Some folks out there are absolutely nuts about plain vanilla deathmatch. They love just going toe-to-toe with other people in an all-out bloodbath. Personally, I’m all about the cooperative play. When I got a very early sneak peek at Army of Two I knew that it’d be a game that I’d enjoy. I had no idea just how much or any inkling of the reason why.
Last week I went on vacation to visit my in-laws. My father-in-law had received an Xbox 360 as a present and picked up a copy of Army of Two as well as a second controller as his first game. For his first video game he had chosen a co-op game and had chosen me to play it with him. I was absolutely blown away by the sentiment, but I wasn’t sure if the title was up to the task.
In Army of Two we follow the mercenary career of two ex Army Rangers named Tyson Rios and Elliot Salem as they prosecute war for profit missions for a group called the Security and Strategy Corporation, or SSC. As we follow Tyson and Elliot through the various conflicts of the last 16 years it becomes clear that being a mercenary for hire is a profitable business, and where there is big business there is corruption. In between prosecuting conflicts for cash it is their job to uncover just how deep the corruption goes and how best to dig themselves out of it.
To be honest, the storyline doesn’t matter a great deal – you can read the vast majority of it in the book, and it doesn’t take much to read between the lines to figure out the rest. Given that the storyline is that transparent, could the gameplay stand up on its own?
Graphically, Army of Two is a pretty sharp looking title. From the character models to the urban and jungle environments, Army of Two is bursting with detail. All of the characters are motion captured and Havok-powered for realism. Salem and Rios sport ablative armor complete with dents, scratches, flame graphics, and every normal-mapped and bump-mapped trick in the book. Without the armor you can see muscles, veins, and plenty of detail in both soldiers’ tattoos and scars. Similarly, the enemies are wearing explosives, ragged clothing, face masks, and cargo pants full of ammo and attitude.
Throughout the game you’ll visit some bombed out urban environments in Afghanastan and Iraq, jungle environments in China and Korea, and even a location in Miami, Florida. Each location is detailed and bright, making extensive use of high dynamic range lighting to simulate your eyes adjusting to dark caves and bright lights. From the top down, this is a great looking game.
The biggest worry when a game is delayed is that the developer is attempting to Band-Aid the framerate since optimization and bug fixes are the last to get in. Surprisingly, even given the delay and tightly-packed details, there isn’t a dropped frame I could find in the game. Every explosion is flawless, even when there are enemies swarming at all distances. There are a few instances where I spotted texture tearing (mostly on fences in the distance), or the odd Havok-powered head banging/toe-tapping corpse, but overall it is a very clean presentation.
Flip over the box – Army of Two is rated M for Mature. You’ll hear swear words ranging from The Shield to Deadwood, so keep that in mind if you’ve got little ones around. The good news is that it doesn’t feel forced or frivolous, more like the salty language I heard from my real-world military cohorts. Additionally, the sound effects are equally believable, with the exception of the M107 .50 Caliber LRSR which has a far louder report than is represented in the game.
The music in Army of Two serves as background filler, as it should be, but also gives you audio clues as to your current situation. When enemies are pressing your position you’ll get more intense music, with an obvious tone change when you’ve taken out your enemies. That isn’t to say that you are safe when the music is calm, just that you are a lot closer to an “All Clear”. Overall, there is nothing particularly egregious in the audio department – just like Salem and Rios, the audio just gets the job done.
Looking over the controls you’ll likely gather that they are somewhat complex. You’ll be using the analog sticks for movement, crouching, and camera control, and the face buttons for crouching, reloading, and action, but it is the shoulder buttons that matter most. The right shoulder opens your inventory wheel so you can select from one of the four weapon categories – primary, secondary, special, and grenades. The left shoulder is used for calling co-op commands to your partner such as advance, regroup, hold aggro/passive, and advance aggro/passive. It also handles swapping weapons and calling for co-op snipe. There is a relatively short training mission to get you familiar with all of the controls, but it’ll likely take you a little while to really nail these controls down. It isn’t that you’ll be unable to control your character, just that you won’t be as effective.
There is a very large elephant in the room with regards to the controls – other than calling for co-op snipe in single player (or for fun while playing multiplayer) there is almost no use for some of the commands. Swapping weapons is relatively pointless unless you want to hand an empty weapon to your computer-controlled buddy. The AI is often too brainless to handle your commands effectively to bother ordering them around, so there is little point to that menu either. The co-op snipe is useful in certain situations, but they are so obviously set up that it could be scripted. Here is the thing though…it all somehow works. My father-in-law, having never played a game in his life, was playing co-op with me fairly effectively after only an hour with the controls. My wife who has played games only recently was able to pick up the controls and play through the entire game with me with very little coaching. While there are some pointless aspects to the controls, there is no doubt that they do indeed work and work well. What more could a developer ask for?
Army of Two, despite having a single-player option, is primarily a multiplayer game. The game bills itself as a third-person shooter and makes use of cover and concealment, pitting a pair of soldiers against an army of terrorists. Throughout the game you’ll be given the chance to upgrade your weapons as the difficulty escalates, utilizing the aggro system to cooperatively take out targets through teamwork. Accomplishing objectives earns you cash for the aforementioned upgrades. All in all, a fairly simple concept built entirely around the concept of cooperative gunplay.
