It's not even out yet - we haven't even played it for more than forty minutes - and Army of Two is already a guilty pleasure.
EA's two-player, co-operative shooter is the spitting image of one of its mercenary anti-heroes: ugly, crass, shallow, ruthlessly profiteering, faintly preposterous, and thunderously dumb. It's a game that seems to have been engineered to attract the loathing of gamers of refined taste. To make matters worse, it's the spawn of the videogame publisher everyone loves to hate: that dastardly franchise monopolist, EA. Boo! Hiss!
And yet, every one of those forty stupid minutes was enjoyable. By the end of them, we'd even come to respect the game. On the face of it, Army of Two is simple to the point of being basic, but beneath its veneer of dunderheaded macho claptrap, it's actually a very clever game indeed. An idiot savant, you might say.
Admittedly, its cleverness is on loan from another genre. Army of Two pilfers the 'aggro' system common to MMOs, wherein players seek to control the amount of threat they cause to enemies and direct their attention (or aggro) to one of their number, so that others can heal, sneak, or attack unmolested. (Tom has already explained aggro, along with many other important facets of Army of Two, thus saving us the bother. Thanks, Tom.)
Of course, even theft can be cunning, and it was clever just to think of applying this RPG system to a brutish co-op shooter in the Gears of War vein. It was cleverer still to do what no MMO we can think of has successfully done: make the aggro system explicit, clear, easy to understand and manipulate. The very beginning of the game's cuss-filled tutorial explains it in simple (four-letter) terms, and there's an enormous aggro swingometer dominating the screen. If that weren't enough, the player drawing aggro glows an angry red, while the player being ignored by enemies fades towards transparency, indicating that they're in an effective stealth mode, and can run around without getting shot at.
Cleverest of all - and here we must give credit to those presumably evil and exploitative management suits at EA - was to delay the game until it worked to perfection. Initially due at the end of last year, Army of Two got pushed back three months for 'tuning'. We asked assistant producer Matt Turner if this was a rare occurrence within EA. "It is," he answered. "We were extremely happy. We weren't expecting to get the chance. So we were relieved."
Aside from receiving a fresh lighting pass, the game has spent its reprieve period being fine-tuned to improve its flow, and going by our playtest, it was time well spent. Co-op aside, Army of Two is an utterly conventional, unremarkable third-person shooter, with linear levels and objectives. But it plays effortlessly well, the pacing is just right, it's free of choke points, every ruffle has been smoothed. The automatic duck, which allows you to use cover without pressing a button or having to stick to it, is particularly liberating.
More importantly, the co-op dynamic is one of the best ever seen in a shooter. The aggro system works so well, it's guaranteed to be one of the most-copied game features of 2008. Over time, you can choose to be a specialist in either drawing aggro or dropping it by customising your equipment - including, in a touch so absurd it almost seems like a parody of EA games' obsession with street bling, pimping your gun with gold plating and diamonds to make it more threatening.
But with two evenly matched players, Army of Two immediately falls into a see-saw rhythm of cover and flank that's so natural, so instinctive and balanced, you barely need to communicate verbally with your team-mate until one of the slightly more involved boss battles comes around. It's made more flexible and powerful still by touches like the permanent, inset partner cam, or the aggro-dropping "feign death" move (which World of Warcraft players might recognise from the game's hunter class, and which recently saved some Norwegian children from a moose).
Aggro doesn't bring any revolutionary new tactics or dynamics to co-op play, but it promotes the core of it better than any shooter we can think of. "It works accidentally in a lot of other shooters, it's not really a feature," says Turner. "We really wanted to emphasise it, make it a major mechanic of the game, so you can choose the way you manipulate the AI and move through the maps."
Army of Two's other co-op systems seem more perfunctory: co-op sniping, weapon-switching (handy for trying out a friend's customised piece for a spell), step-jumps for reaching high areas, and the theatrical, back-to-back, slow-mo shoot-outs dispense one-shot buddy-movie moments without having any lasting impact. Parachuting into levels, with one player controlling the 'chute while the other snipes, is a typical example.
Healing is more significant of course, and this is the one area in which the game has changed radically since Tom saw it. The headline-grabbing tampon-insertion mini-game has been dropped completely, for breaking the game's flow and becoming repetitive. Or perhaps because the developers were getting sick of the jokes?
"We really liked the original idea, it was different and it was fun for the first few times," protests Turner. "But it got stale quickly. Within one session of play it would get kind of frustrating - you'd get sucked out of the fire fight and put in this little world where you're doing the same thing over and over again... So we made a system where you're always involved in the fight, no matter where you are or how hurt you are. It was tough, we really liked the mini-game and were sad to see it go, but it's a better game without it."
In its place is a system very similar to Valve's Left 4 Dead: the prone, dying player can keep shooting while his friend drags him to cover, where he can spend a few seconds dispensing a one-button infinite heal without getting shot at. Simple, intuitive, effective, and it doesn't stop the action for a second. Game developers don't often get credit for sacrificing original ideas in favour of straightforward ones, but EA Montreal was absolutely right to do so in this case.
We played Army of Two with a human partner only, and weren't given a chance to use the buddy AI that takes your friend's place. We'd be concerned about that if we ever had any intention of playing the game alone, but we don't. We'd worry that it's not deep enough, and that its characters and storyline are ridiculous and clichéd and wafer-thin, if we intended to engage our brains for more than a second during its thick-headed, shouty nonsense, but guess what? No chance. Army of Two is a pure co-op shooter, no less and definitely no more. As such, it's got a good shot at a brief reign as the best of its breed - brief, because the brilliant Left 4 Dead is snapping at its heels, and is even more exquisitely balanced for four players than EA's game is for two.
Maybe it's because so few games of its kind have been designed from the ground up for co-op play that Army of Two achieves so much with so little. It's great in a bluntly obvious, barefaced kind of way; to play it is to repeatedly slap your own forehead and make "duh" noises. Appropriate, perhaps, for a game in which you play a retarded hunk of muscle in a gimp suit, with a foul mouth and a gold-plated gun.