EA was happy with sales for Army of Two, the co-op shooter that came out of its Montreal studio this time last year--happy enough to immediately put a sequel into production, at least. But it wasn't as pleased with Army of Two's tepid critical reception, which drubbed the game for stilted cooperative mechanics, and even more so for the over-the-top bromantic hijinks of its two buddy mercs, Salem and Rios. Those guys seemed like they ought to be slamming a Dew in between high fives and silly quips as they killed a bunch of people for money. Maybe that was a missed opportunity for some righteous brand synergy.
Well, you can forget the soft drink tie-ins. With the Army of Two sequel The 40th Day, EA Montreal has wisely realized that air guitar stopped being cool in... well, was air guitar ever cool? In other words, the fistbumps and other goofy emotes of the first game are being stripped out of the sequel, which will see Salem and Rios traveling to Shanghai to conduct more of their trademark military operations for hire. The Montreal studio is aiming for a more serious, believable tone this time around, and literally the biggest way to do that is to make The 40th Day more like the movie Cloverfield.
That doesn't mean any giant monsters will be rampaging through Shanghai (though, come to think of it, that would be pretty sweet); it means the creative minds are aiming for the same sort of large-scale, in-your-face destruction and chaos that propelled Cloverfield from moment to moment. Specifically, some kind of massive, man-made disaster will befall the city early on in our mercenary duo's mission, and it will continue to reshape your surroundings and affect events through the duration of The 40th Day's campaign.
The exact nature of the game's calamity is yet to be revealed, but here's how it will manifest in a practical sense. During an early-game rooftop firefight, just as Salem and Rios were polishing off the last of the bad guys, a group of fighter jets swooped overhead, and the next thing I knew, entire skyscrapers were exploding and crumbling all around the building the mercs were standing on. The entire skyline in one direction was gone in a matter of seconds. It was an eye-openingly big, destructive moment that I hope is only the first of many. That kind of set piece action moment really punches up the core action in a game like this.
The folks at EA Montreal seem a lot more confident about the core mechanics in the first Army of Two, so they aren't reinventing the sequel's wheel in that department. But there are a few interesting updates in here. The most noticeable is the Playbook, a large hovering information readout that seems to pop up in the game world, right in front of your merc. You can scan individual enemies before they've noticed your presence to get a list of actions that will work on them, including killing them silently or holding them hostage. You can also tag enemies and friendlies green and red, respectively, allowing your partner to see their color-coded forms from a distance and through walls. The applications for that feature in co-op play are obvious.
There's also a range of stylistic and technical improvements in this sequel that are meant to get you a little more invested in the action. The two mercs' masks will now come up in between firefights, allowing you to see some lip sync and actual emotion in their faces (the idea being, of course, to give them more character). One of the game's engineers spent a good chunk of time implementing an advanced foot-planting system that makes the mercs step realistically over steps, debris, and other obstacles. All this sort of stuff is designed to get you feeling more hands-on with the game world.
The designers also want you to get morally involved with what's happening in The 40th Day. You'll have more freedom this time around to decide how you go about completing a given objective, and that freedom will be complicated by the presence of civilians that can help or hinder your efforts. The example I saw involved three enemies holding some civvies hostage, about to execute them. The player had the choice to run in and spray bullets everywhere, potentially killing the innocents, or more meticulously creeping in and going for a hostage grab that would let the civilians escape. You'll reap rewards, like advanced weapons parts, from innocent people you spare, so there will a tangible gameplay reward to playing the good guy even if you're short on an internal sense of morality.
The 40th Day is clearly taking things more seriously than the original Army of Two did, which I'm hoping is the right choice. It certainly seems to fit with the bigger sense of scale and destruction in the backdrop, though I hope EA Montreal is able to reestablish Salem and Rios as believable, sympathetic characters who aren't just out to make a profit despite the human cost.