I'm always a bit wary when publishers announce sequels to so-so franchises. Often, it seems like the companies just want to re-release what is essentially the same critically panned but commercially successful title with a new story line and fresh coat of paint. Sometimes, however, the developers and publishers really take a hard look at what wasn't so hot the first time around and work diligently to fix the flaws on the way to creating truly great titles. That's what happened with Assassin's Creed II, and the same magic seems to be at work in Army of Two: The 40th Day.
The 40th Day finds series protagonists Salem and Rios in Shanghai completing a cupcake contract. All they need to do is plant a few electronic beacons, do some sightseeing and then collect a fat paycheck. Things quickly turn sour, though, because as soon as the boys set their last beacon, all hell breaks loose as Shanghai is blasted apart by missiles and explosions. Soon thereafter, a mysterious paramilitary group overruns the city, and it's up to the two best buds to fight their way out of Shanghai as it crumbles around them. Whereas the first game in the series hopped around to different time periods and locales, The 40th Day presents one continuous scenario, which makes it a bit more dramatic and harrying. By the time you near the end of the game, you can see the fatigue in the men's faces and hear the weariness in their voices. While I can't say I ever really connected with the mercenaries, by the time things were said and done, I started to feel bad for all they had been through.
The game uses the destruction and occupation of Shanghai to create some dramatic, high-octane moments, but sadly, there are some pretty big lulls to contend with during the second and final acts. The first couple of stages will find Salem and Rios fighting through crumbling skyscrapers, at one point even running down the exterior of a collapsed building in order to jump into yet another unstable structure. A docks stage near the end of the game is the scene of some incredibly intense firefights, as overwhelming numbers of enemies and several mounted guns make the going slow and arduous. You'll have to fight for every foot of ground gained, but it's exhilarating to finally break the enemy lines and start turning their own heavy gear against them. Sadly, the middle stages of the game are sorely lacking in excitement, and the setting of the final level seems horribly out of place with the rest of the title. The 40th Day gets your adrenaline pumping with some major set piece battles early on, but things quickly calm down into a pretty standard cover-heavy, co-op-driven shooter.
The first game in the franchise was built heavily around co-op, and the sequel follows closely in its footsteps. The title is built with two players in mind, providing all sorts of neat tricks to give the game some extra depth with a second player. For instance, you can access a GPS in your character's mask and use it to tag any enemies you see, thus highlighting them on your partner's screen as well. Furthermore, co-op actions, such as faking surrender or drawing fire, are tons of fun when you've got a buddy all set to snipe unsuspecting baddies or flank unsuspecting foes. The whole of the game is predicated on working closely in concert with your partner, and there's no better feeling than strategizing a plan of attack with a friend and then executing it to perfection. Suddenly you'll wish your buddy was right on the couch (and with local split-screen co-op, he may be) so you can give him a real-life fist bump instead of a virtual one.
If you can't find a friend to play with, that's no sweat either, as the game provides some very competent partner AI for solo players. Typically, your computer-controlled partner will stay close and cover your back, but you can also order him to advance, hold position or regroup when things get dicey. This system is nice because, using the game's "Aggro" meter, you can order your partner to advance on the enemy and open fire, thus forcing the baddies to focus their fire on his position. This leaves you free to sneak around the baddies undetected and get into a more advantageous firing position. I found the AI to be extremely competent in nearly all situations, although there were a couple of times when he got stuck on a piece of scenery or stood out in the open, drawing a hail of bullets from enemy soldiers. Over the course of the campaign, he still ended up reviving me more than I did him, which either speaks to the computer's finely tuned skills or by utter awfulness as a gamer.
A somewhat surprising aspect of The 40th Day is its morality system, which has quite a few cool ideas but ultimately not a whole lot of payoff. Throughout your adventure, you'll have a chance to rescue civilians for some spare cash or customizable weapon parts. These moments often involve either grabbing an enemy commander and forcing his troops to surrender or quickly taking out any soldiers in the area before they can execute their hostages. Saving civilians increases your morality rating, but it's sort of an empty victory since there's no reason not to save the civvies. While rescuing them grants you goodies, letting them die earns you nothing but scorn, so choosing to abandon them is basically a chump move.
Things are handled better on the extreme morality moments, which are segments that interrupt the story and force you to make a major decision. For example, during your very first mission, your dispatcher informs you that the client is willing to pay extra if you kill your handler, so Salem and Rios have to quickly decide whether to off their new buddy for the cash or let him live since he's a large reason they made it so far. After making your decision, the game transitions into a series of comic book-style panels, showing the ramifications of your actions. In this case, if you kill the man, the game flashes scenes showing that you've offed a caring family man, but if you let him live, you'll see that he's later assassinated on a beach while trying to lay low. It's cool that the game doesn't follow the cliché "happily ever after" or "damned for your evil" consequences that are found in most games. In some circumstances, you may even find that the "immoral" decision actually ended up saving lives or working out for the better. The whole experience is a fun twist on the traditional good/bad decision tree.
The other big feature of The 40th Day is weapon customization, as the game provides you with a cornucopia of guns and accessories that allow you to play the game pretty much however you want. Everything from military-grade stocks and grips to homebrew shields and silencers are available, and most parts are interchangeable so you can build up your arsenal however you want. The one big drawback to the weapon customization is that it can be a bit overwhelming, and it's easy to lose track of which parts you have on which guns at any given time. Furthermore, if you have two different parts that fit on the same part of the gun (say a muzzle enhancer and a silencer), there's no quick way to flip between parts; you have to load up the customization menu and then manually select which item you want. While you can pop silencers off and on with a couple of quick button taps, anything more advanced requires pausing the game, which is a real headache when playing co-op.
Army of Two: The 40th Day offers a very attractive package for shooter fans, particularly those looking for an experience that is first and foremost centered around a co-op mentality. There are a few missteps along the way, including some boring levels and a not quite fully fleshed-out morality system. Furthermore, while the sophomoric humor has been toned down this time around, there are still some pretty cringe-worthy moments, particularly a segment of dialogue explicitly discussing bestiality. I don't consider myself a prude by any means, but the joke was in such poor taste that I genuinely considered muting the game from that point on to avoid anything that stupid ever again. All of those complaints are about the garnish; the meat of the game is quite impressive indeed. It's clear that EA really wanted to make something special and not just release another middle-of-the-road shooter, and in that respect, they largely succeeded.
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