I'm using a dead hippopotamus as cover. Really. Bullets are pounding into its thick, lifeless flesh as I reload. It's quite useful, in a terribly tragic way, of course.
I'm in Shanghai Zoo. As Salem, one half of the Army of Two, I'm popping in and out of the hippo's backside (not literally, as in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective), taking pot shots at enemy soldier heads. When they connect, they explode in a small spray of blood. Then I bunker down behind the hippo, reload, and repeat.
It's quite good, really. As with the first game, the flawed but entertaining Army of Two, the action and mechanics are very Gears of War. It's a two-player co-op game (although developer EA Montreal insists the differences are marked) - I'm playing here with another game journalist. It's a third-person cover based shooter - isn't everything? And the two central characters are soldiers with massive, throbbing arms.
And yet there's something different about Army of Two: The 40th Day (why, exactly, it's called The 40th Day, is still a mystery). Not just compared with the first game, but with other third-person cover-based games as well. It's not the "Aggro System", retained from the first game despite only middling success. No. This time around what's different is something called "Co-op Playbook".
Let's back up. Producer Matt Turner is demonstrating the game, spreading the good word while he plays. He says the co-op experience is more organic this time around. Now, organic is a great word to use when hyping a game, because, really, it doesn't actually mean anything, but we'll give him the benefit of the doubt. Turner says the first game was linear, which is right. It was. Now, you're able to tackle challenges using special co-op moves. "We're putting the co-op in the hands of the player."
Salem and Rios, in civilian clothing and sans those masks from the first game, are on Nanjing Road, Shanghai, having just triggered the first checkpoint The 40th Day has to offer. More of the world is realised this time around. We see mist, floating particles, cars driving in the distance, pedestrians doing that walking thing they do. A meat vendor is slicing and dicing to our left. Shanghai, more so than any location in the first game, is designed to be a living, breathing world.
The dastardly duo meet up with a horribly voice-acted English merc-type called JB. They follow, picking up some gear and their masks along the way - "better safe than sorry". But the masks are raised - you rarely saw Salem and Rios' faces in the first game. In the sequel the pair lift their masks when they're safe - a visual indication that you've cleared an area of bad guys and you're cool to scratch about for new ammo and weapons. This will give players more of a connection with the game's two stars, Turner says. The eyes, as they say, are windows into the soul.
And now, a change I think almost everyone who played the first game will welcome: EA Montreal has reigned in the ridiculous frat boy humour the two would often engage in, replacing it with darker, more serious banter that reflects the tone of the sequel. "More like Bruce Willis in Die Hard and less like Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys," says Turner. Effectively what this means is you'll hear less of the "poontang" nonsense during firefights. This is undoubtedly a good move on the developer's part. I don't know anyone who didn't find Army of Two's dialogue off-putting. The best bit of banter we heard between the two went a bit like this: Rios: "You avoid elevators in the event of a fire." Salem: "You ignore bullshit in the event of a war!"
Much more successful in the first game was the weapon customisation, and EA Montreal has built upon it for the sequel, describing it as "LEGO with guns". You can now customise weapons at any time, including during combat. Inter-class mixing is possible, although only with limited parts. And home made parts are now included, because, well, the Shanghai populace are scrounging around for bits and bobs to defend themselves against the invading force that's destroying their city. The developer spent a lot of time researching home made gun parts - screwdrivers and kitchen knifes on the end of guns, Soda Cans as silencers - that sort of thing. That last one, Turner says, is actually real. It was in a book he bought for the team. Also in the book was a live cat - again, for use as a silencer. They didn't use that.
The point here is that selecting, say, a screwdriver to put on the end of your weapon doesn't just make it look nasty, it makes it feel nasty. Melee with that bad boy and you'll actually hit them with the screwdriver. Maybe that "LEGO with Guns" claim isn't so ridiculous, after all. Of course, you can still "pimp" your weapon, as in the first game - EA Montreal decided that was a feature too hard to let go. But supplementing the gold pimp look are other skins - jungle, Amazon, forest, desert, zebra, tiger, that sort of thing.