Hands-On: Army of Two Single, Co-op, Multiplayer

Though I've played EA Montreal's third-person collaborative shooter Army of Two before, I hadn't played it with anyone except EA reps demoing the title. At an EA event last week, I took on the first hour or so of the game with Shacknews' own wingman extreme, Chris Remo. After putting some time in with the game's single-player, cooperative and multiplayer portions, I was still impressed with the game overall. But I found that other than the incredibly innovative cooperative mechanics, the game falls back on nearly every standard video game trapping in the gameplay proper, eschewing realism in favor of accessibility. It's an odd juxtaposition of creative core design boxed in a very, very traditional video game world, but overall, it works.

For an interview detailing some of the development process of Army of Two and the political world in which it is set, check out Chris Remo's interview with producer Reid Schneider.

One is none, and two is one
"We have a saying: one is none, and two is one. We always send guys at least in pairs." These words of warrior wisdom came from Richard "Woodie" Mister, a former employee of a private military contractor like the one employing Army of Two's titular tag-team. EA Montreal hired Mister as a consultant on Army of Two, and the former merc gave event attendees the rundown on how Army of Two realistically portrays the team-based cooperative mercenary mechanics.

Mister did a pretty good job because for the most part, the buddy gameplay aspects are both the most realistic and most fun parts of the game. The overarching Aggro system intimately links the collaborative play by requiring one player to build Aggro--drawing enemy fire-- by assaulting foes. This provides the other teammate with the opportunity to gain ground or flank. It's a pretty necessary tactic in the game, and also realistic, requiring you to make use of a real-world skill like suppressive fire to further your assault on entrenched foes.

Using the Aggro meter as a guide, it was easy to tell when my teammate was drawing heavy fire (the player actually glows red), giving me the ability to penetrate enemy lines unseen, with my negative Aggro depicted onscreen by my noticeably transparent character. It certainly makes close communication necessary, though, trading between building Aggro and advancing at crucial moments. Even on the easiest difficulty, having both teammates take on all enemies at once without making use of the Aggro meter often resulted in a quick death. But even in fairly straightforward combat areas, like a third-world country street filled with flaming cars as cover, the Aggro system made what would normally be repetitive action segments feel fresh and fun.

By your powers combined
Below this incredibly well-implemented system binding you and your teammate are the game's context-sensitive collaborative aspects, some of which are a little gimmicky, but all of which are a blast. When I went down from an explosion to the legs and my teammate came out to drag me to safety, I could still shoot at foes ahead while being pulled back along the ground by Remo. In fact, shooting at enemies was a necessity during this vulnerable period, as both my wounded body and my teammate--occupied with hefting my beefy body--could easily sustain further injury.

I also got to check out some of the tandem skydiving gameplay, putting me in intimate proximity with my overly muscled teammate. One player steers the parachute via tugging ropes in four directions, and the other has to snipeshot enemies from the air. As Remo can attest, it's extremely difficult to shoot enemies from the air while the other player is moving the parachute--hell, it's pretty tough regardless. But it can be done, and this furthers the collaborative play required in other areas of the game by forcing close communication--"Stop moving, dammit, I need to shoot this guy!"--between the two players.

And then there's the reviving mechanics, requiring you and a teammate to do a button-pressing minigame to use the real-world technique of stopping blood with a tampon or administer CPR. There's the independently controlled buddy lift, allowing the lifter to slowly raise the liftee--and giving the liftee the power to shoot at enemies on the above platform above or simply climb up. There's the really impressive co-op snipe, giving each player a view of their teammate's sniper scope and allowing for simultaneous team-shots. Even the certainly unrealistic back-to-back rotating circle of death shootout mechanic--available only in scripted gameplay areas--lends some fun, giving players unlimited ammo and slowing things down for a bullet-time-like 360-degree assault.

The only misgiving about the cooperative mechanics involves the context-sensitive aspects. The bulk of the buddy action system brings the second player into the mix without requiring any button presses--running up to a teammate holding a shield automatically initiates the two-as-one guarded shield walk, approaching a teammate in position for a lift up automatically triggers the correct animation. But these, along with the other buddy interactions, never seemed to go as smoothly as planned. I had Remo chasing me for several seconds when I was carrying a shield, trying unsuccessfully to latch on my back and trigger the shield walk animation. The unused B button could have easily been mapped to be the Buddy (or Bro) Button, but EA apparently tried to make the experience more organic. Luckily, we both improved with practice, but it certainly never felt as natural as it should have.

Impossible is nothing (in video games)
Oddly, the creative gameplay of the cooperative mechanics don't carry over into the overall experience. The path of realism some games have taken in recent years--eliminating a HUD, showing your character pick up an ammo box--contrasts with the definitively video game feel of Army of Two. Your super radar somehow lights the path you need to go, in addition to impossibly highlighting in neon "bad" and "good" items and points of practical buddy actions. The aforementioned buddy snipe gives a view of both you and your buddy's scopes, somehow. And the large, flashing ammo boxes are picked up automatically after being shed generously by fallen foes. Despite being less-than-immersive, all of these things are actually helpful, and I'm mostly glad they were included.

But Level designs have a pretty standard feel as well. Other than bonuses for certain objectives, the levels we played had pretty linear designs and standard assassination objectives. There are laser traps that for some reason must be shot at the same time (with the co-op snipe method of course), and if the game's first few segments are any indication, you'll get into your fair share of tag-team turret standoffs. As I mentioned earlier most of the areas are nothing shooter fans haven't seen before. It would have been nice to see some innovation in this regard, but since the coop gameplay is so enjoyable, it more than makes up for lack of imagination in stage design.

Corny cinema sequences also abound. At the end of a dune-buggy duo run, a cinema sequence began showing us finishing the drive with what would've been a thrilling jump, if we'd actually been in control at that point. Another segment actually had one of the duo uttering the phrase, "I came back for you, man. I cam back for you." It didn't seem like he was being genuine though, which would have made it far more humorous.

Bro vs. Bro
The game also has a fairly robust multiplayer component, with four gameplay modes: the objective-based Warzone, assassination-themed Bounties, rescue-mission Extraction, and standard Deathmath. Each mode is played as a two-on-two, team-on-team battle. I only tried out Warzone, the game's flagship mode, which is a combination of the other modes in that you're competing with another team to complete random objectives that pop up on your HUD. These objectives can include assassinating a CPU target running around in the battlefield or destroying a structural target. Though I only played a short while, the objectives were varied enough and the map of sufficient size to have fun cavorting around with my teammate.

For the friendless, the game has a single player mode as well, with players commanding the AI controlled component with the D-pad. The computer-controlled teammate was certainly sufficient, and commands to make the AI player advance, hold position, or regroup as well as gain Aggro made assaulting enemy players fairly simple, if less of a cooperative experience. The option to view a tiny camera onscreen with the AI team-members screenview was also a nice touch.

In all, I'm slightly less enthused about Army of Two than I was previously, but I still have no doubt the title will be a solid ride, especially with a good buddy grabbing rad Aggro for you and lending a shoulder to lean on when man-to-man combat necessitates it.

EA Montreal's Army of Two retails for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 sometime in 2008.