Apropos of its title, Army of Two is a tale of two games. One is a fantastic looking, conceptually cool cooperative shooter that seems primed to pick up the slack of the dearth of quality co-op games in the wake of Gears of War. Its counterpart, on the other hand, is a depressingly repetitive, aggressively stupid, and extremely short game that wastes a ton of great potential.
Both of these games exist in one box, and while playing Army of Two, you never quite know which one is going to rear its head at any given moment. There is a great game in Army of Two. Unfortunately, it’s frequently smothered by a mediocre one.
Army of Two puts you in the heavily armored suits of Rios and Salem, a couple of scenery-chewing badasses who left the military to pursue careers in the private military sector. Over the course of a decade, we follow this twosome through a variety of military conflicts, from Somalia to Iraq and on to future wars we all probably hope will never break out.
Though the game makes attempts at some semblance of a proper plot, it’s complete nonsense and borders on idiotic at times. Rios and Salem are a couple of reasonably entertaining guys–in spite of (or, perhaps, because of) the decidedly “bro” heavy dialogue–but the situations they’re put in make zero sense the vast bulk of the time, and their decision-making skills seem to begin and end with who to shoot first. When the game starts delving into ridiculous conspiracies and constant double-crosses, at some point you just have to shut it all out, otherwise you’ll lose a few dozen IQ points.
Not that the gameplay will do a great deal to help your intelligence, either. On paper, Army of Two seems like a sound concept. In each battle, you’re paired up with your partner, and have to use teamwork and two-man strategies to survive. If you see a ledge you need to get up to, have your partner stand below it and help you step-jump up. If you see a couple of enemies off in the distance and want to take them out quickly, just press a button to engage a dual-snipe.
If you’re getting hammered by heavily armed bad guys and need to do a little stealth action to take them out, just have your buddy lay down a bunch of covering fire to draw their attention while you run in and smoke them from behind. And if one of you runs out of life, the other can run in and drag you out of harm’s way to heal you while you lay down fire to try and keep the enemy off of you.
When it works, this stuff is great, and most often when it works is when you’re playing with a live compatriot. Being in battle with a friend lets you change up your tactics on the fly and get a little bit more creative with how you attack a battle. Being paired with the AI limits you a great deal, to the point where the gameplay slowly starts to devolve into rote repetition of the same tactics again and again.
Maybe 80% of the battle sequences in the game end up boiling down to you commanding your AI-controlled bro to stay in one spot and fire like crazy to draw the opposing army’s attention while you run up, shoot a couple of guys, wait for their attention to get diverted again, and do it again and again until the room is cleared.
It doesn’t help that the AI, on either side of the battle, isn’t very bright. The side you’ll probably find yourself bumping up against more is your own. When the computer has to maintain your cohort, things tend to go awry when you aren’t commanding him to do very specific things.
If all he does is just continually follow you around, he’ll frequently get shot to hell, and has a greater issue with finding cover than when you tell him to stay put in one spot or advance directly. When you’re hurt, you’d best hope you’re right near a cover point, because the further you are away from one, the greater your chances are of keeling over before your partner figures out where to go.
I had him drag me around for the entire length of time it takes between losing all your life and finally dying (roughly a full minute, maybe longer), and during that time he’d actually bypass cover points while dragging my crippled ass around on some foolhardy mission to find the “right” spot. It’s bad enough when he can’t find the doorway or gets stuck on some piece of the scenery, but when your life is in his hands, dude, it’s not cool.
Enemy AI is more hackneyed than anything else, in sort of a purposefully contrived way. Regarding the aforementioned distraction techniques, enemies are so easily distracted because of an aggro meter that moves around depending on who’s doing the bulk of the shooting. When you have aggro, enemies shoot at you and you alone. If your partner is fully aggro’d, you’re essentially invisible. So much so that you can often just saunter up behind some hardcore merc and start blasting away at his backside without much of a hassle.
It’s a contrivance that makes sense given the mechanics you’re handed, but it also feels pretty silly when you’re standing three feet away from a guy with a gun, and he doesn’t even turn to look at you until you’ve already pumped three rounds into his stupid face.
At least pumping said rounds into the previously mentioned stupid face, and, in fact, the vast majority of the stupid faces in the game, is a fun process. The combat is satisfying in the way you generally want a shooter to be. There are a lot of different guns to unlock and upgrade (stocks, clips, gun attachments, shields, and even gold trimmings), and nearly all of them are a blast to use.
The game’s methodology of switching between weapon types is a little awkward at times (you have to hold down a button and select from a menu, rather than switching on the fly), especially when you want to use grenades, but the act of shooting is about as good as you could hope for. Melee attacks, unfortunately, are far less so. Once you get up to a guy and press the attack buttons, it’s usually OK, but getting lined up for a melee sequence is weirdly difficult and kind of confusing. The camera tends to get a little wonky when you’re right up against an enemy. At least the melee kills look cool.
Sadly, you won’t get to shoot stupid faces for very long. The game only includes six missions, none of which are very long, and some of which are just flat-out forgettable. There’s an exceptionally uneven quality to Army of Two’s mission designs. The middle section of the game is probably the highlight, with a mission taking place on a hijacked aircraft carrier being a particular highlight.
But from there, the missions get a great deal less interesting, finally bottoming out with the last level that’s not only overly protracted (not a criticism I give lightly in a game that’s maybe five hours long), but ends with a flat, ridiculous thud with a final battle that you might not even realize is the final battle until the last cutscene–which, incidentally, should have been the last battle. Instead, it’s yet another case of a game showing you something awesome happening at the end of a game instead of letting you take part in said awesome yourself.
You might get some longevity out of playing some of the game’s better missions multiple times with friends, and you’ll have to if you want to unlock all the available gear. It’s pretty easy to hook up with a friend online to play, though you can’t just have your buddy jump in with you mid-mission. You’ve got to start a mission from the very beginning with your friend in tow, or stick with the AI.
You can also go the competitive multiplayer route, though even that revolves around cooperative play. Two teams of two can play in modes like extraction, which put random VIPs around a map and have you try and rescue them, or warzone, which lays out a variety of objectives for each team to complete, and pays them accordingly, giving the win to the team with the most money at the end. These modes are actually pretty fun, provided you don’t mind the fact that melee attacks, despite their awkwardness, tend to work a great deal better than just plain old shooting your opponents.
One aspect of Army of Two that requires little criticism is its visual presentation, which is phenomenal, regardless of whether you play it on the Xbox 360 or PS3. The character detail for Rios and Salem is top-flight across the board. Even the guns look amazing, especially as you start to customize them more and more.
Environments might just pull from the usual aesthetic stock of typical wartime environments, but again, the details are sharp as hell, and some great lighting effects and texture work will frequently having you pause to just look around and take it all in. And best of all, the game runs great, with few, if any frame rate hitches to speak of.
In the end, Army of Two just doesn’t quite fly. Time and time again you’ll see exactly what the designers at EA’s Montreal studio were aiming for, and each time be frustrated by how that great idea just wasn’t executed with much success. By no means is the game a total failure, as its multiplayer element certainly can be enjoyable, but the sad reality is that its two-man gameplay hook isn’t enough on its own to keep you engaged in light of its multiple flaws. Two, in this case, is certainly better than one, but ultimately, not good enough.