Army of Two Hands-On Preview

For games with online multiplayer components, a co-op mode has become almost an understood addition. That's a good thing because co-op usually leads to quality time with a friend or an Xbox Live stranger. Playing the Xbox 360 version of EA Montreal's Army of Two at a recent EA event, I found out the title isn't simply a cooperative game--it's collaborative. It's not just single-player times two with dialed-up dudespeak, though it certainly has that. It's "combro" moves, weapon swapping, and strategic partner awareness all in an intimately connected gameplay experience.

Set in the world of private military contractors, the game also has a pretty relevant message. That's more than you can say about a lot of games, though it's pretty much understood at this point that mercs-for-hire aren't good for the world. I got the impression from lead designer Chris Ferriera it would be a fairly straightforward thematic statement. "There's the problem of deniability and the gray area, where thanks to U.S. legislation, [mercenaries] are immune to prosecution. There's no war crimes--they're not really combatants," he told me. "Our characters become aware of this, and the story quickly shifts. We point out to the user what the problems are with the privatized military and what that means to America and to the world."

With this theme as a backdrop, you take on the roles of Army rangers-turned-hired-guns Tyson Rios and Elliot Salem. A third-person-shooter eerily similar in style to Gears of War, the game puts you in control of one of these flame-painted-hockey-mask-wearing, home-made-armor-sporting "badasses." The similarity to Epic's cover-heavy shooter isn't a bad thing really, as the disheveled Gears-like environments that my highly detailed character model ran through all looked fantastic. And visuals and basic third-person-shooter mechanics are really where the similarities end.

The crux of the gameplay that actually links your characters' collaboration throughout the entirety of the game in a meaningful way is the righteously named "aggro" system. An "aggrometer" at the top of the screen reports which team member is currently gathering aggro by attacking enemies and thus being targeted by them. The player who's gathering aggro builds up a red glow and draws lots of enemy fire.

But the other player's character becomes semi-transparent, indicating he's being relatively ignored by the enemies. If a character in combat has gathered enough aggro, the other teammate can essentially become invisible, giving him the ability to flank or penetrate enemy defenses unnoticed. It's a fairly well thought-out system that was implemented nicely--my gameplay partner and I switched between building serious aggro while the other flanked.

Just below the overarching collaborative gameplay function of the aggrometer are Army of Two's most satisfying cooperative moments: the awesome buddy moves. EA Montreal did a great job with making the controls for these context-sensitive segments incredibly natural. When my human-controlled partner picked up a heavy shield, all I had to do was run up behind him. My character automatically latched onto his best bro's back with one hand, and the camera angle switched to give me a more helpful sideways view. It was essentially like manning a turret while my partner drove an armored vehicle, as I could fire over the shield on enemies while avoiding any damage.

The "shield ride" is just one of the collaborative gameplay elements. A "controlled lift" gives both players control of their characters during an alley-oop, letting the lifting character raise or lower at will, while the man being hoisted can still fire from his high vantage point before climbing up. Ferriera also told me about a back-to-back mode where Rios and Salem call on the combined powers of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence to become an "invulnerable tank," spinning and shooting and reveling in the ridiculous glory.

Other than these context sensitive moves, there's your standard array of turret-equipped tanks, hovercrafts, and tandem-bicycles, all requiring the collaborative efforts of you and a friend. A non-context-sensitive buddy feature, the co-op snipe mode, is usable at any time and equal parts radness and practicality. It gives both you and your partner a tri-way split screen, with the top half showing the world at large, and the bottom half split further into two, showing each of your scope views. Even death sequences require you to work together, stopping your partner's loss of blood via the previously revealed tampon wound insertion, or administering some friendly CPR--both with button-pressing minigames.

On top of all the brotacular fun, the gameplay in Army of Two is incredibly slick. Even though Io Interactive's duo-centered Kane & Lynch is a pretty different style of game--and also not nearly as enjoyable from what I've seen--this game destroys it in most respects. The cover system is automatic, but it doesn't lock you onto structures--you just naturally use any cover when you approach it, and stop using it once you leave its shelter. You can also bring up a really nice objective-revealing overlay that paints the world in sort of Tron-like colors, with a lit, arrowed path showing you where to go and important elements highlighted in bright colors.

For players wanting to go it alone, there's the option to play with an AI-controlled partner, though I didn't get to try this out. Ferriera said you'll be able to issue partner commands with the D-pad or via microphone to advance, follow, or hold position, and then build or minimize aggro. But with all the communication required to get through the game, why waste the chance to make a new BFF? I kind of wish the developers played up the required intimacy between the characters more a la Blades of Glory. As it is, Rios and Salem crack cheeseball jokes and make references to the Wu Tang Clan during fights, which is pretty goofy. Luckily, whether you actually think these stereotypical bad boys are as cool as the devs do won't matter--just get ready for some serious bro-time.

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Army of Two retails November 13 for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.