When Jeff and I started Kirby’s Epic Yarn a few months ago, we were just looking for something to play cooperatively. Little did we know then, that would set us on a path of playing the game’s spiritual successors: Yoshi’s Woolly World and Yoshi’s Crafted World. Since we enjoyed that first game so thoroughly, it just made sense to hop into the follow-ups. They offered us hours of inventive platforming and charming visuals, in addition to a sense of relief of knowing what we’d play next. Like figuring out what’s for dinner, deciding what to play next can be tough, especially when the deliberations include multiple individuals. With the completion of Yoshi’s Crafted World, the most recent of Good-Feel’s oeuvre, we were once again hemming and hawing about what to play next. We’d been on a kick of playing games with full-on cooperative campaigns and decided that was the only criteria a candidate needed to fulfill. Scanning the shelves of games before us, we vetoed proposals and backlogged others, agreeing that “yeah, this one is good, but maybe later,” before striking on one that was tailor-made for our situation: Army of Two.
Published by Electronic Arts for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in March 2008, Army of Two released during the industry’s peak infatuation with third-person shooters, and in my mind, has always been a prime example of the subgenre. I’ve long thought this, since it was my understanding that the game emphasized the use of cover, a must for third-person shooters around this time. And sure enough, it did! Jeff and I dashed from one piece of cover to the next, working in concert to flank our foes and get the jump on them. Our ability to do so was heightened by a gameplay mechanic EA Montreal introduced to the subgenre: aggro.
Let’s say we just entered a large room, an airport terminal, and I wanted to get behind our enemies. At the outset, that’d be tough to do because they were intently aware of our positions. But, if Jeff fired upon them, he’d draw their attention and they’d begin to forget about me. I could hop from one piece of cover to the next, and flank them practically undetected. Once situated, I could open fire from their rear, Jeff would be able to advance, and together we’d rout them in a pincer attack that allowed scant chance of escape. Other factors influenced our respective measures of aggro, such as how imposing a weapon was. For instance, if I was equipped with a handgun but Jeff was using a rocket launcher, well, our foes would want to take Jeff out first. An omnipresent aggrometer kept us informed of our standing with enemies, and should either of us max it out for a few seconds, we’d be able to trigger a brief special ability. Whoever was drawing aggro would enter Overkill, where they dealt twice the damage, while the other player would enter Stealth, where they’d be able to run around undetected.
Besides serving as the primary differentiating element from its peers, the aggro mechanic spruced up Army of Two’s unrefined gameplay. I thought of it as such primarily because of the game’s feel, namely the responsiveness of our characters and of the aiming. The two mercenaries we played as were decked out head to toe in what must’ve been heavy armor, and understandably their movements were somewhat clunky and lacking in swiftness. In tandem with cover that our avatars weren’t exactly magnetized to, it could be a chore getting around a battlefield without getting shot. Similarly, taking out adversaries was a little bothersome. In my estimation, there was no form of auto-aim, or an aiming sensitivity that provided me with that just-right blend of accuracy and responsiveness. With a tiny reticle and lack of auto-aim, firing from the hip was all but useless, unless I just wanted to attract aggro. Instead, the majority of my time in combat was spent looking down the barrel of a gun, trying to line up the reticle and my target, waiting for them to pop up from cover. There were a few other cooperative mechanics besides aggro, too.
At certain points, we’d be forced into back-to-back moments. In these slow-motion sequences, our two-man posse would be overrun by assailants. With feet planted, we blasted oncoming enemies for about a minute at a time, until we were the last ones standing. Other times, in regular firefights, we’d receive a prompt to feign death just before dying. In doing so, the aggrometer would swing all the way to the other player and give the “dead” mercenary a brief respite. If one of us did in fact go down, the other player had a little bit of time to rush over, drag their partner to safety, and revive them. Depending on where the downed player was, it could be challenging to revive them, what with the nonstop peppering of bullets and clunky movements. Surprisingly, when playing solo the AI partner did a stellar job. In my experience, they were smart about where they revived me, and prompt. I could also issue basic commands telling them to advance or hold. Even better, issuing the same command a second time would instruct the AI partner to perform that action in a manner that drew aggro.
Whenever one of us was revived, our avatar would sarcastically mouth off to the other about their healing skills. With a few variations this grew old fast, but as they worked through similar dilemmas via conversations mid-mission, we got a feel for their individual personalities. The duo we played as, Tyson Rios and Elliot Salem had been longtime partners, dating back to their days as U.S. Army Rangers. Army of Two opened with a mission from this era: Mogadishu, 1993. Their particular mission was to rendezvous with and accompany Phillip Clyde, an unbearable asshole, and take out a local terrorist. Clyde was also a private military contractor who wound up convincing their commanding officer – Richard Dalton – to enlist with Security and Strategy Corporation. In turn, Dalton convinced Rios and Salem to join sometime later.
Through the years, Tyson and Rios were assigned missions set against the backdrop of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, to more outlandish scenarios, such as the hijacking of a U.S. aircraft carrier or an assault on SSC headquarters in Miami, amidst a hurricane. In their time with SSC, the PMC amassed competitors and power, eventually lobbying heavily for the privatization of the military. Hubris, and the corruption of folks like Clyde, who was clearly an antagonist from the moment he appeared, brought the organization down, however. Somewhat accidentally, Rios and Salem stumbled upon the insidious, duplicative nature of SSC. This discovery led to an unconscionable setup and a bounty on their heads. As mercenaries, they still had friendly contacts around the world, but to clear their names they ultimately had to take down the beast they helped to create.
With a story revolving around mercenaries, the corruption of a PMC, and a national conversation surrounding the privatization of the military, Army of Two’s big picture message was a support of the military industrial complex. On a smaller, more personal level, it was the story of two warriors surviving against enemies, both overt and covert. Army of Two was undoubtedly intended to be a blockbuster action game, and it provided an entertaining mix of story, characters, and gameplay, without too much reflection. The aggro system was inventive, perfectly suited for a game so dedicated to cooperative gameplay. And surprisingly, with or without a human partner, it worked well. Jeff and I had some minor grievances with elements of the gameplay, such as our characters’ “get up and go” but all in all, our experience was positive. While it’s likely we’ll dive into the sequels at some point, for now, they remain in that “yeah, this one is good, but maybe later” section of our backlog.