Review: Army of Two – The 40th Day (X360)

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Army of Two surprised many players with its gritty take on PMCs and real-world conflict zones while annoying others with its two leads, the veteran Rios and his gung-ho partner, Salem, as they fist bumped and air guitar’ed their way through Somalia and the Middle East. For co-op warriors, however, its blend of team play and explosive action were enough to overlook the duo’s burgeoning bromance.

40th Day picks up on the exploits of Army of Two’s Rios and Salem, two mercs that find themselves in Shanghai thanks to what they think will be an easy payday. Unfortunately, when the city begins to explode all around them from a surprise attack led by other mercenaries, and the fact that they themselves may have contributed in some way to it, surviving to escape turns into the only reward worth seeking.

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The initial setup does a good job in dropping them into the leaden whirlwind as they shoot their way through the mercenary army standing in their way. It also takes a more serious approach to its setting and its characters. Fist bumps are still in but the air-guitar has been thankfully retired. Rios and Salem come off more as hardened veterans than party-boys; best friends with bullets. Fist bumping, paying a compliment to your partner, or playing scissors-paper-rocks can often lead to your friend calling out enemies on the battlefield or complimenting you in the same way.

It might not have any direct bearing on how quickly you can dispatch enemies, but it does add a little to making these soldiers more than face-masked terminators if only to hear what they have to say to each other. Still, fist bumping or playing scissors-paper-rock right after a firefight just to keep the cameraderie going also makes these two seem like emotionally needy children. After saving your friend’s life, it’s interesting to note that in the next stage, it doesn’t mean all that much until you fist bump as if to say “Hey, remember me? Your friend?”.

Moralistic choices, on the other hand, add a great twist to certain encounters which the game doesn’t hesitate to test players with early on. These are opportunities for you to decide what to do in certain circumstances such as whether you should kill a contact for an additional bonus delivered for their assassination or let them go because you’re a softie. When the decision is made, a series of hand-drawn images show the repercussions beyond the current game such as whether that guy you had cut loose survived to enjoy his pay day or not. Not every choice is black & white, either. Doing a good deed at the time can as often lead to much worse results outside of the battlefield which lends a greater sense of unexpected ambiguity to an action game like this one.

Rios and Salem will also have a chance to save civilians caught up in the chaos. Each situation is set up as an FPS puzzle with a number of trigger happy shooters standing over innocents. Should you go in guns blazing hoping to take them all out before they start killing? Will a merc take one as a human shield and are you good enough of a shot to take them out if that happens? Or can you sneak up close enough to take the officer in charge as a hostage and force everyone else to surrender?

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And if you wait too long, the bad guys will carry out their threat. But if the player manages to figure out the puzzle and save their lives, they’ll earn “morality” points (and often other goodies). The points by themselves don’t do anything, but the game does track them and changes their in-game title accordingly to reflect how the other NPCs may see them. These have long term effects on the game as well as word of your deeds spread and may offer one or two welcome pieces of help in the process. Accordingly, acting like a self-interested merc who thinks that civilians simply get in the way and that what is happening has nothing to do with them shouldn’t be surprised to be treated in the same way.

These exciting, on-the-spot moments, also stand far above the threadbare plot pulling Rios and Salem towards a set of disappointingly dull endings triggered by whatever you decide to do. Small, collectible radios try and shed some light on what is going on, but with some of these recorded in Chinese and the rest featuring little else but a pointless monologue and fragmented news reports, there’s not much else to grasp onto as to why this is all happening.

After a pointless speech by the main bad guy that does nothing to satisfyingly explain anything of note, simply wrecking Shanghai to provide a killing ground seemed like the better reason that he should have owned up to than the pseudo-psychological claptrap that was served instead. No one expects the story to take center stage in an action game like this one, but one does expect it to make some kind of sense even if on a basic level especially after the much tighter and more focused material of the first game. Fortunately, the rest of the action doesn’t fail in keeping things exciting.

Veterans coming in from the first game will find that 40th Day will detect whether you have a save from it. If you do, it will unlock the winning player-designed weapons from a contest held for the game, but as far as the gameplay goes, it sports bit more polish than its predecessor. It’s still hard not to shake the feeling that EA’s Army of Two: The 40th Day has channeled Epic’s Gear of War into the modern day and that it doesn’t pit you against a horde of underground dwelling horrors. But it also features a duo of brash mercenaries geared for co-op making this an entertaining, if slightly flawed, buddy game.

If you don’t have a co-op buddy on Live, the second partner will be played by an AI which does a pretty decent job in following your simple orders. I could tell it to advance, hold position at which point it will take cover behind the nearest opportunity, or stick close to me. All of this was important in using Aggro.

