Army Of Two
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For a guy who could fit in as a cousin at a Terminator family reunion, the metal-masked mercenary sidekick in EA's ambitious Army of Two sure tries hard to be a real boy. He high-fives you when things go right. He flips you the bird when things go wrong. And when he's gotta go... well, he's gotta go. "In many games you see a character drink water, but then that guy never goes to pee," says Designer Vander Caballero. "In our game, you'll see him pee."
No, this isn't some untapped reservoir of the infamous "liquid A.I." hyped in EA's late-'90s sports games--it's just human nature calling in a unique co-op third-person shooter not due to hit the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 until sometime in 2007. Army of Two, which stars guns-for-hire chums Tyson Rios and Elliot Salem, revives a genre lain low since the heyday of Contra and Double Dragon and Bad Dudes: the two-buddy action game. You pick one character at the start of each mission; the computer or a second human player controls the other guy. This cooperative gameplay isn't tacked-on or a special mode. "In Army of Two, co-op is the game," says Senior Producer Reid Schneider.
It's a rare thing from EA: a try at a new franchise. And if the strictly cooperative play and partners with working bladders seem like new ground for a publisher that's taken fire for its lack of innovation, wait till you find out how you stanch your buddy's terminal bleeding (hint: a feminine-hygiene product is involved). Yes, the spirit of experimentation is in the air at EA's Montreal offices, established as a boutique studio charged with building new intellectual properties. Here, a team run by ex-Ubisoft Splinter Cell developers is building Army of Two with a staff of fresh-from-school artists and engineers. "Our average age is 25," says Schneider. "We didn't want people here who are jaded or are like, ‘In my day, we did things such-and-such way.' We want people who are passionate about new ideas. Imagine what games like Gran Turismo did for racing and Grand Theft Auto did for open-world games. We want to rethink how people play co-op shooters."
Everyone thought Caballero was crazy when he first pitched his conceit for reviving shot-to-hell heroes. "I was walking in the neighborhood [with another designer] thinking about it when, suddenly, it hit me: When people are dying, what do they do? They run from the light," says the imaginative Caballero (if you ever meet the guy, ask him about his game on suicide). A minigame was born: When characters get too shot up, they fall down, and it's up to the injured player to rapid-tap buttons to haul ass from a heavenly glow, while the other player moves the analog stick rhythmically to apply CPR. Both characters, whether one is controlled by a real player or not, need to cooperate to survive.
No one on the team was sold on this near-death gameplay experience at first. But Caballero has the advantage of working with an experimentation-friendly development tool called the white box, which lets him whip up working game scenarios--complete with primitive graphics and control schemes--in about a day and show them to the rest of the team for approval. "We get ideas by failing a lot," Caballero says, adding that only about 20 percent of his white-box concepts make it to the game. "You should see the blooper reel of what was cut."
We can only imagine, considering that one minigame that survived white-box scrutiny has you stuffing a tampon into your shot-up buddy's gushing wound. Plenty of other imaginative concepts survived, too. The characters can chuck ammo to each other when they're low, stand back to back to protect their vulnerable keisters while covering enemies in a 360-degree arc, help each other rappel down buildings, work together to knock over heavy tables and shove them along as portable cover, and carry each other if one is shot (the injured man can still shoot while hanging off the other guy's shoulder). Even standard co-op stuff like sniping as a team or using one player to boost another to a second floor has been livened up. While lifting your partner over a wall, for example, you can use the analog stick to boost him high enough to shoot enemies, thus clearing the way, or lower him a bit to give him cover from their returning fire. These actions aren't optional.
Everything in Army of Two, from the environments and their shoals of physics-based obstacles to its small army of enemies (up to 50 on screen at once) has been designed to force you to work with your partner--or else. "You should not be able to complete this game just doing your own thing," says Schneider. "If you can, then we haven't done our job."
Oh, the humanity
Getting your partner to do what you want is simple enough--just ask him. All the game's actions are contextual, displaying on a pop-up menu when conditions are right. If you see the option, just say it into the microphone and your A.I. partner will respond accordingly, kicking the game into the appropriate mode. "The idea is that it'll be hard to tell the difference between playing with a human player or with A.I.," says Schneider, adding that the game's extensive dialogue system borrows from the color-commentary subprograms in EA's sports games. In other words, these guys are chatty--and it's up to you to hold up your end of the conversation. We watched the player carry on conversations with his partner, sparking dialogue straight out of a buddy-cop flick. "What do you think this is, an action movie?" the other character barked when ordered to go into defensive back-to-back mode.
Let's hope the Montreal team resists the urge to insert any "I'm getting too old for this s***" quips. Just as worrying is whether the single-player game will get repetitive, with your A.I. partner spitting out the same lines like a talking G.I. Joe doll with his string pulled. The team, fortunately, is aware of this potential snafu. "When you play a game and hear the same line twice," says Caballero, "you lose the sense of reality. But [with] behaviors and action, you can see the same action 300 times and not get bored of it. So we're trying to use more animation instead of voiceovers to avoid repetition."
