Saturday, December 5, 2009

Army of Two

Somalia. 1993. What the hell were we doing there?

Oh, right--our government had hired Philip Clyde, top contractor with the SSC private military company, to "take down" a local warlord. I, Tyson Rios, and my fellow US Army Ranger, Elliot Salem, were there to make sure Clyde fulfilled his contract. Things got complicated, as they usually do in Somalia.

Seriously, what the hell were we doing there?

Clyde turned out to be nothing more than a well-trained, well-paid thug. As we walked right into the warlord's trap, this "best of the best" mercenary just parkoured away across rooftops, leaving Salem and I to carry out the assassination ourselves. Only the dreaded back-to-back formation that had earned us our reputation as a "two-man army" kept us alive as the enemy surrounded us from all sides. But this mission was a tall order even for us. We were still only two, and this was Somalia. The hostile locals made up in numbers and suicidal fearlessness for any deficiencies of training or equipment.

Following another hectic gunfight, I found myself pinned between a wrecked car and a stone wall. After interminable minutes of my partner and I struggling in vain to get me loose, we both knew what had to be done.

"Finish the mission," I told him. "Just don't leave me for these animals."

He was not going to be able to free me. I could not self-terminate. Delaying the grim inevitable would only increase the likelihood of us both getting killed there.

As my partner gripped his gun, his finger hovering intensely over the trigger for what felt like forever, I don't know whose agony was worse.

It might have been the gutsiest, most brutal co-op gaming moment since the ending to the original arcade Double Dragon.

Too bad it was actually the product of a heinous bug, rather than any design of the developer.

What had actually happened was that my character had become hopelessly snagged on or in a tile of wonky collision. The area was clear, and I was merely searching for ammo. I had slipped into a narrow space between a car and a wall, and when I tried to turn back after finding nothing, I found that my character was stuck and would only move in place, even as my partner ran back and forth across the same strip of map several times without difficulty. After I gave him a turn at my controller to prove that I really was caught, we concluded that there was absolutely no prying me loose. The game would not allow my partner to progress to the next area without me, however, so it looked like we were screwed. It was then that I had an idea.

I suggested that my partner shoot my character. Although I could not be moved while standing, perhaps once I ran out of health and collapsed to a downed state, my partner would be able to drag me out and then revive me. It was perverse, but it was our only option.

For the live human player controlling my partner, there was no pained hesitation. Rather, it was too good an opportunity for him to act like a jerk and know that the other guy had literally asked for it. After wasting several rounds on my crotch instead of simply aiming for my head, there was actual fear on my part that he would run out of ammo before I died, thereby really locking us in that awful situation. Fortunately he had barely enough, and from there my plan worked just as I had hoped.

Despite that outrageous bug experienced during the Xbox 360 demo for EA's Army of Two (which would not be the last time the game broke itself with a progression-halting glitch), the game still showed promise, and I was looking for another good co-op campaign after having completed both Gears of War titles.

The full game did not turn out to be the great Gears of War clone that I might originally have hoped for, but it is a surprisingly decent title that actually distinguishes itself quite admirably from the other cover-based shooters on the market. Simply put, Army of Two is the most co-op game I have ever played.

Contrary to my fictionalized account, the real Army of Two is insistent that under no circumstances do you ever leave a man behind, because if you can't make it through together, then you won't make it through at all. From Contra to Gears of War, most co-op modes merely double the destruction by adding a second gun to a game that could be played and beaten with just one. Some games may include short sections where two players must split up, or where both must activate buttons simultaneously, but for the most part, there is little actual teamwork required, and even in co-op there is often the sense that a single player could do it on their own. In contrast, I don't think there is a single battle in Army of Two that can be won without both characters working together.

The basic shooting and cover mechanics are merely passable, but the core of the game is the "Aggro" system. An "Aggrometer" measures the player characters' aggressiveness, swinging back and forth between the two according to who is dealing more damage or carrying the flashier weapon. When the Aggrometer is solidly on one character's side, he will turn red and attract most of the enemy's attention, allowing the other player enough breathing room to line up clean shots or get into flanking position. Aggro is much more than a gimmick; nearly every battle in the game takes place in a wide-open space where eagle-eyed foes can approach and fire from all sides, so the only way for one character to get anywhere is for the other to momentarily draw the enemy's focus by going Aggro. The game's easiest difficulty level allows a bit more leeway in strategy, but there is still a great deal of tactical interdependency to the ebb and flow of the Aggro, with both players constantly alternating roles to systematically dismantle enemy formations. You can even feign death when low on health, at which point all the Aggro will transfer to the other player, leaving them to survive on their own for as long as possible while you slowly recover your health on the ground.

Army of Two is serious about providing a two-man experience, and it includes several other novel co-op mechanics, although most are not ultimately very successful.

