When a new IP is announced the temptation to thumb your nose at it, or even dismiss it in favour of the flavour of the month game is extremely tempting. I've seen numerous shooters come and go over the years, Gears of War and Rainbow Six Vegas on consoles, Crysis and Half Life 2 on PC. I'm always fond of trying out the next supposedly big thing, especially if the hype around it is as major as Halo 3 was. I always get disappointed as well when I finally play the game, like Turok, the demo was pretty decent but in the end it turned into a pretty average shooter.
I approached Army of Two with the same level of jaded gamer experience that I tend to everything else. What I found however was that Army of Two isn't a bad game at all, it's not mind-blowing by a long shot and it can be completed by a twitch-reflex hardcore gamer on the medium (Contractor) difficultly level in around six hours of solid play. It doesn't offer much in the way of replay-ability since when you're done with the SP campaign you unlock the primary weapons for free. Play it on the hardest unlocked difficulty (Professional) and you'll unlock the others.
You're cast in the role of a PMC (Private Military Company) operative, either the hulking Tyson Rios or the slightly smaller but by no means wimpy, Elliot Salem. This will be your persona for the balls to the wall action spread over six campaigns, which spans around 16 years of story. You'll battle aggressive enemies and very quickly find that you can't just run and gun, on your own. Army of Two is built around co-op play in both the SP and the MP portions of the game.
Let's look at the SP side of the game first; you have some pretty decent partner AI for a change. It's not fantastic and it will sometimes make a couple of stupid decisions but for the most part it does what it says on the tin. I was shot down and slumped over in the second mission, a turret had me pinned and I was in deep trouble, enemies closing in from all around me. Tyson went into action, as I kept a couple of them at bay with my own gun. The big lug threw a grenade at the turret gunner and then cut his way to me killing the remaining tangos; he then dragged me behind a box and restored me to health.
I had to give him a high-5 for that.
On another play he earned a heabutt for dragging me off and then running around in circles, OH no, they're shooting at me! Yeah, Tyse, heal me up and I can help. Nope, he kept on running around in circles and then shot the bad guy. Too late, grenade, dead, reload checkpoint. You see Army of Two functions like this; you have a field Aggro meter: a little swing see-saw indicator that tells you how much trouble you're causing for the enemy. If you're at the top of this, you're drawing all the gunfire; your partner can sneak around and get some shots on the enemy.
Your partner can be toggled using the d-pad into a variety of stances, with a second press you can change from defensive (blue) to aggressive (red) and he can be told to advance, back you up, hold position. Depending on what you want. Say you're generating all the aggro, Tyson is effectively invisible so he can be told to advance (blue) and he's going to sneak around killing people for you. What happens if you suddenly take too much incoming fire? Simple, put Tyson into the aggressive hold position stance and let him draw aggro.
With the understanding of these elements you can swing the battle in your favour and learn to play tactically: rather than DOOM or Quake style. There are several co-op moves available in the SP and the MP, such as the step jump where you can lift up your companion and let them see or shoot over edges of walls (or they can lift you up) controlled by the d-pad. Co-op sniping, parachute jumps where you're both on the same chute and back to back shooting (which is kind of like a mini-game tension breaker)
During aggro (if you can keep the aggro for a minute or so) you can enter into Overdrive where you're pretty much unstoppable for a short while, you have infinite ammo and you can rip through hordes of enemies. You can also give an appreciative action (A) or an aggressive one (RT) to your partner to let them know you're happy or annoyed with something they've done. This is more a frivolous move than any kind of important game move, unless you're playing with a friend over split-screen or live.
As you plough through the missions you'll get cash from objectives, you'll get cash from hidden items and you'll be able to customise your weapons. You can buy new ones, upgrade the ones you do have and the customisation system for the most part is excellent. Every mod changes a stat about the weapon, put a grenade launcher on an AK and watch the weapon's aggro stat rise. Spend $10,000 and you'll be able to pimp the weapon out so it takes a John Woo style Face Off appearance, with gold, gems and silver fixtures: watch that aggro stat climb!
You can use a primary, a secondary and a special weapon. These are things like rifles, mini-guns for primary, P90's, pistols for secondary and sniper rifles for the special weapon. SP aside, Army of Two comes alive when you add a friend and can play the game co-op with them. You can use advanced tactics and plan your battle perfectly. There's no cover system per-se, the character will crouch behind obstacles and cover but doesn't stick Gears of War style.
The game features a full co-op campaign as well as online adversarial 2v2 team-based matches. These are split across some pretty decent maps with 3 game modes you can choose from: Extraction, Warzones, Bounties are the modes on offer.
Extraction spawns VIPs and hostages into the map randomly; you have to extract them as the title says.
Bounties give you high profile targets to eliminate and so on.
Warzones mixes the two previous modes, adds additional objectives and all modes give you cash that you can use to buy and upgrade your in-game arsenal. The complete range of co-op moves is available in mp and you will find that you're not just fighting two human players. The game spawns in enemy AI to liven things up a lot.
There are a few glitches with the in-game GPS and objectives, there are a few problems with the step-jump at the moment and there's the occasional lag problem here and there. However MP is still a serious amount of fun and its good news that EA are going to support the game with DLC such as new modes and maps.
Army of Two is a game that's larger than life, there's a temptation to compare it to Gears of War, just as every shooter usually gets nailed in comparison to the glowing gem of Microsoft's crown: Halo 3 (which was a bit of a let down) and is however defended to the death by rabid Halo fanboys. Don't get me wrong, I like it, yet there always feels as though there's something missing from the games.
Army of Two fills in that gap for me since it takes the core concepts that I liked about Chaos Theory (Splinter Cell 3) on the Xbox in terms of co-op and gives me a whole game to play either SP or MP with a friend.
So if the game plays pretty well, how's it look?
Army of Two is a damn nice looking game, there's no denying that the developers have spent a lot on the graphical polish and the characters have distinct features that set them apart from each other. Tyson is the bigger of the two and his metal skull style mask is the most macabre of the pair, he's the serious one and not so much of a show-boater as Salem. He's thinner and has a lot more in terms of flare, especially upon his mask (even though you can customise their masks and give them better armour later on).
The use of lighting and shadow, the use of textures and the design of the game is definitely what sets it apart: Gears of War was a nice looking game but Army of Two looks nicer when you compare the two. The level designs in Army of Two are setup to make good use of co-operative play and there are plenty of places to use the co-op moves like step-jump with a partner.
The animations for the main characters are great, even the enemy animations and AI take advantage of complex moves, running to dive or slide behind cover. Peering out over and blind-firing to keep you disorientated. These are all superbly animated and there's a real feeling of polish given to this game in this department. I have a particular soft spot for the aggressive and appreciative partner animations, especially the gun-guitar solos.
To go with the great animations and graphics, you have some truly excellent and meaty voice acting between the main characters, they are full of personality and their actors do an excellent job bringing Elliot and Tyson to life. The voice work in the entire game is pretty spot on. It's a mature rated game, so expect some swearing with the over the top gunplay. Married to the voice work are some excellent audio sounds in general, with the guns sounding strong compared to the pop-gun sounds of some games.
Army of Two is definitely a good game, it needs an option to choose which kind of split-screen to employ and could have done with being a bit longer with a few more special unlocks to add replay value. I guess the developers are hoping that the players will keep on plugging away at the multiplayer which is certainly fun and fairly unique in terms of allowing enemy AI to mix things up with the regular objectives.