It's something that becomes more clear when you realize your A.I. compadre has a memory--he tracks the successes and failures of your actions. He'll out-and-out refuse orders to commands that didn't lead to success in the past. "Maybe you'll tell the A.I. to take point in clearing a room," says Designer Yan Pepin, "but the last time he went in first, he got gunned down while you ran away. This time, he'll be like, ‘No, no, no--I'll go in behind you.'" The more you piss off your partner, the less likely he'll follow your orders in the future. And the team is filling the game with lots of opportunities to get on your partner's bad side. Peppering him with friendly fire is the obvious way to do it (and earn a little retaliation in the process). You can bring the roof down on the guy if he happens to stand beneath a crumbling ceiling. And if you really want to push his buttons, you can go beyond these pranks and engage in atrocities that would needle even the most bloodthirsty soldier's conscience. In Army of Two, your partner has a heart. "If I'm playing the human player and I shoot this dog," Caballero explains, showing us another white-box scenario featuring a bulldog, "[my partner] will go over to the dog, bend over it, show compassion, and he won't want to cooperate anymore. You're a dog-killer. He'll call you an a**hole. He'll punch you in the face and punish you for your actions."
Earning your buddy's trust again, fortunately, doesn't take much effort. Saving his bacon helps. He'll even offer Punk'd-style payback to settle old scores. At one point in the demo, we saw our PO'ed partner fall in battle. Once we leaned over his prone body to revive him, he kicked us and started cracking up, the faker. And once you're both on good terms again, it's back to lots of manly high-fiving, chestbumping, and rump-patting. Your partner will even act as a guide in the largely nonlinear levels: "If a player doesn't know what to do, the A.I. will take the lead," says Designer Chris Ferriera. "If the player is running and gunning and making things happen, the A.I. will be more submissive and let the player take the lead."
It takes two to kill a tango
A second player can join Army of Two at any time--even right in the middle of a mission--and from anywhere, whether it's across the Internet or across the couch. Entering players immediately assume the role of your partner, with the game jumping into splitscreen if you're both on the same system. But even if both players are connected via the Net, with their own TVs and chatting via headsets, Army of Two will keep a splitscreen perspective to help them keep track of each other. Take the sniper mode, which players can enter together if they both have the right rifles. It splits the screen into three boxes: two for each shooter's sniper scopes, and a third showing the whole scene. "What's cool about that is you'll be on your couch and I'll be on my couch in different homes," says Ferriera, "and I can actually see what you're aiming at. And if I have a headset I can be like, ‘No, no, no, dude--don't shoot that guy. I got him.'"
Again, this game is all about teamwork, with missions that demand precise coordination to pull off successfully (for instance, you might have to snipe two guards simultaneously, or else one of them will alert more goons). But as we watch Tyson and Elliot buckled together groin-to-buttocks in a tandem parachute, slapping each other's butts in moments of glory, and rubbing suntan lotion on each other's backs (OK, we made that last one up), we can't help but pick up a certain vibe from these manly men.
If we ask, will the game's makers tell? "These are tough military guys--and for us, there's nothing homoerotic about it," says Schneider, who adds that Tyson and Elliot have families and love i nterests in the game. "You need two people to cooperate. If you think of movies like Lethal Weapon or Tango & Cash, there are no overtones at all. For us, we need to make people think about how to play games differently. It's the core for what Army of Two is all about."
OK, but now we really want to see that blooper reel.
Two Guys Walk into a War
Call Army of Two's two heroes "mercenaries" at your peril. Tyson and Elliot are actually "contractors" in a private military corporation (PMC), a company hired as security or to supplement government military forces. And if you've watched the news lately (or seen the trailer for Metal Gear Solid 4 for PS3), you'll know that PMCs are so hot right now. "They're not standard military like everyone else," says Designer Chris Ferriera. "They don't have to salute the general. Sometimes they show up on the battlefield with a baseball cap, sports jersey, camo pants, and their guns all taped together."
The Army of Two team consulted their own PMC contractor, a baby-faced former Navy SEAL who never sits with his back to a door and is full of stories from the world of private warcraft. He talks about custom-armored Humvees with their ignitions ripped out and replaced with big red "START" buttons. ("In a firefight," he told the team, "you never want to hunt for your keys.") Many of his stories have made it into the game. The tampon idea--that's his.
But as much as the Army of Two team is excited about incorporating such stranger-than-fiction scenarios, they're even more into the idea of the cutthroat corporate philosophy behind the PMC--that these increasingly ubiquitous companies work for the highest bidder. "You may have one mission where you're supposed to save a hostage," says Ferriera. "But in the next [mission], your client changes--and now it's your job to assassinate that guy." If it all sounds like the kind of combat that could spark political debate, the team--which is setting part of the game in Afghanistan--says "bring it on." "When people talk about Halliburton, which was Dick Cheney's former company, this is not a company that just provides toilet supplies and food for troops," says Senior Producer Reid Schneider. "This is a company where one of their biggest businesses is private military services. I mean, we're not in the business of edutainment; [Army of Two] is strictly an entertainment product. But if we make people get online and do some research, then the team thinks that's pretty cool."
And if you ever meet a real PMC trooper, don't call him a mercenary. "They refer to themselves as contractors," says Schneider. Trust us--you don't want to make these guys angry.
Download Army Of Two
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP