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Rios and Salem return in a slightly more tasteful and subtle sequel...
- Subtle yet effective moral themes.
- Co-op pivotal to game.
- Buddy bravado toned down.
- Weak combat and controls.
- Pretty short length.
- Poor multiplayer modes.
The men in the masks return, this time around with less chest bouncing, fist bumping and air guitars. Army of Two: The 40th Day (a better title than Army of Two: 2 but not entirely sure what it represents) finds Salem and Rios reunited on the streets of Shaghai, in a sequel to the third-person shooter that places the emphasis on co-operative play and buddy, buddy action.
According to EA's research, Europeans apparently found the antics of Salem and Rios "ridiculous" and "tasteless" in the original Army of Two, two words that seem pretty apt in consideration of its general tone. In an attempt to appease such sensitivities, The 40th Day makes a departure from two goons bringing further carnage and destruction to the likes of Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq, defending back-to-back against waves of suicide bombers and references to Al-Queda. Instead, EA Montreal has decided to tastefully subdue the crudity, dropping the sensitive real world settings and themes for a more fanciful, yet subtlety effective, attack by a megalomaniac on Shaghai.
Central to the Army of Two experience is the Agro system that underpins the co-op structure. Essentially Move, Hold and Follow commands have two operators, covering the actions in a stealth and not-so stealth manner. The idea being that if one person is laying down covering fire, it takes the heat from the other person to move undetected up the flanks. Like its predecessor, the Agro system is a remarkably simple yet efficient system to promote the game's co-operative structure and strengths. Generally the co-op AI looks after itself and handles commands effectively, even if occasionally confused by the more taxing task of pressing buttons together. Such issues won't be a problem if you're playing with a friend, but strangely it's a system that's best employed on your own. The tactical benefits of the Agro system are underplayed as you'll often come under the same issues of who's in command. Unless you've a military discipline or just playing with somebody that enjoys barking out orders, Army of Two looses a little in the tactical stakes, but gains a little more entertainment when played with somebody else.
The qualities of the central system are however undermined by a general lack of imagination, which ultimately finds the game degenerating into the typical mediocre third-person shooting action that seems to be all too prolific at the moment. Although the devastation that befalls Shaghai continually impresses, it ultimately leaves a sense of a rapidly decreasing engagement as the game goes on. The introduction of a specific covering system highlights the inadequacies of the core combat. Movement and shooting feel loose and unresponsive compared to the heavyweights of the genre - or more specifically Gears of War - while combat suffers from throwing waves of the same opponents, spiced up occasionally with the appearance of tougher heavy soldiers with specific techniques and more elaborate routines to overcome. Gun customisation forms a peripheral aspect of the game, but failed to really make itself exciting or beneficial enough to warrant any experiment with this aspect. The default weapon was sufficient to see me through the course of the game, and no amount of blinging up pistols with gold plated coverings or diamond encrusted grips was enough to make this any more interesting.
It's a shame that EA Montreal hasn't had the will or desire to take the idea of co-operative play further considering the game is so inexplicably woven around the concept. Beyond the Agro system, levels are designed to compliment the setup but the overall experience slips into typical facets of co-op gameplay. Surely some development studio can come up with more than the same old tired ideas such as hoisting the other character up to an elevated ledge, or shock horror, sequences that split the pair up. Strangely the sequel removes staple elements from the predecessor such as combined parachute jumps and vehicle sections. Such sections probably wouldn't have helped the overall flow and certainly aren't the key to developing the co-op experience, but would have provided some much needed relief and variety from the monotonous shooting nevertheless. Back-to-back sequences, which find the pair tagged together and defending against 360 degrees, are kept to a brisk minimum, although largely well staged when they do prop up.
EA Montreal has added the customary new features expected from any sequel, but you get the feeling that most have been underdeveloped and not properly thought through. A new HUD feature allows you to temporarily view the route you're supposed to be heading down in a much clearer way then before and also brings the ability to scout opponents and discover their rank. The idea being that if you can grab hold of a high ranking officer the others will surrender. It's a concept that sounds good, but is never really pushed and really only played out in hostage set-pieces. The same can also be said about the mock surrender technique, which allows you to spring a surprise on the unsuspecting opponents. Again, beyond the tutorial demonstrating how to use it, the technique is woefully underused. It's probably possible to use it more, but if the game doesn't push it, what's the point?
To give some credit, The 40th Day is a considerable improvement over its predecessor. 22 months since they first burst onto our screens, Rios and Salem have undoubtedly grown up considerably and no longer irritate every time they open their mouths. If you managed to find the testosterone fuelled antics fun the first time around, you'll probably take some heart from the fact that it's all still there: you can praise and diss your partner and even play a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Thankfully the buddy bravado is never shoved into your face this time around, which is fortunate for those who consider such Fratboy gimmicks a little trivial when you should be saving Shanghai from destruction.
The introduction of Moral choices is also a surprising quality of the game. They work largely because of the minimal way in which EA Montreal has included them, and as such you won't find Rios or Salem's appearance changing to a more virtuous appearance adorned with Halos whenever they take the high ground and save hostages. Instead cut-scenes play out depicting certain choices surrounding an expanded set of characters that pop up throughout the game. It's not a huge deal, but EA Montreal has managed to make the outcomes particularly surprising and less morally clear then they initially seem. Such an effect helps to embellish what initially appears to be a paper thin plot and provides some reasoning behind the motives of the megalomaniac. Mirroring the themes of the plot with through gameplay is an impressive skill of certain developers this generation, which helps to subconsciously reinforce the overall proposition of Army of Two: The 40th Day in a surprisingly accomplished yet subtle manner.
The 40th Day's seven stages are over pretty quick in approximately 5-7 hours. Beyond weapon parts, collectible radios and hidden cats (!) the chance to see the alternative outcomes to the moral choices is enough to warrant a second playthrough, but that's about it. A selection of more typical multiplayer modes also make an appearance, but never seem to gel with Army of Two's concept of co-op gameplay. It's almost as though EA had to include them for the sake of it. Tacked on multiplayer, surely not!