Thursday, July 23, 2009

not a success, but close enough: army of two post-mortem I will go out a limb for this, Charge Shot!!’s last declarative statement about Army of Two: If you can’t make new IP that is either revolutionary or a masterful refinement, make new IP like this.

Let me clarify. Army of Two starts off as stupid as hell. It’s a little clunky. Every terrorist is some awful caricatured mash-up of every post-9/11 movie villain ever. Its writing wasn’t great, its treatment of its subject matter uninformed and insensitive. And yet, by the end, the game actually left me wanting more.

Consider how poorly Army of Two handles long-distance combat. Many of its earlier levels – a desert oil refinery, a hulking aircraft carrier – feature long stretches of map with clusters of cover at either end but not much in between. Its AI is programmed to scramble for shelter and hide forever, meaning that if you want to stay behind cover yourself you’re shooting at the hands of an enemy who is fifty yards away from you, and moving in on your target is sure to draw fire not just from him, but from half a dozen of his buddies behind adjacent crates. Also consider that your main and secondary weapons are almost uniformly unsuitable for sniping and that your sniper rifle’s paltry stock of complementary ammo evaporates all too quickly, and all of a sudden you’re in a pretty bad place.

Proper use of the game’s aggro system – one partner draws attention to himself by laying down suppressive fire while the other flanks the enemy – can help in this situation, but at best the both of you are going to get into some tight spots, and this goes doubly for a duo like Team Suck. I hated every moment the game made me shoot at the feet of an unfriendly from across a fucking airport hangar.

You’ve got to get to the home stretch before the level design really hits its stride. The last level takes place mostly in the office building of Rios and Salem’s former employer, and the closer quarters really help to pull the experience together. Rob and I were deftly using aggro, strategizing, and dispatching targets with our weapons and melee attacks. Cover was more evenly spread, allowing us to move without getting bombarded and encouraging our adversaries to occasionally venture out from safety. All of this gave the gameplay a much-needed shot of dynamism.

Next, consider the thing we’re always talking about, the uberterrorist towelheads who populate the early levels of the game. Rob has summed this up more eloquently than ever I could, so I won’t embarrass myself by doing it again. The last third or so of the game finally does what America can’t and pulls out of the Middle East, and it benefits greatly – instead of giggling at and being made uncomfortable by its less-than-subtle racial profiling, we’re back to fighting Evil White Dudes.

These Dudes still talk trash and spout poorly-written dialogue, but my twenty-three years of gaming have prepared me for this. I am good, they are evil, I have to do something about it. No awkward pseudo-statements about The World We Live In, no cartoonishly earnest suicide bombers, nothing to raise the eyebrows of anyone who has ever played a game before. It’s not new or edgy, but if it ain’t broke…

It’s funny that Army of Two chose to be the game that it did. It has aspirations to be Ripped From Today’s Headlines and to take on some Touchy Issues – private military contractors, the Middle East, terrorism – but the game is honestly at its worst here, feebly grappling with its intentions. If the entire game had taken place in an urban setting, as its last levels and much of its DLC do, it would have seen more love from the press and from gamers alike.

I maintain that Army of Two is the second-best kind of new IP that a developer can take its chances with. It didn’t set the world on fire, and it didn’t deserve to. But at its core, what you have is a solid, often fun game with a high level of potential. What I sometimes saw in Army of Two made me legitimately interested in its forthcoming sequel, and I hope that EA takes the opportunity to sand off the rough edges and make The 40th Day capitalize on the potential of the original.