Army of Two wasn't terrible, but it wasn't great either. Thankfully. EA Montreal's been given a second chance, and is hard at work making the sequel, The 40th Day, an all together better co-op cover-based shooter than the original. After putting a preview build of the game through its paces at EA's Guildford headquarters last week, we sat down with producer Matt Turner to find out what's new, what's better, and how Salem and Rios have matured.
VideoGamer.com: Shanghai isn't somewhere we're used to going in video games. Why did you decide to set the game there?
Matt Turner: It's a question I got a lot today, actually. It's because it's an interesting city. It's got a lot of interesting environments and terrain. You've got these huge skyscrapers that are brand new in the financial district, and you have a river that goes through in a U shape, and downtown you've got tenements, zoos, parks, markets and all this stuff that's interesting. One of our ideas for this game is taking the players out of conventional shooter spaces and putting them in places where they might not be very comfortable. For example the zoo you played obviously, and rooftops of high-rises and skyscrapers. Shanghai had all that. It had all those things we wanted to do and places we wanted to take players. For the story we wanted to tell, which is a little bit more of an intimate story about Rios and Salem, who they are and what they're doing in this world and who they are when no-one's looking in this catastrophe, it's much more conducive to a smaller area where you can have more precise moments. All of that pointed at having one cool location, and that cool location happened to be Shanghai. It had everything we wanted.
VideoGamer.com: How was that decision made? Do you guys have a meeting where everyone's ideas are put on the table?
MT: It was brainstorming, lots of that.
VideoGamer.com: Had someone been there?
MT: Brain dumps. I had been there before that, but that had nothing to do with it being chosen for the game.
VideoGamer.com: Shame! Then you would be able to take all the credit.
MT: Only me! My idea and no-one else's! We looked at the first one and the success, the negative and the positive, and from that figured out what we wanted to do with the second one and then where we wanted to take it. That gave us our loose framework of where we wanted to be. From that we made decisions one after the other. So we'll have a smaller story, it's a little more simple but a little more deep. Okay so that means make it take place over four days. Okay that means we should do it in one location. Okay that means... you know what I mean? So it was a chain reaction of stuff.
VideoGamer.com: Why is it called The 40th Day?
MT: Oh! It's part of the story man! I can't get into that one! That's the name of the invading force - The 40th Day Initiative. That's all we're saying right now. Part of the story is why they call themselves that. All we're saying is these guys are pretty bad ass and they've got a lot of money behind them. They've got their own reasons.
VideoGamer.com: In the level where you demonstrated the morality system, we saw you're able to get an instant reward in terms of whether or not the weapons cache will be open or closed. Is that as far as the morality system goes?
MT: That's one of the things that will happen in certain circumstances. It'll be weapons caches, and those are placed in logical places. So that one was in that helicopter. That was what they were doing there, they were guarding the crashed helicopter with weapons in it. So they had a reason to be there. They weren't just hanging out in the zoo. So that's the whole idea of pre-combat. But also there will be moments where, depending on how you negotiate a situation, it'll affect your morality as well. So that'll go up or down. You might get immediate rewards with guns or not guns, or whatever they are, money. It'll also affect the relationship between Rios and Salem. So if you are being negative to each other it'll put a rift in there. If not they'll be more loyal. It's that constant push and pull, which is neat.
VideoGamer.com: If two players are playing online and one person wants to do one thing and the other wants to do something else, how is that resolved?
MT: Whoever does it first wins. That'll be resolved in various ways. That goes into the big morality moments as well. So whoever presses the button first makes the choice for the team. The idea with that is, we want that to happen. We want you to have to think about things first. So maybe the first time you just hit it - "I did it". No, that's not what I wanted to do, idiot. Let's talk this through next time. So for a good team they might talk through all the stuff, but if you're playing with somebody you don't know or you don't care maybe you'll be an asshole. It's just offering different levels and different ways of playing through the game.
VideoGamer.com: Do your decisions affect the story in any way?
MT: At certain points yes, they will affect the story in certain ways, for sure. What I would say is it affects the game in lots of different ways at lots of different times. It's not like doing it a certain way every time will yield the exact same result. Every situation is unique, and it will affect you either with rewards, or no rewards, or story or relationship with your partner or whatever. It has all kinds of different impacts.
VideoGamer.com: Is the gameplay affected by having a poor relationship between Salem and Rios?
MT: As in like will they not do co-op moves? No. That would be frustrating as you couldn't do stuff. It's more dialogue.
VideoGamer.com: Was the morality system inspired by any other games? We've seen karma systems in role-playing games.
MT: We were by no means the first people to do it. BioShock did a cool version of it, with the harvesting of Little Sisters and all that stuff, which was pretty interesting. Playing Fallout 3, where you have a karma system where you can be go good or bad, all that stuff is there in different various forms. I think the way that we have done it in the shooter space is fresh and new. People will be excited by it because it's not typical to that kind of game, right? It's offering a different kind of problem solving within the shooter. I find with a lot of role-playing games it's [a karma system] not what it's about, but it's an integral part of it. You are what you are. Are you evil or are you good? With Bethesda, Oblivion and stuff, everything you do affects it, which is pretty neat. We're on a different level. It's not the same by any stretch but it's appropriate for what we're doing.
VideoGamer.com: Is it always clear cut what decision will result in positive morality and what decision will result in negative morality?
MT: There are definite grey areas. And a lot of the morality choices are grey areas where you're not sure what's right and what's wrong. That's intentional. We want to have these people going, ahh, what shall we do here? That's a tough one.
VideoGamer.com: Can you give us any examples?
