Version tested: Xbox 360
A few campaigns into Army of Two, and mercenaries Tyson Rios and Elliot Salem are lugging their risible body armour, pimped hand-cannons and mismatched names towards their next encounter with a bunch of insurgents who look like a street gang, in an army base that looks like a skate park, in an Iraq that looks like the outskirts of Denver. Rios (bald, scarred, The Serious One) is being Basil Exposition, wondering aloud to Salem (tousled, tattooed, The Impetuous One) whether a mole might be betraying them to the enemy.
"Don't know don't care," barks Salem, and the mindless killing begins once more.
In case you hadn't guessed from the getup that makes its supposedly macho heroes look like camp, sado-masochistic, medieval ice hockey goalies, Army of Two doesn't take itself all that seriously. This co-op-focused, third-person shooter is no Tom Clancy's Advanced Military Anorak Fantasy. Why are we killing these men? What's the plot again? Which third-world country are we blowing up next? Don't know, don't care. In the middle of one firefight, Salem starts banging on about who the best rapper in the Wu-Tang Clan is. It's practically self-parody.
It's a good thing, too. The light tone helps you get past the drab locations, dodgy politics, dumb machismo, clumsy dialogue and production-line plot of this superficially standard action game, and focus on what it does well: tactical AI, weapon customisation and superb two-player co-op dynamics.
For all that it revels in shooter clich, the fact that Army of Two was designed from first principles for two players makes it quite an unusual beast. The core of this is the "aggro" system that splices the cover-and-flank tactics of a squad shooter with the threat management mechanics of an MMORPG, and then telegraphs it to the player with all the subtlety of a sucker punch. When one of the pair of "private military contractors" is shooting at the enemy, he draws their fire and glows red. His partner fades to transparency and can move to a flanking position unmolested, the better to take out the enemies behind cover, in body armour, or at machinegun posts. Or to not die, if he's the one under fire already (a "feign death" move also allows you to instantly drop aggro when your health is low).
As if the visual cues weren't easy enough to understand, there's an aggro meter at the top of the screen, showing you where things stand. It might seem like overkill, but the absolute clarity of the aggro system is Army of Two's greatest strength. It makes it supernaturally easy to fall into the game's steady, swinging rhythm, and means that EA Montreal has been able to notch enemy behaviour a few levels above blind and brain-damaged without making the game frustrating to play. Your opponents frequently attack from two sides and use cover properly, blind-firing and falling back when threatened - but since they can always be outsmarted and outflanked by using the aggro system, you've always got options.
The game is best enjoyed by far with another player, and supports split-screen play as well as a robust drop-in drop-out mode over Xbox Live or PSN. But the AI that takes control of your partner when you play alone is surprisingly capable, too. It's not that it's outstandingly clever, believable or error-free - rather that the command system is elegant and effective, with directions on the d-pad allowing you to toggle between passive and aggressive versions of advance, regroup, and hold-position. Between this and the aggro system, it's simplicity itself to manipulate the AI to get you out of thorny situations.
Whether alone or with a friend, progress in Army of Two is consistently effortless, without being dumb. Outright deaths will be rare, thanks to the healing system that allows downed players to keep firing while their partner drags them back to cover for a heal. There's a clear GPS overlay to point you to the next objective if you get lost. And despite not requiring any button presses to stick or unstick you, cover works seamlessly and intuitively, giving firefights an easy flow.
These are the only things that really matter, even though it's unfortunate to find not everything in Army of Two works so perfectly. There's a whole plethora of other co-op mechanics built into the game, and the majority of them are mildly pointless and prosaic in their implementation. Boosting up to high ledges, simultaneous co-op sniping, pre-animated feats of twin strength, and the scripted moments of back-to-back, slow-motion massacre all feel rather forced and flow-breaking.
The swear-filled camaraderie commands - press X to play air guitar, pull trigger to butt shoulders - just make you cringe. The hovercraft sections are devoid of challenge (or any discernible handling model), although parachuting in with one player controlling the 'chute while the other snipes enemies has a dash of daredevil cool to it. Best of the bunch - and also the most overtly homoerotic touch in a game that's not exactly short of them - is the riot shield system, which allows one player to use a shield or car door as portable cover while the other cuddles up close behind and dispenses "lead" from his "iron".
Virtually all of this comes into play in Army of Two's cunning and original Vs. mode. Wisely, EA Montreal has realised that without co-op and aggro, there's nothing to distinguish Army of Two from a very run-of-the-mill shooter, so it's enshrined these in the competitive multiplayer, too. Two teams of two are dumped in one of four large maps, crawling with AI enemies and a series of rolling targets. They compete for the cash rewards, vying to be the first to down a helicopter, kill an armoured enemy, or escort a wounded contact to an extraction point. The varied objectives, race-against-time feel, and the busy firefights on two fronts make this an original blast, but it must be said that the performance during our demo session on PSN was on the laggy side compared to standard co-op play.
Army of Two's guns feel dismayingly flat at first, but time reveals this apparent oversight to be a stealthily smart move. It encourages you to shop around and customise in the game's tantalising armoury (access is given midway through each mission), tuning your weapons for aggro, accuracy, ammo capacity, damage and ludicrous, gold-plated looks. Initially bland guns can develop a lot of character and tactical function over the course of the game, and you'll find yourself developing strong attachments to some of them, and swapping with your partner to try others. There are also some OTT super-weapons like a minigun and rocket launcher to unlock for a second play-through.
But that second play-through is Army of Two's Achilles heel, its sticking point. The campaign is short, painfully anti-climactic, and (with the exception of a memorable attack on an aircraft carrier) it lacks any imaginative spark in its level design or set-pieces. It's just room after corridor after cave after factory after canyon after room full of cover points and shouting terrorists and rattling guns. There's not much in the game's presentation to draw you back either, with its graceless, gawky animations, blanket over-lighting, ugly art, wallpaper music and desolate lack of atmosphere.
The fine-tuned excellence of Army of Two's co-op gunplay will easily sustain you through one run through this gutsy, broadly enjoyable game. But the desire to revisit it is weak, and for a game that's designed with social online play in mind, that's a big problem. Any level of the current co-op king, Halo 3, has more spectacle and incident packed into it than the entirety of Army of Two; more that you'll want to relive in company over and over again. Bearing the strong Vs. mode in mind, it would be wrong not to warmly recommend this as a smart twist on a stupid shooter, but perhaps it should have taken itself a little more seriously after all.
7 / 10