The first thing that most people said when they saw me playing Army of Two was “ooh, is that the new Gears of War?”… Well cosmetically the similarities between Army of Two and Gears of War are obvious, but you don’t have to play it for long to realise that AoT is a very different kettle of fish indeed. Cleverly pinching the concept of ‘Aggro’ from MMORPGs, EA’s newest shooter brings a conglomerate of other much-used game mechanics together in a big box of surprisingly well-blended and explosive tricks. AoT has you playing as one of two (well duh) US army Rangers turned mercenaries - Tyson Rios and Elliot Salem – who are now working for a PMC (Private Military Company). You are guided and directed via radiocam links by the lovely Alice Murray, who also gives you a handy GPS overlay and incidental intel along the way, the story padded out with some of the best cutscenes I’ve yet seen.
For those of you whose only experience of Aggro is what bovver boys and skinheads did back in the ‘70s, Aggro basically means that one player is doing enough damage that they’re getting all the attention from the enemy or enemies. AoT has an Aggro meter (like an election “swingometer”) to show you who has the Aggro (your character also glows red just to make it more obvious), meaning that his team mate (literally) becomes invisible until he makes the Aggro meter sway back his way by firing on enemies. This obviously happens in other shooters but in AoT it’s a major game mechanic, and can be used to manipulate the enemy and winkle them out from behind cover, or to maneuver a heavily-armoured enemy into a position so you can get behind him and fill him full of lead. Gameplay is a matter of cover, shoot, suppress and flank – and it seldom seems to get tired as the maps are varied and the AI seems genuinely varied and aggressive. Thankfully every now and then you’ll find an object that you can use like a riot shield too, and walk right through all but the heaviest of weaponry whilst your partner follows closely and shoots from relative safety.
Army of Two works so damn well at times it’s… well… wonderful. The seesaw rhythm of covering and flanking maneuvers work so naturally because of the aggro feature, and the maps are so neatly designed and balanced, you’ll hardly notice just how terribly linear the game really is. I’ve played with several people who think it’s a lot more free-roaming than Gears – well it’s not, but it certainly gives you that impression at times. I should also say that sometimes it’s not so wonderful; like when an enemy runs around like a chicken that’s lost its head, or your AI partner decides to be an arse and not heal you, or drags you toward the enemy when you’re downed, or blankly refuses to advance and draw aggro from you. Whatever the case though, you tend to think it’s probably your fault for approaching the level in the wrong way and try something different next time – often the partner AI is too effective if anything, in stark contrast to the dunderhead AI “help” I’ve had in some games recently. Fortunately, as with Halo 3 and Gears, you can remove the vagaries of AI help altogether and play the game through co-op with a friend (or a stranger) online.
We all know that some co-op games really grind with strangers (especially if they’re really strange), either because they don’t know how to play and keep dying or because they simply forget that a co-op game is about teamwork. But even when playing with total strangers, after a couple of minutes I usually assessed the way they play and adjusted my game accordingly – and to its credit AoT lets you do this. One of you always has to use your brain even on the easiest setting, but even if your partner goes completely Rambo the ‘Overkill’ mode cuts in and allows you to sneak & outflank the enemy and get him out of trouble. Using the inset camera you can always see what he sees, and it’s an invaluable feature both when playing with a human partner or the AI. Then of course, there’s another neat idea stolen from some RPG - the name of which escapes me - "feign death" which fools the enemy into thinking you’re dead, drops aggro and sometimes (but not always) gets you out of a certain death situation. Play co-op with a mate and the game gives excellent entertainment and plays really well, a few slightly stilted set piece animations and actions could have worked more smoothly, but the game always makes you feel like it was designed with co-op play from the ground up. Two reasonably gamers can have a good laugh even on the toughest (Professional) setting whilst still having to watch their step – the enemy AI is unforgiving of dumb errors and will often try and outflank you.
As well as playing the co-op campaign mode there’s a 2 Vs 2 mode. This plays reasonably well as a pure cover shooter, but I don’t think it works as well as the co-op mode. It obviously needed more than just a 2 Vs 2 deathmatch and so in-game objectives have been added. However, they tend to feel almost like a distraction from the killing as you compete against another pair for cash rewards; battling to be the first to kill an armoured enemy, shoot down a chopper, or maybe escort a wounded AI character to an extraction point. The main problem I had with this mode is that, unlike the co-op, it seems to suffer from lag, and a number of deaths tended to be sudden, violent and lag-assisted. The damage indicator is sometimes vague when you need it most and there’s little chance of escaping once you’ve been tagged, so this leads to the game being a stilted, start-stop-start affair not unlike Gears of War multiplayer games. If you liked that, you’ll probably like this.
Some of Army of Two's other co-op features are compulsory; dragging a downed partner to cover and healing him (you can’t finish a level on your own), co-op sniping so you can take out two tough targets simultaneously, step-up jumps to get to higher platforms or ledges, weapon-switching (online you can try out a friend's customised weapons for a while), back-to-back shoot-outs that have wonderful slo-mo deaths, switches that need the two of you (although some just seem to need your partner to be close to the exit of an area), parachuting sections, with one player controlling the 'chute while the other snipes, all provide some wonderful buddy movie-esque moments. The fact that you can praise your partner - or give him a slap for doing something stupid - just adds to the whole buddy movie feel.
Hovercraft levels give the action some variation, as do the couple of parachute insertions to missions. But the hovercraft handling is simplistic, and it doesn’t really look like it’s skimming over the wonderful-looking water. Talking of water, the ocean waves on the aircraft carrier level are simply amazing to look at, and quite a distraction.
Army of Two is highly unoriginal, sometimes corny, sometimes dramatic and cool, and sometimes painfully… well… American. But if there’s a better game around for teaming up with a mate for an evening and having a blast then I haven’t seen it.