Army Of Two: The 40th Day
On his farewell address to the American public, outgoing President Dwight Eisenhower famously warned of the military-industrial complex, the inevitable dovetailing of war and business to create the burgeoning private military sector we have now. Eisenhower’s rhetoric was steeped in patriotic fervour and a fear of misplaced power centres and spheres of influence, but even when delivering his impassioned speech he probably knew that the rise of the PMC was inevitable.
And, in an industry dominated by action titles with war and combat as their primary focus, it was likewise inevitable that videogames would pick up on the exponential increase in public awareness of privately fought conflicts and look to explore this unbelievably complex subject.
Well, some developers chose to explore. Kojima’s take on the subject with Metal Gear Solid 4 is far from the definitive videogame representation of the subject, with its base in magical fantasy storytelling and grumpy old men with moustaches, but at least its focus on the competing business interests of its myriad PMC’s and the moral ambiguity of war for profit was something.
The original Army of Two however, was anything but exploratory. For all the claims of verisimilitude and of being shaped by meetings with various real-world private military operatives, the game itself was nothing more than a functionally and mechanically poor one-dimensional shooting gallery. Sure, the masks the leads wore were pretty cool, but this game that purportedly drew inspiration from Mogadishu, 9/11 and Iraq was a tonal and thematic mess that garnered more criticism for its crass nature than praise for anything it did well. Which wasn’t much.
So it is with great relief then that, with the sequel, EA has realised that the inherent dichotomy of shoehorning the colossal shades of grey of the PMC world into a gung-ho action shooter was never going to work. Gone is the borderline offensive and ignorant politicking of the original, much to everyone’s relief. Replacing the piecemeal globetrotting of the original with a more coherent, exciting setting in Shanghai, EA Montreal has wisely decided to forgo political commentary.
Instead the Montreal team has placed the two operatives, Salem and Rios, into a mess not dictated by the original’s paper-thin mercenary motives. Trapped in war-torn Shanghai as the city literally falls to pieces, the titular army have to fight their way out one bullet at a time. This change to the videogame setting du jour (as seen in Splinter Cell: Double Agent and the upcoming Kane and Lynch sequel) is a welcome one, replacing the drab colour scheme of the original and introducing the action to one of the most vibrant cities on earth.
And ‘action’ is the key word. EA Montreal has realised that their series isn’t offering any socio-political insight in any capacity, and instead have chosen to pursue the Bruckheimer approach to the nth degree, a wise choice. The enemy force now look like they’re working for Cobra, and whereas the original had a few set pieces that thrilled (the USS Constellation sinking with you on it’s deck comes to mind), the 40th Day has more wow moments than you can shake a golden M4 at, and isn’t afraid to use them. Whether it’s an entire building ripping in half with you in it or a jumbo jet crashing five yards away from the duo, Shanghai is a playground of destruction and genuinely exciting to be in at times.
But this change in location would be for naught if the 40th Day still played like the original. The tone wasn’t the only thing wrong with Army of Two, it was the fundamentals as well. Despite the pre- release posturing and proclamations of being the ultimate co-op experience, Army of Two still felt like it could easily have been a single player game, and shouldered a fair amount of criticism for it.
Taking their second chance with vigour, EA has worked to make you actually feel like a unit. On screen kills and cash indicators still help to induce healthy friendly rivalries, and gone are the forced vehicle sections and terrible parachuting vignettes, replaced with abilities that are actually useful. Levels are much more varied and their layouts built for, not adapted to incorporate, teamwork.
Providing covering fire from behind a dead hippo in a terrorist filled zoo is pretty awesome, and the ‘aggro’ system (who’s drawing the most fire, basically) system still works well. The operatives can now also choose to avoid conflict by taking enemy officers hostage and tying up their troops. Playing dead is also an effective (maybe too effective with the dumb enemy AI) way of outwitting enemy troops, but best of all however is the ability to mock surrender: enemies will call on you to lay down your arms, and you can, before shooting their faces off in slow motion, quick draw style.
However the most definitive change for the series is the new ‘morality’ system. At key points in the game the players will have to decide between whether to save captured civilians, kill accomplices for cold hard cash or, of course, shoot white tigers dead. Performing negative acts might get you cash now, but could stymie rewards later in the game as non-player characters will withhold access to weapons caches and other bonuses if you have negative karma. It’s an interesting mechanic, essentially boiling down to cash now or rewards later, but the choice is ostensibly binary and with only one ending it has no lasting effect.
These improvements over the original game are numerable, and go some way to moulding the game into the enjoyable buddy shooter the original should have been. Unfortunately, however, the 40th Day still can’t shake some off some the failings of its predecessor. The large character models and design are still pleasing if a little clunky, and while Salem’s stereotypical stoicism won’t win any awards, it’s still leagues better than Rios’s yukking American-idiot outlook, even if crass air-guitaring is kept to a minimum.
Aside from the characterisation, Army of Two also can’t hope to compete with other co-op shooters like Gears of War and Resident Evil 5 on the polish front. Aesthetically the game is quite poor, with Salem and Rios looking like they’ve been dipped in Vaseline, and Shanghai’s spectacular scenery is tempered somewhat by some extremely poor texturing, exacerbated, or perhaps caused, by severe texture pop in.
The shooting, while somewhat satisfying, still feels a little lightweight, lacking the punch of other similar titles. Enemies still generally boil down to grunts and heavy weapons guys who you have to shoot in the back, and aside from nice AI touches like dragging injured comrades out of the fray, are again braindead cannon-fodder.
Also worthy of mention is what happens following your moral choices: a graphic novel vignette will play showing the consequences of your actions. Unfortunately these are laugh out loud stupid, what with children shooting muggers and Salem and Rios apparently killing the last white tiger on the planet, among others. We suppose that they’re meant to offer some profound insight into your choices, but in fact sit ill at ease with the well-implemented popcorn nature of the game.
The 40th Day is a marked improvement on the original game, fun and engaging but never threatening to be a world-beater. It’s solid shooting fun, and unlike Resident Evil 5 can be played enjoyably solo thanks to the ‘playbook’ squad commands, and even manages to contain a perfectly playable (if nonsensical) escort mission. With another player it’s action-movie fun, something the series should always have been.