Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Don't Ask, Don't Tell



Army of Two is a game about friendship. It sells itself as a third-person shooter that plunks you in the boots two mercenaries gunning their way across contemporary battlefields, but don’t be fooled – this is less a shooter than an Enduring Connection Simulator. Say you’re Tyson Rios, a brick shithouse of a rifleman, and you want to congratulate your wiry, Elliott Salem on a clutch kill – you approach him, press A and let the bro love commence.

“Saaalem Salem Salem!” you bellow. Fist bump!

Team Suck bought Army of Two because – let’s face it – Resident Evil 5 left a queer taste in our mouth. It was not unlike getting groped by Chip and Dale at Disneyland, or hearing someone you respect say they thought the new Transformers movie was pretty okay. For $10, our expectations were set preemptively low. Let us shoot our guns without cringing too often.

Imagine my surprise when I find myself actually having fun!

Look: Army of Two is nothing you haven’t seen before. Charitable reviewers might call the gameplay mechanics “innovative,” but I call them inconsequential. It’s Gears of War with a tasteless from-the-headlines plot and some truly embarrassing moments – like, for example, when the Iraq level’s boss-thing introduces himself by bellowing “LONG LIVE SADDAM!”

Luckily, 80 percent of the game is solid, no-bullshit shooter. It doesn’t take a veteran gamer to identify the levels as a linear progression of fairly obvious shooting galleries, but it would take a truly stuck-up prick not to have fun. The game’s core conceit is you’re an army of two – get it yet? – and you can play through the game either with an AI partner or a real-life (so to speak), human intelligence (so to speak!).

Like Resident Evil 5, Army of Two builds itself around the idea of two players; and like RE5, it’s only partially successful. Having played through the game’s first three levels, the co-op segments present themselves with the subtlety of a stripper on a slow night – there’s the part where you give your significant other a boost, a part where snipe a target together, and a part where one saves the other.

The art of flanking has been compressed into a cringe-worthy mechanic called “aggro;” once you get past the name, it’s kind of interesting. If Andrew, starring as said shithouse Rios, lays down a carpet of hot lead, he starts throbbing red – he has all the aggro. Having no aggro, I’m invisible, allowing me to sneak around the side and nail the enemy from behind. It’s Team Tactics for Dummies, but we’re talking about Team Suck, here; we need all the help we can get.

With the exception of an inexplicably pixelated loading screen, the presentation is solid throughout. The character models have a satisfying sense of mass. Unlike Gears of War, where your every footfall was a love poem to the ten tons of armor weighing you down, Army of Two imparts a sense of brute power and agility to your movement. The battlefields all look samey – red rock, brown dirt, yellow sand, JESUS CHRIST can a terrorist please wear a red tee shirt? A pink bandana? Anything?

In Army of Two, the left analog stick moves you forward. The right trigger shoots. You take cover from enemies, and you return fire. You complete objectives, like every other game in the relative modern history of 1s and 0s. But in Gears of War, you didn’t press A to love. Here, there’s no Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Andrew and I shout our affection to the minarets. We fist-bump. We serenade each other with air guitar. We share a parachute. We are an Army of Two.