When Electronic Arts first announced Army of Two, DailyGame was among the first members of the media to see the game in action at E3. At the time, Splinter Cell had just delved into the world of co-op gameplay, and our excitement at the Army of Two demo was fueled more by the then-new concept of co-op play than it was by Army of Two’s actual gunplay or graphics. Fast-forward a few years, and EA has just released Army of Two for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. In the years that have passed, very little has changed about the game’s premise or intrigue, and our fascination still lies in the game’s co-op elements. Generally such consistency is a good thing, but only when the product actually delivers on its consistent promises.
Army of Two lives and dies by its cooperative play, whereas most shooters use co-op more as a nice addition than a core gameplay element. Although early movies and demos showed Army of Two’s main characters helping one another up ledges, going back-to-back to mow down hordes of terrorists and performing cooperative sniping, these scenarios are few and far between and only occur at scripted points. This left us feeling a bit cheated, as the potential for more “open world” environments that could be tackled with a variety of tactics sounded incredible. However, Army of Two’s co-op play still delivers where it counts: finding a balance between gunplay and cover mechanics.
In many ways, Army of Two feels like the love child of Gears of War and Splinter Cell — which by most accounts is a beautiful baby. Although the back-to-back and ledge-hopping opportunities are limited, the core of Army of Two’s linear levels lies in working with your partner to make effective use of the “Aggro Meter.” As one of the game’s two players fires in an enemy’s direction, that player earns more Aggro because he’s “aggravating” the enemy. Keep firing in the enemy’s direction — or better yet, at a few enemies — and the Aggro Meter fills further, eventually making that player draw so much attention that the other player turns invisible.
This invisibility feature, while it sounds cheap and weird, makes total sense. After all, if somebody’s shooting at me with a chaingun, you’d better believe I’m going to pay serious attention to that guy and ignore anyone not directly threatening my life. As a result, balancing Aggro and stealth is really what Army of Two is all about. While one player sits behind cover and lays aggravating suppressing fire, the other player can flank the enemy and either perform a stealthy kill or blast them to pieces before they even know what hit them.
Such a gameplay mechanic runs the risk of becoming old, tired and repetitive, but Army of Two seldom delves into the realm of tedium. In fact, the only things tedious about Army of Two are the AI incessantly pointing out the need to flank heavily armored soldiers, and the carbon copy-like level design of two of the later levels (hello, Halo Library). But while tedium isn’t necessarily an issue with Army of Two, the AI and gameplay controls can be.
To understand the AI issues, it’s important to realize that Army of Two is at its best when playing with a live person. In Campaign Mode, players can start a single-player game, a split-screen game, a public online co-op game and a private online co-op game. And just for the sake of being thorough, players can also fire up a co-op game from their last non-co-op checkpoint and play through a particularly hard section with a friend. Clearly, playing with other gamers is the focus here. However, the game can be played entirely with an AI partner, and although the computer does a serviceable job, there are definitely some issues.
For instance, gamers use the D-pad to give three basic commands to the AI partner: regroup, hold position and advance. In each case, players can determine whether the partner carries out this action defensively (to preserve/regain health) or aggressively (engage the enemy). But for a game that’s driven by suppressing-fire gameplay mechanics, one major command is completely missing: “move to.” This is a serious oversight, because although you can tell the AI to hold position while giving suppressing fire, the AI doesn’t always choose the best location to hold, leaving the human player frustrated at the inability to simply say “go over here and unload a clip while I sneak around the other side.”
The AI also often fails to find efficient ways to heal the player-controlled character, which can lead to some untimely and idiotic deaths in the later levels. During development, much ado was made over Army of Two’s “shove a tampon in the wound” method of healing a fallen comrade. Fortunately, that has been replaced by a simple timed window a la Gears of War, in which a fallen player has a certain amount of time to be patched up before he dies.
Unlike Gears of War, however, fallen characters in Army of Two are still conscious, so they can fire in any direction to help clear a path for their rescuer. Unfortunately, those paths are often unnecessarily complicated, as we found out several times when the AI would make its way to our character and then proceed to drag us a good 50 feet — past many suitable areas of cover — only to find his operating room of choice to be surrounded by enemies.
