Army of Two was the videogame equivalent of cow-tipping: it worked better as a co-operative experience, it appealed almost exclusively to the most obnoxious parts of your personality, and when the dust settled you could bump fists, do a little air guitar and then get on with your life safe in the knowledge you'd been engaged in something you weren't entirely proud of.
The sequel is totally different. Salem and Rios have grown up: they've given up working as international mercenaries, invested heavily in green companies, set up a few NGOs, and enrolled in medical school to make up for the many lives they've taken over the last few years. The game is kind of a cross between Trauma Centre and Ecco the Dolphin: you perform miracle surgeries on the elderly and uninsured, while whale song and pan-pipes play in the background, and a stern lady pops up now and then to tell you disquieting facts about global deforestation. Finally, there's a mini-game where you go shopping for organic goats' cheese.
Obviously this is not true - which is just as well, as it sounds rubbish. Army of Two: The 40th Day is broadly more of the same. Set in Shanghai - it's on fire on the menu screens and everything - the story revolves around Rios and Salem taking on a mysterious PMC organisation that appears to be murderously dismantling the city street by street. It's still about guns and explosions and leaving a trail of bodies behind you, there's absolutely no goats' cheese to be found, and the only endangered animals you see are when the fight leads you through a zoo and you can take cover behind a rhino carcass - I would dwell on this bit because I enjoyed it to an almost troubling degree, but sadly we've already picked it over at length in another preview.
There have been subtle changes to the tone, however, if you can use words like 'subtle' and 'tone' in a game in which you play a steel-faced linebacker blowing chunks out of endless militia with a gun that looks like it was designed by Lady GaGa. What kind of changes? Well, for starters, shooting through the first few chapters, as chunks of Shanghai literally come to pieces around you, you spend a lot more time with the masks off - not that you're a chisel-cheekboned art student with pale, watery eyes beneath it.
There are enough little character changes elsewhere to suggest that EA's definitely trying to make Rios and Salem moderately less obnoxious, however: they're caught up in the middle of a battle they didn't help kick off this time, and they're even slightly unhappy when an NPC unnecessarily offs some security guards in the opening moments. Previously, they would have busted open a kegger and chugged brewskis from the poor fellows' hollowed-out skulls.
Within minutes, though, it's business as usual, as weapons are readied - upgrading seems likely to be as kitschly compulsive as ever - the masks are back on, and people are talking about beer o'clock and Steven Seagal while trading hot lead.
And, when all hell breaks loose, you may well find yourself reminded that this was never the most fleet-footed of games. Rios and Salem are bulky characters who move at a ponderous pace, and yet, while the occasional clumsy vault over a wall suggests that the handling is rather iffy at times, the game's steady lope can lend proceedings a weighty and rather satisfying feel.
The real surprise, however, is that despite the grunting jocks in the lead roles Army of Two is often quite a thoughtful experience, with the sequel placing a lot more emphasis on pre-combat, as you scope ahead to the next encounter to work out how to subdue the enemy most effectively. Meanwhile, for the larger arena sections, the Aggro system serves as a reminder that the first outing still had its fair share of nice ideas despite a slightly uneven implementation.
Essentially an option to draw fire while your partner advances and flanks the enemy, Aggro brings an excellent tactical slant to the slaughter, smarter and faster-paced than the rather tedious suppress mechanics of the Brothers in Arms games, and boosted with AI that can actually pick its way through the terrain fairly smartly if you're playing solo. Elsewhere, a smattering of carefully placed civilians make for nice set-pieces too, as rooms filled with terrorists become puzzles while you work out how best to take down the baddies before they kill their hostages or call for reinforcements.
Regular moral choices - not the freshest of inclusions, granted - add yet another welcome element. Early on you'll be asked to decide whether or not to obey orders and off the nice NPC who's been walking through the tutorial, and it's rather a poignant moment - he taught you how to crouch and everything! Now you're going to pop a cap in him just because sexysexy voiceover lady tells you to? (In co-op, however, the fact that such beats play out with a fastest-finger-first mechanic may replace the weighty soul-searching with outright griefing - possibly no bad thing in itself - oh, and I totally killed that guy by the way.)
Enemy AI has had a bit of a boost too, even on the game's simpler settings, with foes taking cover intelligently and often trying to draw you out into the open. There are plenty of nice little touches to be seen as your targets help each other over walls, or bunch up around corners, and the cumulative effect of such moments is to create some enjoyably tricksy encounters.
And while it's not the prettiest game in the world, EA Montreal has captured the polluted haze of Shanghai quite stylishly, recreating the bloom and smog of a city where the air is so toxic just stepping off the plane once cured a nasty eye infection I had been battling helplessly for weeks (presumably by blanketing me in a smothering muddle of good ol' plutonium fumes). Early on in the game you'll be treated to a lovely skybox as the Pudong skyline rents itself into burning chunks, and the game's tangle of warehouse interiors, wobbly rooftops, and alleyways have a sharp cartoon detailing to them, and are drawn with plenty of colour.
Missions move quickly between objectives, and while there's a certain degree of clunkiness to proceedings - contextual prompts are often slightly laggy, and co-operative manoeuvres like wall-boosts and door-tugging are presumably included more for their ability to disguise loading than to generate fun or camaraderie - the co-op at the heart of it all has the capacity to work a certain kind of magic, turning an enemy turret into a spatial problem to speedily ponder and solve, while providing a level of partner AI which means you can trust it to understand your handful of simple commands and actually get you out of tight spots if you're playing the game alone.
Army of Two: The 40th Day has plenty of little tweaks and changes, then, but the central appeal of the game is still tightly bound up with the unexpected pleasures of flanking - holding off an enemy while your partner gets the drop of them, or sneaking to the perfect sniping point while he takes all the heat for you. It's a signature move that never fails to cheer you up when it goes according to plan, and the core of a game that perhaps had more of a brain lurking behind the metal faceplate than many people gave it credit for.
Army of Two: The 40th Day is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 on 15th January 2010.