According to Dustin Hoffman, Lawrence Olivier once explained his desire to act thus: "Look at me. Look at me. Look at me." That might not have much to do with Army of Two, but it does get you out of having to read a tampon joke, so there's no point whinging. Tampons are part of Army of Two's health system. Getting people to look at you is part of killing them all so very violently.
"Look at me" is also roughly what whichever of the game's twin protagonists you're controlling would be roaring while trying to accumulate "Aggro" - were he not actually shouting **** and **** and **** and lots of other unprintably brilliant four-letter words that you'll have no trouble guessing. Aggro, as with MMOs, is the concept of drawing the attention of your enemies so that other people can take advantage. In Army of Two, EA's co-operative third-person shooter, you have an "Aggrometer", with a needle that drifts toward whichever of you is seizing the higher profile. When it's spun the whole way to you, you can activate "Overkill" - a 10-to-15-second burst of double damage and unlimited ammo, which leaves your companion free to either stride up to slowed-down enemies and boot them into ragdoll spasms of flying death, or shoot them with a pistol and watch their head jerk as the bullet impacts on the skull.
It's not a very friendly game, Army of Two - but, for fans of Gears of War's relentless brutality, it's definitely one to smack on the watching list ahead of its 15th November release date.
Aggro and Overkill are the thin end of Army of Two's co-op wedge. The game's been designed from the ground up to support a pair of players, and not just in the sense of putting two health packs on the floor. The combat - as violent and almost as graphically sumptuous as Gears, but with less of the emphasis on cover-points and more on enemy-count - relies on a number of tandem action elements to proceed. You can go back-to-back with your fellow shooter to make sure you're covering every angle, or rip the door off a car and use it as a riot-shield while your friend walks along behind you firing over the top - effectively turning you into a sort of armoured car.
As employees of one of those fashionable Private Military Companies (PMCs) busily kicking and hoo-ahing their way through Iraq at the moment, levels take you to places like Somalia and Afghanistan. A GPS toggle turns the screen blue and wraps the buildings in white outlines, projecting a sequence of arrows onto the floor to help guide you between objectives, and this also helps you spot booby-traps and other helpful elements. Everywhere the emphasis on co-op is apparent. In the Somalian level we're shown, a simultaneous sniper-round blast on a fuel tank at the far end of a market - an action called "co-op snipe" - blows a pair of adjacent gun-turrets to smithereens and reduces the battle to what's happening on the ground. As you parachute into the Afghan caves level, one player directs the chute and the other fires at the ground; holding steady allows for sniping RPG positions, or tackling a chopper that's abandoning the caves as you arrive.
Destroying the chopper by firing on its rear rotor is merely a bonus objective - a way of earning a bit of extra cash - and from that you can infer that Army of Two's pretty relentlessly frantic - and that you get to spend a bit of pocket-money between levels. The latter feeds into the customisation system. You'll be able to buy new equipment to shield yourself, as well as new face-masks to replace the Michael Myers defaults, while weapons can be customised to countless layers of depth.
Initially we're shown the game being played single-player, with an AI counterpart controlling your wingman. He runs into a trip-mine at one point, but on a subsequent mission he remembers the experience and avoids it.
Enemy AI's pretty robust too, although if you learn to focus on enemy commanders you can leave the grunts in disarray. Really though the game's about playing with a friend, and to this end there's support for drop-in and drop-out gameplay over PlayStation Network and Xbox Live, as well as locally. You really start to feel the importance of working together quickly, and not just out of necessity, as was often the case in Gears, but out of desire. It's fun. Covering one another is barely the half of it - if you're up against an enemy entrenched on a raised platform, one of you can give the other a boost up to toss a grenade into their midst or blindfire over the edge. The same move can be used to clamber up to their level, dispatch them, and then pull your friend up to join you. There's a lot of using Aggro to flank, and it diverts you both from the traditional circle-strafing tactics of hardened shooters.
The most eye-catchingly collaborative moments, though, come when a player goes down. Although there's a Halo-esque health system of recovering away from the flow of bullets, if you take too much damage and fall down you're still not necessarily out. Your comrade can come rushing over and activate a healing mini-game where - and they swear blind that this is all thanks to a PMC freelancing as an advisor on the game's development - the idea is to stuff tampons into the wound. You do this by button-matching as a pair, with every matched sequence delivering more blood-soaking lady-product into the squishy hole. It really is a bit disgusting, although thankfully none too graphic. Slightly more amusing is what happens if you lose all your health a second time, with a mini-game that involves one player's button-matching CPR while the other - in a little cut-away window in the top left - literally runs away from the light. In either of these phases of near-death, your friend has three minutes to reach you, and can re-attempt healing if he stuffs it up. If either of you goes down three times though, you're out.
One of the things you can do to ensure you heal, of course, is let the other guy take the heat. If you're under so much pressure that you're in danger of expiring before the balance shifts, you can also feign death, which shifts all the Aggro to him. Sometimes though, you're going to fall, and you're going to do it in a position that's tricky for him to reach. Good thing, then, that he can simply drag you out of the way, while you're lying on the ground firing at the enemy and he's spraying bullets over your head. Basically, if they've seen it in an action film, EA Montreal appears to have co-opted it for co-op duty.
Whether it all works is down to the quality of the levels and set-piece battles that EA's preparing, we suspect, and it's hard to gauge how well it all works from just a few minutes with the pad, but with co-op undeniably enjoyable in virtually every shooter it's in, and broadband penetration in a genuinely sweet spot for the first time since consoles noticed the internet, EA's timing is certainly right, and Army of Two looks like the first decent stab at the inevitable next step. With a simultaneous US and European launch planned, EA's clearly realised the need for a big launch-day audience to give life to its best features, too, and with not long to go, you can expect the Army of Two promotional march to continue apace. Check back soon for an interview with lead designer Chris Ferriera, who'll be able to give us a better idea of how the rest of the game's taking shape.