he irony: knowing how discreetly Electronic Arts released the once-trumpeted Army of Two, here I will remember where I was and what I was doing when a trailer for the game came on TV. Like most of these spots, the commercial moved quickly enough to induce motion sickness — but I noticed that none of the footage appeared to be from gameplay. Where was the HUD? Why no third-person perspective? I asked the same questions when a purchased copy of Army of Two arrived in the mail, since the four screenshots on the box's back looked like cutscenes, too. Were the pictures of play but scrupulously cropped? If so, why? What was EA being so furtive about? My hunch: Army of Two succeeded in concept, full stop.
Partnership — with a friend or unprecedented "Partner AI" — is the game's raison d'être. Game and Player editor Ed Kirchgessner offered to spend a Sunday with me and, over Xbox Live, complete the campaign. As friends, we could enjoy the afternoon if Army of Two were more than we expected. If the game turned out to be less, maybe we could share some laughs.
Back-to-Back, just like a dance move.Ed and I began by laughing hard. To a voiceover invoking Full Metal Jacket's Sergeant Hartman, a floating skull wearing a helmet emerged from a featureless, blue background. The skull addressed a pair of Army Rangers, Tyson Rios and Elliot Salem (by extension, Ed and myself), telling the four of us, and I quote, "You can get killed in combat." An animation introduced the central play mechanic, "Aggro," in which a team of two makes use of suppressive fire. Measured zero-sum on a gauge called the "Aggro Meter," aggro allows one to become invisible to the enemy if he remains quiet while his teammate fires continuously and diverts attention.
Ed and I were abruptly given respective control of Rios and Salem; the two Rangers were on training grounds and ordered to use Aggro in an exercise. Once complete, the scene faded — as abruptly as before — to black, then to another training site. Each of a dozen tactics and cooperative maneuvers was introduced in this choppy sequence, as if the developers thought time-elapse was best conveyed through disconnected, thirty-second scenes. Some of the moves intended for teamwork seemed impractical, a couple of them absurd. There were more laughs. After five minutes of tutorial, Rios and Salem deployed to Somalia.
...And yet they can only carry
a few grenades.Army of Two promises "war, political turmoil and a conspiracy so vast it threatens the entire world." The two Rangers carry out their orders in Mogadishu, joining the private military corporation, or PMC, contracted for the mission. Immediately following, a cutscene as disorienting as the tutorial brings the game's time from 1993 to 2001; during which the PMC's chief executive officer is portrayed as ambitious and, yes, also perhaps incorrigibly evil. From there the plot intersects with recent history — Rios and Salem drop into Afghanistan, then Iraq, battling Ba'athists, al Qaeda and Abu Sayyaf — and, pushing into 2009, it deviates from current events. The PMC is lobbying with eminence for a "bill to privatize the military." Diabolical plans are seen first by the perspicacious conscience of Rios, then the very eyes of both soldiers of fortune.
Ten minutes into Army of Two and the game's premises began to collapse. Mechanical flaws didn't intrude on cooperative play. Neither, though, did a lot of fun. Rather than driving levels and encounters, multiplayer actions were forced into segments — gimmicks for want of application.
Aggro helped Ed and I coordinate to leapfrog enemy positions. "Step-Jump" was nothing more than a boost, embellished by the lifter shouting "Hey! 'Step-Jump!'" every single time. Ed especially disliked "Back-to-Back," a slow-motion shooting gallery of oncoming enemies; I found it clumsily theatrical. When hit, our characters could "Feign Death," but once Ed and I noticed that 1) enemies ignored us even though 2) we could still fire our weapons, we didn't bother. Despite the effectiveness of "Healing," or dragging a wounded comrade behind cover and injecting him with a stimulant, it was rarely necessary on the normal level of difficulty. "Co-op Snipe" was so extraneous it was missing only a 75-foot-wide, red billboard with large white arrows pointing at the two targets' heads. "Riot Shield," crouching forward with a handy metal plate for cover, was cumbersome; the tortuous paths Ed and I took comical. "Driving" may have excited players in the years before Halo: Combat Evolved. We each used "Praise," slapping hands like football players, only to crack the other up.
"Trade Weapons" came to no use whatsoever. Not only was there never a timely moment to stop, turn and press the right button, but weapons were afflicted by a disappointing sameness. Army of Two provided ten or so opportunities to customize every inch of dozens of weapons. The look and feel of each gun, presumably the appeal of a varied arsenal, hardly differed from another's. The third auxiliary weapon I purchased performed like the second, and the second like the first. And all of those performed like Salem's primary weapon. Tracers from barrels looked like pellets, and sounds didn't exactly connote power. Special weapons were generally underpowered, and superfluous when a machine gun and its abundant ammunition would eventually do the job. Toward the end of the campaign, Ed and I didn't bother to upgrade our kit — what was the point?
When in doubt, use melee.
You will often be in doubt.Combat succeeded at range. Close-quarters struggles brought Army of Two into first-person-shooter entropy. AI-controlled enemies cleverly moved about in total ignorance of Ed or me; or circle-strafed, missing us as helplessly as we missed them. Ed swore profusely. Fed up with chasing targets with a micrometric reticle, I had Salem rush positions and use his fists. Eventually monotony descended here, too, and so we moved forward, and again and again, to the next doggoned wave.
Notwithstanding a straightforward plot and juvenile characterization, Army of Two's dialogue first shocked and then bemused us with its profanity. In order to ensure a Mature rating, quipped Ed. Once, just once, the writers purposely made us laugh: "Who uses the word f—k-o?" asked Salem, about a mercenary who'd said it twice. But to hang a lantern is to concede weak writing, and there were too many weak spots for acquittal by self-deprecation. Nor is quantity a substitute for quality. Five hours after play began, it was with resignation that Ed observed we'd been deprived of actually fighting the chief antagonist. Shoulders shrugged and eyes rolled during the game's epilogue, which ended in the unmistakable visual cue for a sequel. A sequel? Once was enough to judge that dedicated cooperative play is a good idea — in Army of Two, a good, undeveloped idea.