Tougher enemies like the more heavily armored troops can’t be taken down from the front or sides, meaning that you’ll need to acquire aggro by pouring lead into your target. This makes your partner all but invisible so they can move around the target and shoot them in their vulnerable backside. When playing with a friend you can easily shout commands to each other to make this happen, but when you are playing Army of Two in single player mode, you’ll have to rely on the somewhat weak AI to help you out. Sometimes it works, and sometimes your buddy will eschew all good sense to chase down some fleet-of-foot peon, ignoring the heavy and your orders in the process. You get to die as a consolation prize.
Speaking of death, when you are downed by your opponents you’ll fall on your butt and prop yourself up, calling for your friend to come and heal you. You can do this an infinite number of times, as long as your buddy reaches you in time and they aren’t hit by any fire during the healing process. When you are playing on Live or in split-screen co-op this works well as you can coach your friend out of the line of fire while he drags you to safety. When working with the AI it is a bit of a mystery. Sometimes they’ll try to heal you in a safe position nearby, and other times they’ll drag you halfway across the map for the same task. It works most of the time, but gets old quickly when it doesn’t.
There are a variety of enemies in the game, each slightly more powerful than the last. The grunts have a blue chevron next to their health bar and sport very little armor. Yellow chevron troops are heavies that simply can’t be taken down from the front, requiring a bit of tactical planning. Red and Skull chevrons are officers and bosses (although there are very few in the game) requiring an obscene amount of bullet pouring to drop. The upside? There are no Bruce Leroy wannabes catching bullets in their teeth – a headshot (other than against bosses or heavies) is immediately lethal. This does highlight one of the inaccuracies in the game for me however – the M107. This particular sniper rifle has an effective range beyond 2000 meters and a maximum range of over 7000 meters, so why is it that I can’t zoom in further than every other rifle? Also, the rifle fires 660 grain bullets the length of your hand, so why does it take more than one shot to the chest? Would it unbalance the game? Sure. Can this rifle be used at ranges less than 200-300 meters? Not effectively. They should have stuck to the smaller rifles and left this one in the arsenal back home.
Moving away from the nit-picks, there are several other things that work very well cooperatively, regardless of whether you are playing co-op or with the AI. Using a step-jump to get higher in pre-specified spots, pulling your friend up to a higher location, using a shield with your buddy firing over your shoulder, tandem parachute sequences, going back to back to rip through enemies in slow motion, and driving the criminally-underused hovercraft works incredibly well throughout the game. Clearly with all of this cooperative work you’ll need a great deal of communication between you and your partner. There have been other titles that have tried to make this work, but few have succeeded to this degree.
As you progress through the game you’ll be given objectives to accomplish which will line your pockets with cash. Additionally there are optional sub-objectives such as recovering attack plan intel or lists of potential targets that will net you bonus cash. This gives you the cash needed to buy some of the obscenely expensive weapons or the upgrades. While your own aiming skills will factor more than the upgrades, they are nice to have. The only thing that really bugged me is that many of the weapons feel exactly the same. All of the sniper rifles feel the same, all of the machine guns feel the same, and all of the heavy machine guns feel the same. The only real difference on some of them is how much ammo they can hold. With bags of ammo being somewhat inconsistently dropped, the extra 100 or so bullets might make all the difference in the world on higher difficulty levels.
If I’ve not beaten this into the ground enough, let me sum it up – Army of Two is best played with friends. The AI is workable but nothing replaces good old split-screen or Xbox Live play. The concept is pretty simple and works for the most part, I just can’t help but feel like the features of the game could have been more smooth with a little more development time.
Before you get started in the game you’ll pick from two difficulty levels with a third one locked until you complete the game. These determine the amount of bullets necessary to drop you or your opponents, as well as how many enemy bodies you’ll be stacking up. Each time you start the game you’ll have the option to push that difficulty level up or down, giving players the ability to vary their difficulty if they feel the need. You can knock out the game in roughly 7 hours of gameplay to complete the campaign, but the multiplayer looks like it may give the game a few more hours of gameplay on its own. If only the game could stand on its own two feet without the need for a second player all of the time.
Multiplayer is split into Versus, Warzone, Extraction, and Bounties modes with more promised on the horizon. Versus is two on two race to complete specific objectives for time – wasting the other team just nets you a bonus. Warzone is another cooperative mission but you’ll face off against AI-controlled enemies as you try to complete objectives. Extraction is not unlike the VIP mode in CounterStrike but both sides have VIPs to protect. Bounties rounds things out with two teams trying to assassinate targets as quickly as possible for cash. The modes are somewhat basic in nature, but the fact that they are cooperative makes it that much more enjoyable.Put simply, Army of Two is a great game to play with a friend whether that friend is local for split-screen or on Xbox Live for remote play. The cooperative elements are passable in single player but really shine when executed with a friend. The multiplayer is fairly basic, but the cooperative nature makes for a more complete experience. Couple all of this with the very human experience I got to enjoy with my wife and father-in-law and I’m hard pressed not to recommend this title.