th Day has some great ideas and a number of very strong levels. It even makes better use of a nearly-abandoned zoo than any other game I've played that contains abandoned zoos. It is, more importantly, a fascinating laboratory for the psychological design of co-operative games. It is, however, also a game that feels too short, too choppy, to highly praise, though not short enough or chopped-up enough to encourage the kind of constant replaying that some of its co-op peers enjoy. Stuck in the middle, and built with creative ideas, the 40th Day points toward greatness but doesn't go there.
Army of Two: The 40th Day was developed by EA Montreal and published by EA for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on January 12. Retails for $59.99 USD. Two copies of the game were given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through the campaign partially on my own, partially with others, finished it in eight hours. Discovered that the 40th Day is a Biblical reference to Jonah warning a city that God is angry with them.
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