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.
Overall, EA's policy for The 40th Day is very much to finely hone a handful of co-operative moves, new and old, rather than make the previous mistake of throwing in any number of cool-sounding manoeuvres that aren't much fun and that you won't use more than once. Another interesting new ploy, for example, is having one of you perform a mock surrender - bamboozling the enemy with your lack of gunplay - while the other hangs back and uses the distraction to your mutual advantage.
Should you want to play through the game without human interaction, meanwhile, the AI companion is now notably more aware of his surroundings - taking cover and moving more realistically as you bark advance, hold and regroup commands at him. The terrorist types have changed a little too. Rather than rampaging bullet-fodder, they now have an inert state in which they'll wander about the place and round up any civilians they come across. This provides for various stealth possibilities, in which your gruesome twosome come across hostage situations that you can either plough into or thoughtfully and tactically resolve. You see, as is the EA Montreal mantra on this one, it's all about choice.
"We want to come back to this idea of choice," says Schneider (see!). "Are you the sort of player who goes in and doesn't care about all the civilians in the world - and just kills all of them, or lets the enemy NPCs kill them? Are you the sort of player who tries to save all the civilians in the game? Are you the sort of player who kills all the enemy AI, then frees the civilians only then to kill them? What kind of a player are you? It all comes back to this idea of choice." So the choice is that you either kill them, or don't? Our survey said: Hmm.
Nevertheless intriguing developmental twists and nudges are afoot. Another criticism levelled at Army of Two was its static world, so alongside the dust, gusting wind and physics objects comes the ability to shoot through wood bodies and crumbling brickwork. So far, so every other game, but this will also give access to a co-op snipe move. Say two terrorists have kneeling hostages at gunpoint, and they're standing behind boarded-up windows. You'll be alerted to something going on in their room, so if one of you sets up a sniping position then the other can sneak to another window to see where they're all standing - which will then flash up as yellow blobs on the sniper's screen, in a fashion similar to the Rainbow Six: Vegas games. Two plywood-splintering gunshots later, plus two dead ne'er-do-wells, and you've got two thankful civilians that you can choose whether or not to murder.
Finally, yes, those familiar Army of Two masks will be making a return; first created, incidentally, as a memorable visual device for the game by the same bloke who came up with Sam Fisher and his iconic green-light goggles. To avoid the same sort of emotional distance that plagued the first game (and causes problems in a lot of masked superhero movies when you look at, say, the last third of Iron Man) the pair will now raise their masks when there aren't enemies around, just to remind you that they are in fact human and not a pair of skull-faced murderous robots. Which is nice of them, if a little naïve, sniper-wise.
As for what The 40th Day is supposed to mean - well that, and the release date, is still under wraps. It sounds a bit religious though, doesn't it? Perhaps it's a reference to when Jesus was out in the desert and had to choose between rejecting the devil, embracing the devil or to rejecting the devil and then potentially embracing him later on. Who can say? Remember: choice.
Army of Two: The 40th Day is due out for PS3, Xbox 360 and PSP this winter. Hoo-ah, we expect.