“Homoerotic” is not a label often attached to videogames in spite of the surfeit of buddy titles featuring two strapping, sweaty men cuddling up to one another behind a barrier, weapons in hand.
The original Army of Two is one noted exception. Curiously, developer EA Montreal seems to have taken the unfair “criticism” to heart. The studio’s sequel to “cover, suppress and flank” third person co-op shooter Army of Two, titled The 40th Day, features more proportioned and newly conscience burdened characters who are less inclined to “pound it” after spraying their foes with hot lead.
Unfortunately, these pared down iterations of protagonists Rios and Salem strip out much of the original’s flippant point of difference in a crowded genre. Set in Shanghai, a rival paramilitary group has apparently taken exception to the city’s existence and has decided to wipe it from the face of the planet. Stuck in the middle, our two TransWorld Operations (TWO) mercenaries must uncover the paper-thin plot as they gun their way from one crate-littered room to the next.
That said, EA Montreal have made significant improvements to many of the original’s weaknesses. The game features a simple and highly effective interface. The GPS overlay clearly marks the path to your next objective with floor lighting that would make Boeing envious. Additionally, it scans and ranks enemy units. Should you choose to take out officers, the other units will behave more erratically and are more likely to surrender.
Those who played the original will also notice the vastly improved AI in their partner. Once again, general orders are issued using the D-Pad and each order has two tiers of importance: do and do vigorously. Moreover, your partner can be ordered to perform almost any task that you can do, from opening doors to tying up or executing enemy units.
The game’s interrelated threat system also works superbly. As you provide suppressing fire, your AI partner will take advantage of your enemies’ distraction and move into an advantageous position to eliminate them. As in the original, a threat meter is clearly displayed at the top of the interface in addition to Rios and Salem receiving a glowing aura, red or blue, to indicate their level of threat.
The controller layout has also been simplified. Sprint (an ability sorely overlooked in the original), vault and slide-for-cover are all bound to a single button, meaning that negotiating the debris-laden game environment is especially seamless.
The game’s cover system is also highly intuitive. Simply move up to an object and your character will stick to it. Unlike other third-person shooters, Rios and Salem will easily unbind themselves from cover at your instruction – a minor learning curve for players used to controlling characters built with a more adhesive brand of glue, but a welcome one, nonetheless.
For those to whom weapon customisation is important, The 40th Day delivers thousands of customisation options from gold plating to household utensils appropriated as bayonets. Weapons can be bought or upgraded at any point in the game as long as the characters aren’t engaged in combat and each proffers a standard list of advantages such as increased threat and improved damage. These cumulative advances to the campaign make this sequel stronger than the original, or would so were it not for the campaign’s woeful brevity. Army of Two: The 40th Day spans seven levels, each requiring roughly an hour to complete.
And still other mechanics, such as pretending to surrender and playing dead to drop your threat, feel gimmicky. They have their uses, certainly, but the game’s proficient AI renders them unnecessary once you’ve mastered the co-op commands. Cover, suppress, flank, move on to the next room.
The aforementioned paper-thin plot only gains rough coherency in the closing moments of gameplay and never truly provides any context to the bloodshed. It would be a negligible point in such a video game was it not for the fact that The 40th Day attempts to burden player and character alike with moral decisions. Throughout the game, Rios and Salem encounter set-pieces wherein they must decide whether to let a character, or perhaps group of civilians, live or die. These decisions are always binary, good or evil, and the game’s literature makes much of the impact of these selections. For ourselves, we have yet to find almost any difference between the two, save for the cut-scenes immediately following any decision.
After making a moral or amoral decision, the game reports on both the immediate and long-term repercussions of the choice with a series of stylised comic panels. They’re visually pleasing but almost entirely incidental – especially when one considers that the moral slate is wiped clean at the start of every level. In every way, The 40th Day’s morality system feels like an unnecessary appendage. It’s a misplaced mechanic that’s becoming far too ubiquitous, and not just in this game.
The developers have also taken a crack at introducing stealth elements but have hit wide of the mark: Throughout the game, players are given the capacity to defuse a civilian hostage situation by taking a villainous commander hostage in turn and then forcing the other units to surrender. Failing to “correctly” deal with a hostage situation will result in both a moral and financial loss, in addition to summoning more enemy units. But since one of the AI’s few flaws is its capacity to fumble “stealth” situations later in the game, and since morality and finances are largely beside the point, it often proves more efficient to simply lob a grenade into the mix and accept the collateral damage.
We have little doubt that the game will find its audience, but by and large, Army of Two: The 40th Day is a brief, lukewarm experience that will engage most players for an afternoon. And in spite of the AI improvements, it’s still best played as a rented couch co-op.
As Rios and Salem wend their way through Shanghai’s back alleys towards a weapon cache they lament their sobriety on such a hot day: “Let’s get this done and we’ll go get a beer,” says Rios. "Amen to that,” replies Salem.
They took the words right out of our mouths.