Army of Two is a brave step by EA. Despite being responsible for some of the most entertaining games released over the past few years the publisher still has a bad reputation with certain gamers, and Army of Two was looking to change that. As a brand new IP with a clear focus on cooperative gameplay we had high hopes, but for every moment where the ideas seem fresh, the gameplay feels awkward, often to the extent that the fundamental mechanics feel broken. You're certainly an army of two, but you might not want to see your partner again once you're finished.
With a plot revolving around soldiers for hire (mercenaries Tyson Rios and Elliot Salem), privatising the military, political hot spots and some backstabbing and revenge, Army of Two is set up pretty well. It's got all the ingredients needed of a solid action game, but it doesn't make the most of it. The plot seems patched together and is never all that engaging, the characters are hard to believe - mainly because they don't do enough that plays towards their different personalities - and the threat never seems as big as it's made out to be. Without the story to keep you playing, the gameplay has a lot resting on its shoulders.
Whether played with a real person (online or via split-screen) or an AI partner the game focuses heavily on what EA calls the Aggro system. A meter at the top of the screen shows who is generating the most aggro, and the enemies focus on that character. Taking the aggro is as simple as firing at an enemy location, or better still hitting enemies - the higher the aggro the redder the character becomes. The other character then becomes somewhat invisible to the enemy (to the extent that the game shows him as being slightly transparent), enabling him to sneak around the back of enemies to get a better shot - indeed, some enemies can only be downed by attacking from the rear.
For this to work you need to play the game as it wants to be played, which means sticking to cover and working as a team. Rather than using cover like in Gears of War or Rainbow Six Vegas, you simply move behind objects and peek out from the sides. The only snapping to cover is when you dive behind something. It feels a little fiddly at first, but you get used to it and it works - although you'll often think you're aiming directly at a target only to find you're shooting into a wall.
Problems quickly arise though. When everyone is playing by the rules - you're in cover or trying to flank the enemy and the enemy is a reasonable distance from you - the game ticks along, unspectacularly, but decently enough. You feel like you're having to use tactics to overcome them and it seems like a job well done by EA. But then someone will rush at you and the game falls apart at the seams. For trained soldiers these guys can't deal with close-quarters combat well at all.
The main problem is the camera, which isn't your traditional third-person shooter viewpoint, instead going for something like Splinter Cell where you can only strafe when using the slightly zoomed in aiming view. Unlike Splinter Cell, Army of Two throws an awful lot of enemies at you and you need to be able to aim and take them down quickly, often while moving. Trying to shoot anything while not using the aiming view makes a joke of the soldiers you're controlling, as they're almost incompetent and the turn speed when using the precision aim view is so slow that you're a dead duck if you're out in the open.
All it takes is one guy to get up close and you'll be a mess of aiming reticules and spinning camera angles, and if that guy happens to want to launch a rocket at your face from two metres (it does happen), you can wave goodbye to the world. Things aren't helped by an inability to easily spot where enemies are shooting you from. As is the norm, an on-screen red marker appears when you're hit, indicating the direction it came from, but in the heat of the battle - and with enemies ducking down behind cover all the time - it's almost impossible to spot them. It's made even worse when the screen is filled with red to indicate your ill health.
You'd assume playing with a real person would make things easier, but if anything it's actually harder. When playing with an AI partner you know where you stand. Although there's no command to move to a certain location (a big omission in our book), you can tell him to tag along with you, head on into the level or hold firm by pressing left, up or right on the d-pad respectively. The key to making the best use of your AI partner is deciding when to switch between the aggressive and passive modes for each of these commands. Passive makes him take cover and generally try not to get the attention of enemies, while aggressive sees him taking more risks and making sure the enemy knows he's there - effectively taking the aggro.
By using the on-screen mini-window which shows your partner's position you can pretty effectively move him to the position you want. Tell him to move through the level and then switch to an aggressive hold firm command when enemies are in sight, and he'll do his job. With the aggro on him you can sneak around the side and take out enemies relatively easily. If he starts to take too much heavy fire, a quick tap again right on the d-pad will tell him to play it safe, so he stops firing and takes better cover. You can then take the aggro and give him time to recover. At times it works well, but it's a flawed system with its success depending on the number of enemies and their willingness to rush at you.
With a real partner things aren't as clear cut. The same rules apply, but you've got to work together, with clear roles defined at every encounter and communication needing to be spot on. If you find yourself playing with someone with considerably less ability than you, you might as well forget about it as you'll both be killed, over and over again. When you're shot down you usually get a chance to be given medical aid (unless you take a shotgun to the face), with your partner running in and fixing you up, hopefully before your time is up. Doing this in the open isn't ideal so you're able to drag your partner behind cover - something I found the AI was far better at, despite coming unstuck by grenades on numerous occasions.
