Army of Two Finally Begins to Realize Its Potential
When the first Army of Two was released in 2008, I made it through about an hour of co-operative play with a friend before both of us declared it offensive bile and never touched it again. The Middle-Eastern setting hit a little too close to home for some, but what really turned us off was the over complicated controls and nausea-inducing "bro moments." It certainly didn't help that these flawed systems were framed by generic settings and characters that made the experience feel more like a shooting gallery than a real game.
Flash forward to January 12th, 2010. I'm standing at the counter of my local Gamestop, picking up my preordered copy of Army of Two: The 40th Day. What could have possibly changed my mind about the franchise since its embarrassing debut a year and a half ago? To be honest, I'm still not sure of that, but at least I'm glad that I gave the sequel a shot. While still not an incredible shooter, The 40th Day has taken several important steps forward for the franchise that make this a release worthy of your hard-earned dollars.
Firstly, the controls have been streamlined since the first game was released. Players still take cover by crouching behind objects, meaning that there are no finicky issues with sticky cover. In this outing, grenades have been mapped to a shoulder button, making it significantly less difficult to toss one out during battle. A few other changes to the controls give The 40th Day a more streamlined and accessible feel than its predecessor. However, a few aspects of the control still took me some getting used to. When using a scope and a front mount, for example, it is necessary to hold down the Triangle button (Y on Xbox 360) and manually equip the attachment to your gun. While at first it seems odd that your scopes and mounts aren't active immediately, in reality it opens up new tactical options, in that you can equip a scope when you need to engage in ranged combat, then take it off for close quarters fighting. Finally, the "bro moments" have been given their own button and are otherwise shunned, so if you, like me, detest the idea of two mercenaries playing air guitar on their guns in the middle of a war zone, fret not.
Like in the previous entry, the main gameplay gimmick in The 40th Day revolves around the aggro meter. The aggro meter essentially shows how much attention the enemies pay to your characters. If one player fires off a lot of rounds with a really fancy or loud gun, the enemies will pay attention to him, allowing the other player to flank. While this is a valid and sometimes necessary tactic on the hardest difficulty, it is usually faster and easier to just point and shoot on the other difficulties. It's a solid concept that works well enough on hard mode, but clearly it still needs some fine tuning.
The main selling point of the Army of Two franchise, other than the co-op focused gameplay, has always been the ridiculous gun customization, and in this respect The 40th Day does not disappoint. For gun nuts and statistic nerds alike this system provides great entertainment. There are tons of different ways to customize the game's myriad weapons, from silencers to enhancers to bayonets to new paint jobs. The infamous Pimp paint job returns, draping the selected weapon in gold and silver plating while simultaneously jacking its aggro through the roof. Other options allow for a more discreet brand of play. My particular favorite new addition is the screwdriver bayonet. Each of the bayonets has its own unique melee animation associated with it, and this makeshift blade is probably the coolest. Overall, the customization options are extensive and well worth digging into.
While the Army of Two franchise was always built from the ground up with co-operative play in mind, the partner AI has seen an update for the sequel as well. Although advanced maneuvers such as faking surrender and flanking seem beyond the comprehension of your AI partner, he at least proves to be helpful and generally understanding of the situation, which is more than can be said for the last game's AI. Unfortunately, the partner AI is still pretty bad at reviving players. It doesn't seem to grasp the concept of dragging the player to safety before beginning the revival process. Still, it's a big improvement over the last game. The enemy AI has seen a significant boost as well. Enemies can now perform all of the moves that you can, meaning they can drag themselves to cover or revive each other when wounded, take cover, climb over obstacles, and give each other general orders. While the enemies generally appear fairly intelligent (especially in the hardest Contractor difficulty,) their main strategy usually boils down to overwhelming the player with numbers. It is also worth noting that none of those AI improvements seem to apply to the game's heavy units, who simply charge straight at the player while firing massive weapons.
Thanks to these control and AI improvements, The 40th Day just feels better than its predecessor. No longer do enemies behave like idiots waiting to be shot, and no longer will you be fumbling over poorly thought out controls. The biggest factor in The 40th Day's success, however, has to be its environments. Although you will see your fair share of typical bombed-out streets and buildings over the course of the 6-7 hour campaign, many of the levels have a fun disaster movie vibe that makes them worth revisiting. The opening levels in particular are gorgeously chaotic, with explosions lighting up the streets and buildings crumbling to dust on all sides. While other locations are diverse and interesting, none of them have quite the same oomph as the first hour or two. That said, fighting through ruined zoos and shopping malls is a rare experience in the video game medium, and it's nice to see that some effort was made to differentiate The 40th Day's levels from those in similar games.
The 40th Day's presentation back up all of the onscreen chaos very nicely. While the graphics look a bit dated (they're more comparable to games from early on in the console generation than, say, Gears 2 or Uncharted 2,) the levels are bright and colorful, and the character models look pretty nice. A bright point to the otherwise average graphical presentation is the destruction, which looks gorgeous and happens frequently enough to keep you entertained. The audio design fairs better. The game is backed by a solid soundtrack, and all of the guns sound appropriately badass. Finally, the voice actors from the original game have been replaced by new, more relatable actors. Yes, this means that Nolan North is now the voice of Salem. Say what you want about the man's current over saturation in the game market, but he can sell just about every character he's played, and this is no exception. The new voice for Rios is also a great fit.
A full multiplayer suite is included in The 40th Day, which is nice since the campaign is a bit short. Aside from the obvious, often riotous co-operative play, the game comes with three competitive modes out of the box. Of these three modes, I can only envision Warzone as having any staying power. Like Killzone 2's similarly named mode, Warzone gives each team of five players and objective. One team, for example, might have to plant a bomb, while the other team is then tasked with preventing the bomb from being planted. After one team wins, the game cycles to the next objective until one team has five points. Although the fairly mildly paced multiplayer is actually a bit refreshing after the chaos that is Modern Warfare 2, one idiotic decision holds it back from greatness. The superb weapon customization featured in campaign and co-op is nowhere to be found here, replaced instead with several standard weapon loadouts. If the same amount of attention was paid to the gun customization as in the single player, the online play would be great. As is, it's at least a nice distraction. A fourth mode, called Extraction, is included as a bonus for those who preordered the game. For all else, it will be released as free DLC in a month. As mentioned earlier, I did in fact preorder The 40th Day, and I can say that Extraction mode is the best of the four online modes. Army of Two is always at its best when playing co-operatively, so the survival mode format seems a natural fit.
If you go into The 40th Day expecting something mind blowing, you are sure to be disappointed. Despite the aggro and gun customization, the game still largely plays like a typical third person, cover based shooter. If, however, you just want to be taken on a fun, largely nonsensical roller coaster ride with a buddy, this is the game for you.