War games

Army of Two fights the good fight — mostly
By MITCH KRPATA  |  March 24, 2008
3.0 3.0 Stars

080328_army_main
BRO! Forget the ham-handed politics and focus on the Aggro.

Army Of Two | For Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 | Rated M for Mature | Developed by EA Montreal | Published by Electronic Arts
September 11 has featured prominently in books, movies, and TV shows, but video games have danced around the subject — until now. An early scene in Army of Two shows a character waking up to an image of the Twin Towers burning on his television screen. We’re not used to seeing games grapple with topical issues, and it’s all the more disconcerting when that painful memory is used as a jumping-off point for scenes of gonzo satire. Your two-man squad drop into the real-life war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, where they encounter, among other Snidely Whiplash–esque evildoers, turban-wearing suicide bombers who run around shrieking and waving their hands over their heads.

The tone of the game is on shaky ground. At first Army of Two seems a parody of macho stereotypes, giving us two protagonists who call each other “bro,” help each other tenderly onto ledges and through doorways, and always seem about one second from making out. But the goofiness wanes as the primary story line starts to take shape and the heroes find themselves duped into clearing the way for total privatization of the American military. It’s heavy stuff, and even if it’s handled in a ham-handed way, you have to appreciate that Electronic Arts had the stones to attempt it at all.

As a tactical shooter, Army of Two hews to the Gears of War playbook. Levels are littered with low objects to provide cover. Gunfights tend to be stop-and-pop affairs. Your characters don’t have life meters and don’t find health packs; instead, hiding from enemy gunfire for a few moments will rejuvenate them. Where the action distinguishes itself is in the strategic use of the “Aggro meter.” Firing your weapon draws the attention of your enemies, and that frees your partner to flank them. The Aggro meter is displayed prominently atop the screen, but it’s represented more helpfully by the characters themselves. The character gaining Aggro begins to glow red while his partner gradually turns transparent. Such a simple thing, but that’s why it’s so effective: there’s no question about your status.

Deploying Aggro in order to flank enemies makes up the bulk of Army of Two’s gameplay, and it’s also the most effective use of the two-man premise. Although the designers implemented several other tandem actions, most of them feel gimmicky. The “dual snipe” feature, in which both characters fire at long-distance targets simultaneously, can be used only when prescribed by the designers. Ditto for the sequences in which one character holds a shield while the other one fires. If you could manipulate the environment at will in order to do this, it’d be spectacular. As it is, you may be wondering why there are so many unused riot shields lying around.

The biggest drawback is Army of Two’s lack of big-money moments. Apart from a couple of obligatory vehicular missions, there’s not much variety in the shooting-gallery layout of the maps. Many crucial actions take place in cutscenes rather than gameplay. In-game dramatic events feel perfunctory instead of epic. During one of Army of Two’s attempts at a set piece, a dash across the deck of a sinking aircraft carrier, I couldn’t help recalling how much more memorably a similar sequence was executed in the opening minutes of Call of Duty 4.

Of course, if we compared every game to Call of Duty 4, they’d all seem like failures. Army of Two succeeds somewhat as a shooter, and it succeeds somewhat as a satire. That’s somewhat more than most games ever achieve.

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