Monday, 10 March 2008

Review: Army Of Two

Originally scheduled for release last year Army of Two is an intense third-person shooter developed and published by EA. In a surprising move EA opted to delay Army of Two for three months in order to allow their Montreal studios to add a final coat of polish to the game, although they missed out on the lucrative Christmas period the extra development time has clearly done the game good.
Army of Two departs from the usual third-person action shooter formula by placing a heavier focus on the co-op aspect of the game as opposed to the single player campaign. Everything from the gameplay to the story has been built from the ground up around the idea that the player would take control of one part of a two man team.

Although the obligatory single player campaign makes an appearance the game is clearly designed to be played co-operatively, the AI does a good enough job of executing the commands issued but the overall experience is drastically improved when playing with a real person.
When first unveiled Army of Two was pitched as a cooperative game featuring an unprecedented level of artificial intelligence, the AI would be integrated seamlessly into the gameplay to the point that it would be difficult to distinguish between playing with a human teammate and a computer controlled teammate, the AI would react differently according to the way it was treated by the player, adapt to the constantly changing situation and the condition of its teammate, and interact with the player in a lifelike believable way.

Unfortunately, with the exceptions of a few quirky character interaction animations the AI falls short and as a result what’s left is a derivative third-person shooter.
The story in Army of Two is heavily influenced by current events, the underpinning political and moral issues relate to the role of Private Military Companies and of course, big bad terrorists – it’s all too reminiscent of Blackwater.
The player takes control of either Elliot Salem or Tyson Rios, the predictable mercenary types given an aesthetic edge by sporting masks and armour that look like they were designed by the members of Slipknot.
Tyson and Elliot are recruited from the military to work for a PMC and are sent to various conflict zones to recover information, disarm weapons or rescue captured operatives, and more often than not kill a diabolical middle-eastern terrorist.

Throughout the game the battle scenarios change in relation to the political climate in the game, this is an interesting dynamic that has the opportunity to create a compelling narrative, but, disappointingly the game fails to capitalise and ultimately the story becomes a predictable afterthought. With narrative out the window the story is utilised as a method of setting up the various battle scenarios which all boil down to ‘this guy is doing bad things in this country, go and take care of it’, nevertheless the comedic interactions between Tyson and Elliot keep it entertaining enough to warrant sitting through the short cut-scenes.

The gameplay in Army of Two is nothing new; if you’ve played any recent third-person shooter you’ll feel right at home with this game. The combat is very much in the same vein as Gears of War, the player is expected to use cover and the over-the-shoulder precise aim to clear the various areas of hostiles.
The crux of the gameplay is the Aggro element, attacking the enemy causes a build up of Aggro, this is represented by a red aura around the character model, the Aggro attracts the attention of the enemy which leaves your partner free to cause some backstage mischief. The Aggro mechanic adds depth to the otherwise unremarkable combat; it provides the opportunity take a more tactical approach instead of the usual guns blazing modus operandi, most of the fun is had when one player attracts the attention of the enemies while the other heads behind enemy lines and takes them out.

At various points in the game the combat will launch into a back-to-back sequence where the two characters form an impenetrable wall and take down the enemies while covering each other, this is the most enjoyable portion of the co-op gameplay, but since the sequences are scripted they only occur a few times.
The combat has a number of shortcomings, the most prevalent of which are the long range combat in which it becomes difficult to hit the target and the close quarters combat where if an enemy gets to close it can become difficult to aim at them, the alternative to shooting is the melee attack but in a face to face confrontation the enemy usually gets the upper hand, this is probably to encourage the tactical use of Aggro.

The level design in Army of Two is uninspired, the environments although graphically stellar are often extremely bland and the progression is linear with some occasional branching paths thrown in.
The flaws in the level design usually results in running around aimlessly in a attempt to figure out where the next objective is, this is remedied by the inclusion of a GPS system that basically tells the player where to go; at any point in the game a quick press of the button reveals luminescent arrows that can be followed to the next objective, you’ll find yourself leaning on this very regularly since many objectives require you to scale a wall that you’d previously dismissed as an unimportant background feature, or interact with switches or buttons that aren’t visible to the naked eye.
The high points in this game are usually the scripted events such as the two man parachute sequences where one player guides the parachute and the other attempts to shoot eagle-eyed enemies on ground level, or the aforementioned back-to-back sequences.

Overall Army of Two fails to meet expectations; however it is a competent cooperative third-person shooter. Although the combat is ordinary it is nevertheless enjoyable and playing through the game with a friend makes the experience far more enjoyable.
The heavy focus on the cooperative gameplay pays off in the end but doesn’t deliver anything that you couldn’t get from the like of Halo 3 or Gears of War.

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