In Gears of War, when a character runs out of health, he becomes just a helpless lump, which an ally can then revive with a simple tap on the shoulder. Army of Two favors a far more visceral system, leaving a wounded character unable to move but still able to shoot. Meanwhile it is up to their partner to dash into the fray and drag them to relative safety before administering first aid. It should have been the most thrilling mechanic of the game, but it's totally busted in practice. For the downed player, the very partner that you need to cover as he drags or heals you usually ends up completely obscuring your camera view, leaving you more likely to shoot him than any enemy gunmen. The back-to-back sequences are similarly flawed, as your screen is regularly obstructed by the massive sparks emitting from your partner's gun barrel.

Co-op snipe is a nifty idea in theory, but as its own dedicated mechanic it is kind of pointless. Activating it switches both players to scope view and starts a countdown, allowing you to snipe two targets at the same time. For example, you might need to stealthily take out two guards in unison, so that neither's death alerts the other. I suspect that it exists only to allow you to coordinate with the AI partner in single-player. In two-player, there's no reason, aside from the dearth of sniper rounds, that you couldn't both manually equip your sniper rifles and count it down out loud.

The less said about the back-to-front tandem parachute sequences, the better.

Honestly, the most successful co-op maneuver is actually giving kudos. When standing next to your partner, you can press a button to gimme five or duo air guitar. This is accompanied always by a funny audio clip. It may not have a lot of practical purpose, but at least it does what it's supposed to by easing the tension. The best part is that you can continue to do it even while characters are receiving orders or having grim scripted conversations.

The campaign's six missions are loosely tied together with some vague conspiracy plot. Far from playing out like an episode of 24, however, the game spans years. Following the first Somalia mission, Salem and Rios follow their CO in becoming contractors with SSC. The next mission takes place eight years later in Afghanistan, mere hours after the attacks on 9/11. Then, from when Rios first voices his suspicions about his PMC higher-ups, it takes another eight years before he and Salem actually get around to doing anything about it, with the game concluding in the then future of 2009.

As it skips years at a time, what little story there is is hard to follow, and I repeatedly found myself wondering what we were even fighting for. Then a pop-up upon reaching a checkpoint would display the funds in my virtual bank account, and I would realize that perhaps that was the point, because Salem and Rios are, after all, soldiers of fortune. Rios at least occasionally shares the player's ethical concerns, but when you stop and pay attention to his partner's whining about credit card debt, you realize that there is virtually nothing separating the materialistic Salem from the completely amoral villains of the piece. Salem and Rios aren't heroes, and it is only our predisposition to identify ourselves as the good guys in these games that might blind us to this reality. Perhaps Big Boss had some things to say about mercenaries, but I think Army of Two gets closer to the truth of it. Neither romanticizing nor entirely condemning PMCs, the game rather soberly captures that, for these contractors, war is just a job, and that's what's scary. Ultimately the game finishes with mercs engaging mercs in true warfare sans ideology.

Weaving its story across historic events, the campaign, not only includes stages set in Somalia and Afghanistan, but also sends Salem and Rios to Iraq and even references Hurricane Katrina. It doesn't dwell in polemics at the expense of playability, but it is at least a little more relevant than the sci-fi of Gears of War. As much as those may have been superior games that I greatly enjoyed, it was refreshing to find an experience that more closely resembled the real world.

On the other hand, while the campaign features some of the hairiest scenarios in any shooter I've played, there are no epic boss fights and few spectacles to be had, and that overall lack of variety is really what hurts the game most. Unless you count the occasional suicide bomber or rocket launcher guy, the only non-standard enemy type is the heavily armored soldier. Completely invincible from the front, and with enough awareness and artillery to stop dead any direct approach, these mini-bosses are ostensibly the ultimate test of your mastery of the co-op gameplay, as they can only be felled by somehow slipping behind them to deliver a kill shot to the back. Later on, we learned that a big enough gun could knock them to the ground, after which one player could simply run behind them and shoot them in the back as they got up. In fact, that was how the game ended, as the final battle is nothing more than a series of three of these nameless, faceless, identical-looking heavy armor dudes. Meanwhile the story's two name antagonists are both taken out in consecutive non-interactive cut scenes that last about two minutes total.

I suspect that EA received quite a bit of warranted negative feedback about that ending, because a free, post-release DLC pack included an alternate ending that, sure enough, allowed players to have that showdown with the main villain. Of course, his appearance--the entire scenario, in fact--is so aggressively clownish that, as you play, you can almost hear the developer saying, "Here's your damn boss fight, since nobody got what we were going for in the original ending!"

The horrible ending, mediocre gunplay, and poorly balanced and repetitive levels keep Army of Two from being a great game, but its unique mechanics make it still one of the better co-op shooters out there, especially if you have a PS3 instead of a 360. I am happy to see it getting a sequel, which will hopefully refine some of those ideas into a more functional and well-rounded experience.

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