Joystiq hands-on: Army of Two (360/PS3)

Zack Stern
Z. Stern|10.22.07

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Joystiq hands-on: Army of Two (360/PS3)
I recently played an almost-complete version of Army of Two, days before the decision to delay it until Q1, 2008. Originally planned to be released November 13, EA told me that the delay related most to them wanting to make sure this new intellectual property can be all it can be. (Did somebody say "franchise?") Of course, the company will easily benefit by spacing the game out from the current flood of mega hits.

Army of Two casts players as mercenaries, responsible for blowing up the local scenery while following your employer's missions. Often, those objectives are the same. The Army of Two I played was a risky game that stood out in its story tone and gameplay mechanics. Some of those gambles clearly paid off -- the co-op style is the best part of the game. But EA may take this extra time to re-tune repetitive elements, like the revive-your-teammate mini-game.


With the co-op premise, EA Montreal wanted to recreate fond memories of playing Contra and Double Dragon with a friend. I played alongside another gamer in split-screen mode. If you're alone, teammate AI controls the other, always present character. Or you can find another friend through Xbox Live.

Army of Two felt risky in several ways. Most of all, it's built around a challenging, topical theme: fighters-for-hire in Middle-East settings. I didn't get a sense of the story specifics, but the points I saw raised questions and connections to real-world mercenary drama. Some of your fellow paid gunners are thoughtful and rational, while others are obnoxious and put you in danger. I hope the moral ambiguity plays out in the game; I don't think Army of Two could ignore those topics and work, but addressing them will still be a challenge.

The other risks involve gameplay embellishments. While the setting and tactics try to follow real-life conventions, the gameplay takes liberties to be exciting. When your partner is close to death, you have to revive him with a mini-game. Slow-motion fights happen at scripted points and through occasional gamer-activated situations. You can feign death to get the enemies to concentrate on your partner, giving you time to sneak up behind them.

We had some technical difficulties when trying to play the game on an LCD HDTV. My system showed the action slightly zoomed-in, cutting off the border, and ultimately looking like a chunky 480p. While EA's other demo screens presented the game in its full 720p resolution, I'm not sure how much of the cropped screen impacted my play.

The framing issue might have made Army of Two more challenging, and the difficulty was my biggest frustration. EA reps chided my partner and me for trying to blast through situations too quickly. Instead, the game is designed with an "aggro" meter that shows which character is drawing the most focus from enemies. We were supposed to work together, with one stealing their attention, while the other teammate advancing and attacking.

A driving scene was even harder. One of us drove a buggy-like vehicle, while the other shot a machine gun turret. But the driving controls seemed too light, with the car crashing into walls with the slightest touch. Hopefully, that mechanic will be tuned before release.

On-foot gameplay worked better once we got used to it. In a few scripted situations, enemies surrounded us, and the game entered a slow-motion mode where we shot back-to-back. Other times, we helped each other climb up tall walls or pulled a hurt partner to safety. These touches usually added to the cooperative atmosphere amidst the chaotic, explosive firefights.

Army of Two also focuses on healing your partner as another extension of teamwork. (Or maybe it was just the way we played -- frequently getting hurt -- that gave me this impression.) When one player falls, both gamers follow on-screen prompts to push certain buttons to revive the injured soldier. Tapping A might soak up blood. Pushing X might fire the defibrillator. Though all of this, the player's health is represented by how far away he runs from a mysterious tunnel of light. If both players are severely injured, the game restarts from the previous checkpoint.

Because of the demo problem, I can't comment too deeply on the graphics. The other systems looked good, about at the level of other recent games but not pushing any new standard. The frequent, brief cut-scenes also looked crisp, although they threatened the pacing. Often, the cut-scenes just showed us climbing to a second story of a building or something mundane.

Army of Two is built for two-players, but online multiplayer games will let two of those teams face off. EA didn't demo this mode, but the company compared it to a simultaneous, competitive game mission. Both teams will be fighting NPCs and trying to beat each other to fulfill game objectives -- like killing certain enemies or recovering a valued object. Four-player split-screen won't be supported.

Army of Two felt like a unique, high-fiving action game, which is a pleasant surprise. Some of the risky decisions may fail after lots of playing, but these gambles give the game its own niche.

And maybe EA is listening to concerns, with the game being delayed and re-tuned for release in Q1, 2008. Hopefully, the updated game will stay unique, even if it scraps the less-successful innovations.
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