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.
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