Other co-op actions seem great at first but soon become less and less used as you realise you're better off sticking to what you know. Using a shield and working as a team behind it is ok, but it limits your attacking options, and the co-op sniping is something we found very little use for. You'll be forced to use the back to back move at various points (at least once per level) but it feels rather tacked on. You simply spin round and shoot while a tonne of enemies run at you. These set-pieces could have been cut from the game at no real cost. You'll also have to help one another up onto ledges at various points, but at no point did the game feel especially better as a co-op game than any of the others on the market.
All of the problems are compounded by some dull level design and a lack of variety. Every level plays out the same with the final guy needing to be flanked and shot from behind. Given that a number of these areas are little more than outdoor corridors, finding a path around the back without running straight past the super enemy is practically impossible and it ruins the illusion that you're actually outthinking your foe.
Never before in a game have I witnessed so much anger by two people playing together. At times Army of Two makes enjoying it impossible, with the game seemingly trying its hardest to ruin the potential it has. Add some annoyingly placed checkpoints to the list of problems and you have a game that only the most committed will work through - even though it can be finished in six hours on the highest difficulty available from the start. Hovercraft sections are introduced at a number of points, no doubt to spice the gameplay up a little, but they feel dated even compared to the boat sections in Half-Life 2. Throughout the campaign I was waiting for things to kick off and for the game to go up a gear, but the spectacle never came.
When you first use a parachute, sniping enemies below while your partner controls the chute's descent, you get a flash of something brilliant, but later sections make aiming nearly impossible and you can simply fly past most the enemies anyway, making the shooting a diversion at best. You can even perform ridiculous air guitar solos or high fives with your buddy, but they're completely bizarre in the context of the game and largely pointless.
Something else EA almost got right is the weapons upgrade system. Before each mission and often mid-mission you're able to buy new weapons or upgrade existing ones. Cash is earned by completing objectives and it's pretty plentiful so you can upgrade quite regularly. Sadly you can only carry three weapons at once, plus your grenades, so it's unlikely you'll switch to anything new once you've got a fully kitted out killing machine - you can even add bling to make your gun nice and shiny and to attract more aggro. What effectively ruins this though is the lengthy loading you have to endure when you want to buy or upgrade. The menu itself takes far too long to load and then you need to load a new menu for each weapon type. Towards the end we often opted to stick with what we had rather than endure the loading once again.
Whether or not it's a great tool or simply a way to overcome poor level design is unclear, but Army of Two features a GPS, essentially telling you where to go and what the objectives are. For the most part it's perfectly possible to navigate without having to follow a set of glowing orange arrows, given than most of the maps are pretty linear, but we did have to consult the high-tech gadget from time to time.
As in Gears of War, Army of Two's competitive multiplayer modes only cater for a small number of players, in this case four. As a team of two you're placed in a large map (there are only four at the moment, but more via DLC wouldn't be a huge surprise) and you need to complete objectives before the opposition in order to earn cash. With AI enemies also littered about and the objectives being pretty varied for a multiplayer shooter, Army of Two's Vs. mode is certainly something you won't have played before. How much fun you get from it will depend on how you found the core controls during the campaign and if you can buddy up with a real friend who knows the ins and outs of the game.
Built using the Unreal Engine 3 Army of Two looks solid, but nothing more. Character models are excellent, but the environments are pretty sparse and enemies start to resemble clones before too long. The hovercraft sections don't shine visually either, with the vehicle almost looking like it's been pasted into the scene. Thankfully the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions both run at a pretty smooth frame rate and the differences between the two visually are minimal at most - we had both running side by side and it's hard to pick a winner. On the Xbox 360 everyone's got rumble support and there are plenty of Achievements to earn, while the PS3 features a few minor motion control additions, such as moving the controller up and down to reload your weapon.
It's hard to be down on a game that tries to do something commendable, but Army of Two suffers from too many problems to be the game we wanted it to be. It just about scrapes through, enough anyway to warrant some decent sales and hopefully a sequel. Hopefully next time Rios and Salem will be a little less wise-cracking, take things a little more seriously and come complete with levels and gameplay scenarios that match the clever aggro system. While the gun-play certainly grows on you as you progress, some hefty tweaks there wouldn't be amiss either. As a trial for a new gameplay concept Army of Two does its job, but as a great game it falls someway short.