Why aren't there more co-op games? Why are so many modern titles focused either on only singleplayer campaigns and multiplayer deathmatches, with multiplayer co-op often acting as nothing more than an afterthought? The act of going through an entire campaign with the help of a close friend or online stranger can, in theory, combine the best aspects of both single- and multiplayer modes; the player still gets an interesting story and level design catered specifically for the players' enjoyment, but with all the fun social networking that a pleasant multiplayer game can afford (when played with friends, that is).
Because of this, I was reasonably excited for Army of Two. This third-person shooter was built from the ground up with cooperative multiplayer in mind, and only cooperative multiplayer in mind. Many other reviewers have docked points from the game's score simply because the singleplayer is bland, but that's not the goddamn point. Army of Two is a multiplayer cooperative game, and should only be played or judged as a multiplayer cooperative game.
Still, though, does Army of Two succeed in what it sets out to do? Does it craft a fun, engaging cooperative experience in which teamwork is required rather than a gimmick?
Army of Two (XBox 360 reviewed, PS3)
Army of Two is built on a really cute idea: design an entirely cooperative campaign where the two players are forced to symbiotically rely on one another at every turn, and wrap it around an intensely relevant story about private military groups and the commodification of war.
Shame that it isn't very good.
Without getting into the moral or political implications of the story -- that's for another day-- Army of Two's narrative is awfully boring considering the nature of the premise. Given all the horrible things we've heard about Blackwater from CNN and NBC over the past few months, one would expect Army of Two to make profound, disturbing, or at least mildly interesting statements about the privatization of the military. Instead, the game treats the premise as nothing more than an excuse for contemporary, globe-spanning warfare. I'd have been willing to accept the overall dullness of the plot were it not for the facts that every "twist" is telegraphed at least five missions in advance, both protagonists have exactly two character traits ("badass" and "compassionate" or "badass" and "selfish"), and the final boss is killed in a friggin' cut scene. And I don't mean you shoot him a bunch of times, only to watch him fall to his death or something in a noninteractive cut scene. I mean you don't even get to fight him at all. You run to the last area, and the game essentially beats the boss for you. Seriously.
But story aside, is the co-op gameplay any good? Well, yes and no -- mostly, no.
Starting with the good, the guys at EA Montreal did a nice job of sprinkling a few moments throughout the campaign where both players are forced to completely rely on each other. For example, several times players will find themselves floating to the ground on a parachute; one player will control the direction of the parachute, while the other shoots at enemies below with a sniper rifle. Even cooler is the scripted Back to Back mode, where both players stand facing away from one another and must blow away dozens of surrounding enemies in slow-mo.
In moments like these, players must cooperate with each other to survive: if the gunner doesn't tell the parachute controller where to move and when, they'll get cut down by gunfire, and if the players in Back to Back don't cover their own areas, then a stray suicide bomber might vey well blow the duo to kingdom come.
Indeed, Army of Two's best moments can be found in these scripted co-op setpieces; they channel the intrinsic fun of playing with a buddy by forcing co-dependence. At times, Army of Two feels like exactly what it should: a fun, cooperative experience.
Additionally, Army of Two has some pretty clever mechanics of its own. The visual aggro system is really helpful and interesting (an "aggrometer" at the top of the screen tracks who is drawing the most fire, while the most aggro-heavy player glows bright red), and the fact that objective completion earns players money which can then be spent on weapon upgrades adds a sense of persistent progress to the campaign. These mechanics feel fresh, fun, and mildly innovative.
It's just that everything else about Army of Two's campaign kind of blows.
Most notably, the controls are abysmal. The pause menu only allows three freelook sensitivity settings instead of a slider, and even on the highest setting the controls are still sluggish as heck. There's a definite delay between the time a player turns in a direction and when their onscreen avatar actually begins to move -- given the high-octane nature of the game, this is almost totally inexcusable.
Not only are the slow aiming controls simply irritating on a surface level, but they make the guns far less useful. In the later levels of the game, as enemies stream from multiple directions simultaneously, I actually found it much easier and more effective to run straight at the baddies and melee them to death, thanks to a one-hit-kill physical attack mechanic. I don't begrudge EA Montreal for including the melee mechanic, but it has to be said: if your aiming system sucks so much that running directly into a hail of gunfire is a more strategically viable option that shooting at enemies from a medium distance, then your control scheme has some serious problems.
Better controls might have saved the campaign which, while it includes the aforementioned clever co-op moments, generally feels like a crappy Gears of War clone. From the hilariously beefy protagonists, to the bleed-out system, to the enemies who can take up to half a clip of bullets before dropping dead, the non-scripted aspects of Army of Two's campaign don't do anything that Gears of War's co-op campaign didn't do much, much better and much, much earlier. I don't fault Army of Two for being derivative of Gears of War; I fault it for being derivative and boring, with awful controls. Hell, cooperation isn't even necessary given how many bullets each soldier can take; once you get over the novelty of boosting your buddy up over a fence so he can snipe at baddies on the other side, you'll find the story mode irritatingly dull.
The co-op campaign itself is awfully short (I completed it in about six or seven hours), but this isn't necessarily a bad thing; the game already begins to wear out its welcome once the final level rolls around, and a few extra hours of repetitive playtime wouldn't necessarily have helped matters.
With an alternately original and irritating co-op campaign, one might assume the Versus multiplayer to fall into that same trap nearly all supposedly "next-gen" games do, where developers take the character models from the main game, plop them into deathmatch and CTF modes, and call it a multiplayer experience. Oddly -- and pleasantly -- this isn't the case in Army of Two. There's only one versus mode, but it's a real doozy. Up to four players, two on each team, fight on reasonably large maps wherein they complete objectives and earn money, which can then be used to purchase new weapons and gear.
A typical versus map won't just have one or two objectives, but around a dozen: players will race to one end of the map to blow up a fuel tank, then suddenly find themselves escorting an unarmed hostage to a helipad, then afterward rushing to kill a specific NPC. That's right -- in addition to the four human players, each versus map is populated with dozens of easier-to-kill NPCs who constantly keep all players on their toes and actually do a damn good job in replicating the feel of the regular co-op campaign. The controls still suck, of course, but the varied objectives, upgrade mechanics, and numerous NPCs make the versus mode a much more entertaining and substantial experience than I ever would have imagined.
Overall, Army of Two has many good ideas but ultimately falls flat on its promise. It's got some fun moments of cooperativity, some clever mechanics, and an unusually badass multiplayer mode, but its horrible controls and vanilla campaign mode prevent Army of Two from being even an above-average game.