Thursday, July 2, 2009

team suck vs. army of two part two: missed opportunities

LADIES LIFT YO' SHIRTS Yesterday you read Rob’s introduction to this latest phase in our co-op adventures. Yes, we both bought Army of Two for next to nothing, and I think it has definitely made us enjoy the game more. This post isn’t about that, though, or about the copious amounts of bro-love baked into the crust of every moment. This post is about the treatment of the game’s subject matter, and about some opportunities the game’s designers missed out on along the way.

I should make a note here – since this game came out over a year ago, and since our joint Resident Evil 5 playthrough resulted in an overlong and increasingly bitter series of posts full of synonyms for the word disappointed, we’ll only be dedicating two posts each to Army of Two – one now, at the beginning, and one after all is said and done. Now, to the topic at hand.

It started small, with a terrorist named Al Habib. A name is such a small thing, really, but Al Habib smacks of generic 24 villain terrorist name. They could have named him Osama Mohammed Al Qaeda Hussein and been more subtle. Al Habib then came out on a balcony, taunted us openly, and started firing from behind cover. If real terrorist masterminds were so brazen and easily wiped out, I honestly do not think they would be that big of a problem.

Small, laughable transgressions like this abound, and eventually fade into white noise – the screaming suicide bombers, the vague, implacable accents, and the fact that all terrorists everywhere would prefer to converse in broken English rather than their native tongues all fade into the background after the first hour or two. Just as we thought we were used to the level of vaguely racist undertones, another terrorist bursts onto the scene, wielding a huge-ass gun and shouting “LONG LIVE SADDAM.” Games that are trying to be funny aren’t this funny.

Given the sensitivity of their subject matter, though, shouldn’t they try to treat it a little more responsibly? Games like Modern Warfare have dragged game wars out of World War II and the Cold War and into the present, but few have so directly addressed the underlying causes. Early on, Army of Two renders the burning World Trade Center buildings in polygons before dropping Our Heroes down in Afghanistan to take out a target – not, incidentally, Bin Laden, or anyone who actually exists. Another mission took us to Iraq in 2003, but we weren’t hunting down Saddam or running through the streets of Baghdad or looking for weapons of mass destruction or anything even close – just taking out another fictitious insurgent. Army of Two wants to engage some of these contentious issues, but it doesn’t want to engage them directly, and it wants to water things down with a healthy dose of fist bump to boot.

Of course, the game isn’t to blame for its treatment of its subject matter. Eight years of exploitation by politicians and of books and television and movies on the subject have neutered 9/11, removed much of its significance and power in our minds. I see a game like Army of Two as something of a missed opportunity, as far as storytelling goes. Maybe 9/11 isn’t the best example since the event no longer carries the weight it once did, but when I see a game happening Right Now in the Real World, dealing with real issues and trying to be topical, I really want to see it take a more serious approach to things. I think the medium will take a major step forward when a game about terrorism or war or poverty or civil unrest makes me think instead of making me giggle.