My Bellicose BFF.
Here’s my best impression of Army of Two as a college dude:
Hiya Buddy! Are you going to be my roommie? Great! We’re gonna be best friends! I call the top bunk! Ha-ha! Got you that time! Hey, do you want to have a secret handshake? Sweet! By the way, I should tell you that I get a thrill out of killing people! Hey, what’s that on your shirt? Yoink! Got you again! No, but seriously, let’s talk about the American military industrial complex and the impact of privatized defense contractors on the current war in Iraq. Really. No really, dude, people are dying over there.
Ha-Ha! Got you again! You thought I was serious! Hey man, no hard feelings, just hug it out bro. Jesus, not for real! What do think I am... gay?!
Partly schizophrenic, borderline homosexual, irreverent and offensive if taken seriously, funny and easy to hang out with if you’re drunk, Army of Two is as delightfully confused as your average fun-loving American frat boy.
The idea behind the game is to capitalize on the popular cooperative modes of recent shooting games. Players can join forces either with a friend in the same room, with a friend online, or with the computer to take the roles of the muscle-bound, hockey-masked Salem and Rios. These two buddies work for a private military mercenary contractor and carry out missions in real-world conflicts modeled on Somalia and Iraq as well as in fictional conflicts in Miami and China. Salem and Rios plow through armies of bad guys, uncover secret personal and civic betrayal, flirt (simultaneously!) with the one female character in the game, and manage never to lose their third-grade sense of humor.
As a third-person shooter, Army of Two plays about as well as can be expected. Of course the aiming is clunkier than first-person shooters, but the over-the-shoulder perspective allows for a decent view of the action. Taking cover usually means ducking behind the liberally dispersed blocks and fences, and once in cover an unobtrusive “sticky” mechanic lets you blind-fire. Each kill gains you money, and money can be spent on new weapons or ridiculous upgrades for old ones. In terms of basic mechanics, Army of Two is a keg of Natty Light, no surprise at a frat party, but not something anyone can really get excited about.
But as a keg of shitty beer goes from bare necessity to giddy stupid fun merely by holding someone upside down on top of it, Army of Two goes from generic to cheap thrill by roping two players together. From firing “back-to-back” to simultaneous sniping to lifting your partner over obstacles, the game builds most of its character on cooperative activities. Most of these special moves don’t make a big difference in the game—the “step-jumps” for example are just variations on the old two-button door locks (there are plenty of those as well)—but there is enough variety to keep the otherwise drab levels interesting.
What’s best, however, is that it isn’t just in these special functions where cooperation is necessary, but in the actual gunplay itself. As one player fires his weapon, his “aggro” meter rises and he attracts more attention from the enemies. At maximum aggro, the player turns red, and all the enemies in the level fire only at him. Meanwhile, the non-aggro partner becomes translucent and is able to sneak into flanking positions. It’s such a great system that it’s a pity it bears such a stupid name: Aggro. In a few years, that will just sound like a brand of soybean fertilizer.
Unfortunately, the game is both too short and artificially lengthened by ridiculous numbers of enemies. The actual levels usually consist of one or two large battlefields that are continually replenished with bad guys by bad helicopters. The best level, a firefight that takes place on an aircraft carrier, has you marching all the way down the carrier and then back again. The game might take around six hours to finish, but that figure doesn’t reflect the waves and waves of bad guys that make each level artificially long.
Two partnered activities, however, deserve special mention because they, intentionally or not, bring up the question of how intimate Salem and Rios might be. The first is the shield mechanic, in which one mercenary ducks behind a shield while the other ducks behind the first. In some contexts, this appears good strategy, in other contexts it’s called spooning. The second is the parachuting, in which Salem and Rios share a parachute front-to-back. Again, it might be a good strategy (one guy can shoot his rifle while the other steers), but the potential for stupid homophobic jokes is staggering.
Of course, none of this would seem quite so, well, gay, if Salem and Rios weren’t so apparently into each other. You can run up to your friend at any time in the game, give him a special handshake, and say something macho like “bro's before ho's, dude” (You can’t say that exactly, but the tenor is about the same). There are all kinds of hoots and hijinks of the Three Stooges variety, and throughout your crazy murder-for-profit rampage, the two of you have an ongoing prank-a-thon. Salem and Rios are the kinds of guys who snap towels at each other's butts in the men’s locker room. It’s light-hearted fun, but it’s also maybe a touch rainbow-friendly.
Where that sense of humor falls flat is in the game’s pretensions to Serious Topics of Utmost Concern. In setting the game’s first two levels in Somalia and Iraq (you fight Abu Habib in one level who shouts “long live Saddam!”), the game wants to comment on the dangers (or possible benefits?) of the privatized military in Iraq today. In light of the Blackwater scandal and the thousands of men and women still fighting and dying without hockey-masks, the game comes across as rather crude. This isn’t to say that videogames can’t take on serious topics, but when you’ve got the ambiguously-gay crime-fighting frat boys as your front-men, you lose a lot of credential.
The only other bummer is that the game does not support a LAN connection, so you can’t hook up multiple TVs to the same 360 console. The split-screen option works fine, as does connecting with a friend on Xbox Live. The computer A.I. however, is unfortunate. No matter how hard you try, the computer player will not flank enemies, which means about half of the game’s central mechanic is lost.
Co-op campaign partners are surprisingly easy to find, probably because the computer is such a bad wingman. I dreaded having to play such an intimate game with someone I didn’t know, but luckily the feeling was shared. xXxAngrySniperFacexXx and I completed the game without talking to each other once. The cooperative play was a lot more fun than the single-player game, and even though we treated it like a dirty, anonymous, sexual encounter, I like to think that AngrySniperFace and I shared something special.
The online versus game, by comparison, is not quite as exciting. The main match mode pits two players against another two in a map crawling with computer NPCs who hate both teams equally. The goal of the game is to gain the most money by killing computer players, the other team, and achieving specific objectives. Getting to the objectives is kind of a fun race, but firefights with the other team usually devolve into a choppy and slow mosh-pit of melee attacks. It isn’t uncommon to have all four players circling each other, reviving friends as fast as they are knocking out enemies.
The game, like most closeted friends you know, is often confused. Sometimes frightfully serious, othertimes absurdly ludicrous, it suffers from mood-swings and a general lack of coherent personality. But it’s also a two-man good time, and would have felt right at home in the GR compound if we were still sporting a loveseat instead of beanbags in front of our TV.