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Aggro is how much the enemy wants one of you dead and these are measured at the top of the screen with gauges for both Rios and Salem. Different weapons and tactics create more Aggro than others, but it’s useful because it takes the heat off of the other player by pulling the enemy’s attention away from them which can open them up to attack from another angle. There are also “bosses” in the game, heavily armored and armed soldiers with “weak spots” that have to be shot and using Aggro to get them to turn a certain way is just as useful if not somewhat cliched as a game mechanic. Then again, it’s pretty weird to see human enemies like these shrug off RPG rounds and grenades because you didn’t hit their weak point as if they were really some kind of fortified monster in human skin that had migrated into the game from a role-playing game.

Weapons can be upgraded on the fly as long as you have the cash which can either be found lying around or through the choices that the player makes in the game concerning certain events. The player can purchase and equip new toys when they have a breather (i.e not getting shot at). As long as you’re willing to overlook the magical methods used to deliver these weapons into their hands, the system works out pretty well.

There are plenty of upgrades to choose from for many weapons that can make them more deadly, silent, or simply look good with plenty of blingin’ gold plate. Additional weapons and parts can also be found both as the game proceeds, from helping others, or in finding them out in the ruins of Shanghai. There are also special supply chests that can be raided for plenty of cash or goodies as long as you can get to them before they are locked by a nearby soldier. Unless you have already taken out all of the soldiers.

In co-op, though, the store system has a few odd wrinkles. When your partner wants to go into the store, you have go get close to them and approve it. When you leave the store, you have to wait for your partner to finish which makes sense…but what if you want to get back into it? You can’t and until your friend is done, you’ll be staring at a red screen until they’re finished. After hearing my brother talk about some of the upgrades that he was getting ready to play with, I wanted to head back into the store and do a little more shopping, but couldn’t unless I quit the game.

The visuals do a much better job by crashing into the screen with a number of remarkable set pieces, either when you are fighting through a zoo or when you find yourself in a building just as the upper level shears away like a tree snapping in half. Tumbled buildings turn into a battlefields and abandoned tunnels plastered in propaganda become underground killing grounds packed with plenty of explosive effects.

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Even the enemies look good as lemmings in human skin, blindly walking through doorways and alleys carpeted in corpses. This probably has to do more with the staging of certain spawns, but there were a few moments where all I had to do was park myself in a spot facing an open alley or doorway and wait for them to come out. In one other instance, enemies tried climbing over a wall and I simply stood and fired until a morbid pile began stacking up against it. The details also extended to the targets of opportunity with hands poking from around corners, feet exposed beneath riot shields, and careless shoulders poking around obstacles.

Often, however, they’ll make use of cover and won’t hesitate to take shots when they can. Even taking an officer hostage has its own risks as he could squirm out of your grip if you’re not paying attention, leading his men to draw their weapons and go nuts on you and the hostages. They might not be the smartest soldiers in Shanghai, but they can make Rios’ and Salems’ lives difficult, especially when they come armed with shotguns, riot shields, grenade launchers, flamethrowers, and miniguns. Facing all of this in co-op is where the game is at its best.

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The checkpoint system is something of a more serious pain to work with, on the other hand, thanks to its irregular habit in creating repetition. It will save your progress during an extended firefight so that you won’t have to face every wave again if you die at the last one, but then force you to repeat an introductory skirmish before facing off against a minigunner boss. Often you might fight your way through a vicious battlefield littered with bad guys, die, and find that you have to repeat all of that over again. As unpredictable as its encounter difficulty can be, especially when the game occasionally forces you to go “back to back” with your partner in a free-for-all firefight with infinite ammo, can make the threat of repetition as hard to deal with.

The 40th Day is a game that is meant to be played with a friend online despite its decent partner AI. Aside from its co-op goodness, there are also a few competitive multiplayer modes such as Deathmatch and Warzone which pits players against each other as they vie for control over certain objectives. Keeping connected, though, was something of a buggy experience with the occasional dropped session and this on the same broadband that I use for Modern Warfare and Killzone 2.

It would also sometimes freeze with the only recourse being to exit the game and go back into it, wasting my time and that of my partner as we go through the motions of having to restart the session and hope that the last checkpoint didn’t set us back too far. The good news is that if you’re the host and you had completed the game or had gone on further than your friend, you can help skip them ahead by deciding where to start.

Players can also create their your own mask design for use in the game, but the option points you to the 40th Day’s website instead of providing the actual tools for designing your killer look. On paper, it sounds like a great option, but when I tried to use it, the server was overwhelmed and kept me from viewing the gallery or in actually using the tools. Did I also mention that you have to create yet another account if you don’t have an EA ID? The nice thing is that this isn’t as important to the game as anything else making it easy to skip.

The 40th Day can be fun game for two friends to gun their way through while earning cash rewards for a vast array of modifications to a growing arsenal of weapons. It’s not without its flaws which can dampen some of the fun, but signing up for this contract has a few rewards worth fighting for….as long as you’re in good company.

Army of Two: The 40th Day
EA / EA Montreal / Buzz Monkey
Xbox 360 / PS3 / PSP (Xbox 360 version reviewed)
Rated M for Mature