Friday, January 29, 2010

Army of Two: The 40th Day

I went into the first Army of Two with mildly high expectations. It sounded great; a third person shooter based entirely around cooperative play (like RE5). But unfortunately, it wasn't as good as it could have been. Despite this, I'm glad to see EA returning for a second go at this ambitious franchise. Enter Army of Two: The 40th Day.

Whereas the first game took Rios and Salem all around the world in various "chapters" of their lives as SSC mercenaries, The 40th Day is much more centralized. It takes place in Shanghai, China, and spans a single long and harrowing day. What are they doing in Shanghai, you say? Well, as anyone who completed the first game should know, after the fiasco with the SSC, they created their own PMC company consisting of themselves and their intelligence contact Alice Murray. They arrive in Shanghai to do a simple oddjob; a lot of money for a little work. But less than 15 minutes into the game, everything goes to hell.

Shanghai is heavily bombed and invaded by a mysterious alliance of PMCs known as the 40th Day Initiative. Most of the game follows Rios and Salem as they desperately try to find a way out of what is quickly becoming a mess of a city.

As you progress, you'll frequently find yourself in various situations (often involving hostages) that require you to make a decision on how to proceed. For example, you encounter a small group of enemy soldiers preparing to execute some civilians. Will you go to the trouble of saving the civilians, or will you just engage in open warfare with the soldiers, and not care less about what happens to them?

Morality is a heavy topic in The 40th Day, and the game reminds you of this on a very regular basis. Selfish or sadistic actions like shooting innocents or killing soldiers after they've surrendered net you bad mojo, whereas more merciful actions like tying down soldiers instead of killing them or rescueing civilians get you good morality. Your actions can have consequences later on down the road, so it may be good to think before you act.

Besides minor in game actions, Rios and Salem will often end up having to make a major decision that will can heavily sway their morality. The first of such decisions involves a PMC you work with in the first chapter. Alice informs the two that their client will pay extra money if you kill him. But will you? This is the same guy who probably dragged your butt to safety and revived you once or twice in the middle of battle, and he's a friendly chap. Will you off him just for some extra cash?

Each major decision is followed by a comic book-style cutscene that shows the consequences of your choice. Though atypical, I think this squanders some of the potential this feature might have had. Until the ensuing cutscene confirmed his death, I was almost sure that he would appear later in the game, either for revenge or gratitude (incidentally, I chose to kill him on my first playthrough, and thus was apprehensive of the former possibility). While these moments of decision are cool, the overall plot is very shallow. Like the first game, it's really only there to tie the stages together, and give you an excuse to shoot people. Which is fine, since games like these generally boil down to gameplay, not story.

Obviously, Army of Two's gameplay is very co-op-centric. Back-to-back moments are back , as is pretty much every other feature present in the first game. There's been a bit of tweaking done, though. Co-op sniping no longer has to be "initiated", and can be started any time both partners are looking through a weapon scope (and not necessarily the scope of a sniper rifle). Berserk and temporary invisibility are both gone, but you can still play dead after taking a few hits. Back-to-back moments and step jumps are largely unchanged, though. Riot shields are back, and you can still hunker down behind your partner to form a shield convoy.

The Aggro system also returns, and is still an integral part of gameplay. For those who haven't played the first one, the Aggro system is a cool feature that, with some partner coordination, provides for some excellent tactical maneuvers. Simply put, you make a lot of noise (firing weapons, throwing grenades, etc.), you attract more attention. With the spotlight on you, enemies won't be paying attention to your partner, who can now move about the battlefield almost completely unhindered. It's like sending a tank and a footman to battle. I don't know about you, but I'd be paying more attention to the tank. Of course, as the saying goes, don't get into the oven if you can't take the heat. Don't soak up Aggro if you're not prepared to also soak up a few bullets.