Fortunately the enemy AI holds up a bit better, as it makes active use of flanking tactics and tosses grenades with just the right frequency. There is a bit of what we call the “Call of Duty syndrome,” where enemies come in endless waves until players reach a certain checkpoint, but if we can forgive that tactic in Call of Duty 4, we can forgive it here as well. It’s still a bit annoying, particularly if the friendly AI is acting up, but generally the checkpoints aren’t too big of an issue. It’s at those times that players just need to “man up” and run in with guns blazing, hoping the command of “regroup aggressively” actually works.
Speaking of guns, because Army of Two is a game about mercenaries, players earn money for achieving various primary and secondary objectives in each level, which they can then spend before each mission to purchase new primary, secondary and special weapons. In some of the longer levels, players encounter mid-mission shops as well, although those only appear on about two missions. Money can also be used to upgrade each weapon, and depending on the weapon, the upgrades can be quite numerous. Assault rifles, for instance, can often have upgrades applied to their barrel (more damage), clip (more bullet capacity) and stock (more accuracy). Almost all weapons can also be “blinged out” for a fee (usually $10,000), which increases the amount of Aggro associated with each weapon (the more Aggro it is, the more it’ll draw enemies’ attention when you use it).
Players can also upgrade their weapons in the online multiplayer modes, which to be perfectly honest, provide a whole mess of strategic yet frantic fun. Borrowing a page from Gears of War, Army of Two goes the route of more-intimate online matches, with four players hopping into games that see two armies of two going up against one another. Like a tactical team-based game, Army of Two includes several objectives within each of its three game types (Warzone, Bounties and Extraction), and although the map choices are limited (four total, based on the campaign), they offer enough diversity that players can switch up their tactics each time out. Sure, there’s not the diversity of modes or editing options a la Halo 3, but one need only look at Gears of War to see that a team-based game doesn’t necessarily need a bunch of modes to deliver the goods.
Yet speaking of Gears of War brings up another sore spot with this reviewer: the plot. To its credit, Army of Two delves into pretty gutsy territory, as it explores not only the politics of modern wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but the very real possibility of corrupt corporations and politicians working toward nefarious ends with a privatized military. But with only six missions and about nine hours of gameplay, the plot at times feel thrown together, almost as though chunks of exposition were axed for the sake of time. This hampers not only the overall story, but the depth of the main characters, one of whom is a conspiracy theorist and one of whom is obsessed with money. Players never really get an explanation of why each character has these tendencies, and although some gamers might not care about such background details, the details’ omission is definitely a glaring one, considering EA based such a large part of the plot on those character motivations.
Maybe “the sake of time” explains the graphical state of Army of Two as well. Although it’s certainly no slouch, Army of Two can’t keep up with Call of Duty 4 (the new standard bearer for shooters), and in fact doesn’t look quite as good as the year-old Gears of War. You’re probably as sick of these Gears comparisons as I am of writing them, but they’re certainly warranted in the graphics department, which would seemingly benefit two games whose linearity is about equal. With less ground to cover, more graphical attention can be paid to the player’s immediate surroundings. Yet in spite of this, and in spite of occasional mid-mission loading screens and the use of caching techniques like hallways and elevators, Army of Two looks like the first Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter. This means the game looks good, sure, but in light of more-recent releases, it’s just a few steps behind the Joneses.
But even with its AI and command shortcomings and its a-few-chapters-short story, Army of Two is a strong co-op game that delivers a compelling experience at a time of year when gamers are clamoring for something new. The newness doesn’t come in the gameplay itself, which combines the mechanics of several games, but in the execution of it all as a single, cohesive package. If you’ve got a few friends who can play their shooters with a touch of strategy, Army of Two is the first shooter you won’t want to miss in 2008.
- Score: 8.3
- The co-op gameplay is both Army of Two’s savior and burden, but the end result is still an enjoyable experience that fills a void not just in the Q1 doldrums, but in the shooter scene as a whole. Bring on the sequel.
— Jonas Allen