EA had a choice to make with Army of Two - they could get Salem and Rios even more drunk on testosterone, inflate the swagger further and play it for laughs, or they could get them to turn up to work in downtown Shanghai wearing sensible shoes. They chose the latter, and it was probably the right decision, but despite everything, when you get to grips with the game you can't suppress a slight longing for them to go full-on Team America - charging into a controversial warzone with their ineffable bonhomie, clown masks, several nukes and a couple of catchy musical numbers.
Thing haven't changed too much though. "That bravado is still there, it's the same characters. They're not different people but for lack of a better word, they've grown up a little bit. They're a little bit more gritty, and a little bit more down to earth," explains Matt Turner the game's producer. So it's essentially Army of Two: The College Years then? "Yeah, yeah! But you can still do all the fist-pumps, the high fives... and we've got the rock, paper, scissors mechanic too - seeing who's going to do something. I think what made people take it the wrong way last time was that we even trained you in the tutorial about how to high-five! This time it's just there."
The game kicks off in a deserted alley in Shanghai, with pedestrians visible wandering through nearby streets and road traffic rumbling overhead. Salem and Rios, again either you and a real-world buddy or an AI cohort, are here to meet their contact JB as part of their ongoing mercenary concern TransWorld Operations (TWO, get it?). Sadly though their travails are about to be interrupted by a disaster of epic proportions: the invasion of Shanghai by a group known as The 40th Day Initiative is soon to kick off, and the city is about to collapse around TWO's ornately designed masks and glistening golden weaponry.
"Rios and Salem have nothing to do with it," explains Turner. "The story is them escaping, so the player sees the disaster while it's happening. It's optional to find out about it, finding the collectables and back-story stuff, but the story is also told through these big bombastic moments that happen as you move through the city. Planes crashing, skyscrapers crumbling... There's not just one moment in the game where it's all 'crazy-crazy-crazy!' then all the gameplay afterwards happens in a destroyed city. The place gets progressively more destroyed as you move through it. You're seeing all these events and you're seeing the impact of the invasion and the effects on the people."
As if to emphasise this point the game is booted up and I'm presented with Shanghai Zoo as a passenger jet spewing trails of smoke descends and crashes further on into the tourist spot. It's an instantly engaging location simply because it looks so different from similar scenes in other games. Ignore the fact that it's a zoo and you'll be taking cover behind an ice-cream stand; simply the Asian-style design on show (from the vibrantly coloured signs on the walls to the cartoon drawings of lions and tigers hanging from banners) provoke immediate interest if you're an untraveled and western type such as myself. EA has played the cultural difference card to great effect.
After a dalliance with a safari tour train-ride, a tide of heavy armour washes over the scene, however, and it's no longer safe to stare at the walls. The basics of the game are the same as before - co-operative shooting, sniping and grenade tossing - and also as before, if one of you draws more aggro from the 40th Daysters then the other is freed up to do clever stuff like flanking. Army of Two's signature co-op moves have also returned, although can now happen whenever you feel like it rather than at heavily delineated points in the level.
Stuff like Back to Back and Riot Shield are still in there - but now that enemies have their own agendas, and won't necessarily be expecting a fiery death, a few more sneaky/stealthy options have also been opened up. An unsuspecting enemy can be grabbed as a hostage, for example - or one of you can walk up and do a mock surrender while the other readies a volley of bullets. Another neat trick is for one player to sneak forward to get a visual on an enemy who's hiding behind a wall - meaning that he becomes a visible outline on the other's screen. If a sniper rifle is equipped and the wall is one that you can knock holes through, that's a neat headshot on its way.
There's a slight button control revamp to bring the game more in line with the Gears of Wars of this world, and when you play there are also subtle improvements to the mechanics - you can track enemies with your weapons more readily for example, while sniping feels snappier and more satisfying. The weapons themselves are endlessly customisable. It's being sold as 'LEGO with guns', and that essentially translates as being able to splash earned cash by mixing and matching any gun barrel, silencer, stock, telescopic sight etc. until you get your preferred balance of aggro, handling, precision and damage. You can then, if you so choose, have it painted in zebra stripes or plated in Army of Two's trademark gold bling.
All in all, then, a decent turn from Salem and Rios. We are now off the fence and into the realms of cautious optimism. In all honesty the graphics aren't mind-blowing - but the action is solid, and the disaster-hit Shanghai setting looks to create some pretty interesting places in which to perforate terrorists. Importantly, we have recorded evidence of producer Matt Turner stating "no more enemy missile silos, bunkers or box factories". A policy we'd vote for in an instant.
The most disappointing and glaring omission from the game, however, and specifically for the Shanghai Zoo level, is the inability to shoot giant pandas and other rare animals. One of gaming's greatest pleasures is being denied to us. On top of this, when Rios and Salem get to the zoo not only are the hippos and rhinos already dead (and lying in their enclosure at strategic cover-points) but both species are in the same enclosure. This is a clear breach of basic zoological principles in terms of animal habitat and co-habitation. "We want to stay away from the animal murder because people don't like that," Turner explains while lining up a headshot. "And I think maybe the rhinos were dragged in there? All this weird stuff is happening. It resonates everywhere. You don't know how they got in..." Case closed.
Army of Two: The 40th Day is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 on 15th January.