But what's a sequel without new features? New to the club is an upgraded GPS, which now takes on the form of a large holoscreen in front of you. The GPS shows a bright green path on the ground that shows where you're supposed to go, but you can scan enemies and tag them as priorities. The controls have also been remapped, and are now much more intuitive, in my opinion (though equipping attachments on the go is a bit of a stretch).

Though there aren't really any bosses, you'll encounter plenty of enemies who cannot be fought effectively from the front. So you'll have to have one person distract him while the other circles around and goes for the kill. You can also now take enemies hostage, and either tie them down, snap their neck or use them as a meat shield (though they will physically protest to this every now and then). You can even force entire squads to surrender by nabbing their commanding officer. While you hold a gun to his head, your partner can either tie down or execute his cohorts, though they may try something if things get too tense. Walking into a room full of enemies, you can even pretend to surrender. Then you can whip out your gun and kill them all in slow motion. Your partner can either join in this fun, or stay back and watch the proceedings with a sniper rifle in hand to cover you. Step jumps and back-to-back moments are the only two co-op elements that feel a bit static. Everything else is natural and well integrated, which makes the game all the more engaging, and fun to play. Co-op really is the name of the game here, and that's a great thing.

And now, your enemies join in too.  The AI has been beefed up this time around, and acts noticeably more intelligently.  Instead of dying immediately, oftentimes enemies will be incapacitated.  Like Rios and Salem, they will attempt to drag their way to safety, and even take a few potshots at you with a sidearm.  I also frequently saw enemy soldiers step out from cover to drag a fallen comrade to safety and revive him.  It was a welcome sight, to be sure.

Weapon customization has also seen a huge facelift this time around. In the first game, customizing weapons was a sober affair, done mostly just to keep pace. Now there are hundreds of parts available for customization, and most of them can be mixed and matched with anything. The developers called it "Lego with weapons", and it's almost true. First, you buy a weapon. Then you hit the customization screen, where you can change its barrel, stock, magazine, front mount, scope, paint job, and muzzle. I took an M416 and gave it a 100-bullet double drum magazine, an underslung grenade launcher, a mountain-themed tactical paint job, the barrel of an AK-47, and a large thick stock similar to a P90. With either a suppressor or bayonet fitted, it was a beast to behold. Then I took a Scar-L and gave it a small Triton barrel, a 3X attack scope, an efficient suppressor and extra grip, and a desert special ops paint job. And thus it became a stealth rifle, perfect for quiet kills. It's hugely satisfying to customize a weapon and come out with something specially tailored to your play style, and I have to say this is one of my favorite aspects of the game. You can go into weapon customization anytime you're not in battle, which is pretty cool. In multiplayer each partner has their own customization screen and pool of money to spend on parts. In single player, the AI automatically upgrades its weapons (in a linear path) as you progress.

The campaign (which of course can be played solo, splitscreen or online) is accompanied by a few other multiplayer modes. Those who pre-ordered the game were granted immediate access to the game mode Extraction, where two partnerships work together fight off an onslaught of enemies, not unlike Gears of War 2's Horde mode or Uncharted 2's Survival mode.

Also present are a couple versus modes: Warzone, Co-Op deathmatch, and Control. Control is standard King of the Hill stuff, Co-Op Deathmatch is team deathmatch with partnerships instead of full on teams, and Warzone is objective-based combat.

Army of Two isn't a bad looking game, incidentally. Like a typically generic shooter though, it's color palette is dominated by gray and brown hues, and some effects, like the explosions, are pretty unconvincing. And, while not rife with glitches, I have had some incidents of the game freezing or enemies failing to spawn (resulting in me being unable to progress). Most cutscenes are still not skippable (a grievance returning from the first game), despite how insignificant the plot is, and you have to sit through a 15-20 second load screen every time you die, despite the 1.4GB mandatory install.

Ultimately, Army of Two's gameplay is its saving grace. If nothing else, the developers put a lot of thought into how they can mesh intense shooting action with strategic co-op gameplay, and for the most part it works to great effect. But some elements of the game, major and minor, sometimes feel like they were almost cobbled together. An 8/10

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