Co-op games are great. After playing Rainbow Six Vegas and Gears of War in co-op playing alone in other games just feels wrong. Halo 3 offers the best co-op play on the market at the moment though, with the already excellent campaign reaching new levels of brilliance when played with friends. The one game we'd assume would offer the best co-op gameplay ever, though, is Army of Two, EA's next big thing. Even the name suggests co-op is a big deal, so we sat down with the final review build of the game to see how the much delayed game plays with a friend.
Unlike many other co-op games, Army of Two really seems designed with this gameplay dynamic in mind. The key to the game's combat is agro, something that's very familiar to the agro you get in MMOs when you walk into an enemy's range and it starts attacking you. In Army of Two you can take the agro by repeatedly firing your weapon at enemies. Doing so turns your character red, which indicates that their attention is firmly on you. It might be a tad unrealistic, but this means that your partner can move about almost as if he's invisible, taking out enemies as they pepper your location with gun-fire.
In the opening few levels this has proven to be a decently implemented mechanic, although not one that's free of problems. On numerous occasions the aggravator has run out of ammunition, leaving the stealthy killer wide open for attack when the enemies switch their attention to the biggest threat. We are only a few levels in so hopefully ammo pick-ups become more plentiful later on and we learn how to best manage our supplies.
You'd think that a simple system where one man fires on enemy positions and the other freely targets and kills them would make for a simple game, but even in the first few levels we found ourselves having to make use of the game's special co-op features. The first you're likely to come across is what happens when one of you is critically wounded. You hit the deck as you'd expect, but you're allowed to continue to fire in the direction you're facing - essentially giving you one last stand. Your partner can give you medical aid if he reaches you quickly enough, although it's usually best to drag your partner's body to a safe location first. As you're dragging or being dragged you can still shoot, which allows you to hold off enemies and get to safety.
At another point in the game's first real level I ripped a car door off its hinges and used it as a shield. My partner took up position behind me (the game actually locks the second player to the first player's movement in these situations) and we were able to move through a fairly hairy section of the level without being pummelled by bullets. It's moments like this and when you're being dragged to safety that Army of Two shows most promise, as it's unlike anything co-op games have offered in the past.
Less thrilling were the moments when we initiated a countdown to time a simultaneous snipe on a target or when the game locked us together and initiated some kind of slow motion back-to-back all guns blazing moment straight out of the cheesiest action movies. Even just a few levels in we've already encountered a handful of these set-piece moments and we can't say they've been all that much fun. Neither character is able to move about the level, with controls locked to aiming and firing. It sadly feels a little too forced.
We're nowhere near far enough in to offer a definitive verdict on Army of Two (that will have to wait until March 5), so the game could really go either way. What is clear from our time with the final game is that playing alone isn't going to be nearly as good as playing with a friend. Thankfully you'll be able to play two-player co-op via split-screen or over the internet. Playing with an AI team mate is passable but nowhere near how the game was intended to be played. You can issue commands but it feels clunky and forces you to spend time doing things you know a real player could handle by themselves.
Built using Epic's Unreal Engine 3 Army of Two has a distinct look of Gears of War about it. It's by no means a copy, but moving through the dusty urban streets of the first non-training level felt very familiar. Hopefully the game will open out into more expansive areas as you progress and stay away from the tones of grey and brown Gears has become famous for.
Army of Two is in many ways a bold move by EA, a company that has often received criticism for focussing on well tested franchises and milking them dry. There's no denying that the game's unique co-op elements show what has been lacking in similar games, but whether or not the game is actually good enough in its own right remains to be seen. Check back on March 5 for our final verdict.