Last year, two cash-guzzling military types made a grand, shared-parachute entrance to the gaming world. Upon landing they did some high-fives, played air guitar on their AK-47s for a little while and bashed their skull masks together for no ostensible reason, before finally turning to those gathered to await their judgement. There was an audible intake of collective breath.
Accompanying the long, slow hand-clap was an army of "meh". "Mediocre" was bandied around, "crass" was muttered by left-wing liberal beatniks, and "repetitive" cropped up now and again too. "It was a humbling experience sometimes," says Alain Tascan, the general manager of EA Montreal, as he recalls the critical response to his team's first game. "We learned a lot from the feedback from the critics... and a lot of feedback from the people playing the game."
Army of Two 2 then, officially known as The 40th Day, is being touted as a subtly different beast to the one that came before. Salem and Rios are back, masks intact, but the way they work has been streamlined. Co-op moves and tactics are being distilled and honed, while gameplay will present itself in a far more organic way than the somewhat stop/start 'use Back to Back special move here!' nature of the original's combat.
The somewhat hammy global trek between terror hotspots has also been dispensed with, in favour of a single near-future location - Shanghai. Wrongdoers are running riot throughout the city, so private military contractors Salem and Rios are on hand to knock heads together and earn a bit of cash. After all, they're now running their very own private military concern - Trans World Operations. Or, acronym fans, T.W.O. for short. Yes, that's right. They honestly just did that.
"We want to put players in the middle of a disaster scenario," explains executive producer Reid Schneider, a man as American as his name suggests. "We want that emotional connection, in the same way that the characters in Cloverfield are in the middle of this huge thing that's going on around them. It's not space monsters, it's still a very realistic game, but it's that emotional experience that we think will be really interesting."
To demonstrate, Salem and Rios are shown throwing manly banter at each other in what appears to be a Shanghai courtyard, surrounded by tall brick buildings. Suddenly, the structure directly in front of them begins to crumble downwards - in a manner eerily reminiscent of the building you demolish in the Red Light District in Duke Nukem 3D.
When the last of the office block falls away, a curtain has dropped; it's revealed that you're in fact high up, in fact on the roof of a skyscraper. From here you're met with a nightmare vision of the Shanghai skyline. As in the final scenes of Fight Club, one by one gigantic buildings collapse on themselves. Streets are ripped open by explosions, planes crash and anarchy takes hold in every direction you look. It's a stirring moment, only interrupted by an out-of-control plane spiralling into the roof you're gawping from - and a platoon of enemy goons making their presence known.
"It's all about two-man tactics. Two-man gameplay," pipes up Schneider, while showing off the returning MMO-esque aggro system that allows for one player to take the heat while the other gets with the flanking. "But we really want to open it up to a more organic co-op experience. If you go back to the first Army of Two it was really quite bite-sized - shoot, then co-op move, then move on. What we want to do here is have the co-op moves and co-op tactics done anywhere within the game, any time you want, so as a player you'll have all the old co-op moves that you liked from the first game like Riot Shields or Back to Back - but you'll also have this new suite, this new arsenal, of co-op moves at your disposal. It's really about choice."
It's all a bit more obvious now, too. Whatever your crosshair hovers over, friend or foe, will flag up interaction possibilities. Come across an enemy on your travels, for example, and you can then order your AI underling (or agree with your co-operative ally) to grab an enemy and use his struggling body as a meat-shield while you provide cover.