MT: There was the one we showed at E3 - it's the only one we've shown so far. There's a weapons cache. You come in and a security guard comes in and he's like, put the weapons back. It's in the South African consulate. You have a choice. You can disarm him and take the guns or you can put them back. In that situation you'd be like, okay, well, disarming him is not that bad. Whatever, I'll take the guns. And then if you disarm him a bullet ricochets and he dies. You kill him by accident. So it's like, ah, I didn't mean to do that. It's that Pulp Fiction moment of, I shot the guy in the face, I didn't mean to! That's grey in the outcome. We have other ones that are grey as to which one is good and which one is bad, which I think is interesting.
VideoGamer.com: So that one will lead you down a different path in terms of the story?
MT: Not completely. At certain points that will affect the story. But not every one will branch.
VideoGamer.com: User creation is big at the moment, and one of the things Army of Two was successful in was the weapons customisation feature. Have you considered a weapon uploading tool so people can show off their weapons from The 40th Day?
MT: It happened by accident on the first one where people were YouTubing their own creations. That's something we love when it happens. As far as showing off the guns, the idea is you're showing it off in the online space. You go and play with somebody and you go, hey look at this bad boy, I've played through six times and I've got this thing. But the cool part about it as well is there's no super gun. There's no ideal combination of parts that will make a gun that was absolutely unstoppable.
VideoGamer.com: So you can't max out the stats?
MT: No. Everything has got checks and balances. We don't want to have it where everyone is striving to have this one combination and then that one is the only one. We want to encourage people to make guns to their style, as opposed to, that's the best and there is no question about it.
VideoGamer.com: How are you expanding upon Salem and Rios' personalities? How have they changed?
MT: I would say they have grown up, for lack of a better term. They've been through a lot already. The two of them together have seen a lot of shit. They have that sense to them. They've got that little bit older feeling. A little bit wiser. The fact that we have the masks up now for cutscenes allows us to express that more and go a little deeper into who they are as people and who they were as well, which is fun. We had a lot of fun creating moments that refer back to stuff when they were teenagers. It's not a direct feel. You just get a hint of it. These guys come from somewhere. They have something maybe interesting to say, or maybe not, who knows? They have something worth listening to there. We've developed that a lot through those cutscenes and the way they react to the world around them.
VideoGamer.com: Has Army of Two matured?
MT: The game has grown up in itself a lot. In all levels it's grown up a lot. That's something that's important. As developers for us to evolve our IP is important and not just stick to, here we go, this is what we got, it's awesome. We want to be constantly improving on it and making it better and more interesting in different ways. I think we've managed to do that in a big way with this one.
VideoGamer.com: We interviewed EA Montreal boss Alain Tascan at GamesCom recently, and he told us he sees Army of Two has the potential to be as big as Call of Duty.
MT: It has the potential for sure. I would never say we are there yet. But I would say we have the potential to be there.
VideoGamer.com: He pointed to Salem and Rios as central to achieving that potential. He said they can become iconic video game characters because of the buddy system. You're showing their faces now. Is part of that because having a faceless central character has its limits? What about Master Chief, for example, who doesn't seem to have limits in terms of his popularity despite being faceless?
MT: Master Chief is a different one because he never speaks. He doesn't engage in dialogue. What makes Master Chief relatable is people are able to put themselves inside that suit. They are Master Chief. He's not anybody else, which is a different thing than what we've got. We have two unique and identifiable characters. When you have the mask, maybe you can put yourself in there a little bit more. But what we're trying to do here is define these two people and make them interesting, so people want to play with them, not as them. It's a different thing. It's cool that we have that ability and we can make those iconic characters. And when the mask pops up, boom. Oh there's the guy. That's who I'm looking at. There he is. You can relate to him. They're a little bit more dynamic and they have a lot more range. It's done a lot for the characters in this game, for sure. It's also to do with the difference between third-person and first-person. You're looking down on them, whereas in first-person you are them. It's a different perspective on that.
VideoGamer.com: The game is coming out on January 8, 2010. There have been quite a few high-profile delays from 2009 to 2010 in order to avoid the Christmas crowd. But in a weird way it's created a new Christmas early next year. Is The 40th Day well placed then?
MT: We've hit the sweet spot there. It's just after all that Christmas stuff and it's just before the next wave of it. Everyone's going to have time to finish their Christmas games and they'll have their gift certificates and they can go and get Army of Two just before everything else hits. We've found ourselves a nice little window that people are going to be ready for something else.
VideoGamer.com: There's even talk about publishers delaying games even further to avoid the new Christmas. Will there be a new Christmas in summer 2010?
MT: That's funny though. I really think that kind of stigma that exists in the industry, that there's only one place to release, it's either Christmas or it's March, it's funny. Games should release when it fits, you know what I mean? To force yourself into one of those windows I don't think makes a lot of sense. You've got to try and find your place that is suiting for the kind of game you are and the competition. There are thousands of factors that can factor into it. It's a really delicate thing. People ought to get out of that mindset that there are only these places where I can release. Here, here, or maybe here, otherwise, don't even think about it.
VideoGamer.com: Imagine I'm a gamer who bought and enjoyed Army of Two, but am aware of its flaws. Why should I pre-order The 40th Day?
MT: As a co-op game it's pushing the co-op genre in places no-one else has gone before. The variety of co-op things you can do, the co-op core of the game, everything feeds into this idea of organic co-op and having fun with a buddy playing the game. That's what it's about. People respond well to that and I think if you want to get a good co-op experience, if you're into that or if you want to try one, there's no other game other than Army of Two to try. And I think in a silly kind of way the weapons customisation is really fun. If you're a gun nut, or if you're just into having fun collecting stuff and building your own content, there's nothing out there that's quite as deep as that. Those two things, people should notice it. If they want to play some co-op and build some cool guns and have fun with that then there's no other game out there to play.
Army of Two: The 40th Day is due out on PS3, Xbox 360 and PSP on January 8 2010.