Big names such as Halo, Half-Life, and Call of Duty are flying to and fro these days, but shooter fans shouldn't forget about Army of Two, the upcoming cooperative-focused third-person shooter from Electronic Arts' new-ish development studio up in Montreal. We got to spend some time blasting through the early part of a nearly finished build recently. When you begin the game, mercs-to-be Salem and Rios are actually still serving as Army Rangers, and the game proceeds with a brief tutorial section that acquaints you with the fairly complex set of commands and team-play mechanics you'll have at your disposal as you build up your careers as soldiers of fortune.
If you play Army of Two by yourself, the game will still rely on co-op mechanics as much as if you were playing with another human being, but the other character will be controlled by the game. So in single-player mode, you'll have a full range of commands you can issue to your partner, including advance, hold position, and regroup. Then you can specify aggressive (shoot everything you see) or defensive (check your fire) postures for each of those actions to control your buddy's behavior to a surprising degree of specificity. You'll also learn about some of your other co-op abilities in this tutorial. You can convince your partner to trade weapons with you; go into a tandem sniping mode; position yourselves back-to-back in a 360-degree firing pattern; and even slap one another five or play some air guitar to signify a congratulatory mood when you've pulled off some especially brilliant teamwork.
After the tutorial, you'll hit the ground running in Somalia--still as Rangers--on a mission to take out a local warlord. At this point, we started to realize how much of the gameplay revolves around the interactions between Salem and Rios, whether both of them are human-controlled or not. This first mission will start out with the two of you on a buggy or jeep of sorts, with one character driving and the other gunning from a turret. In our solo game, we drove while our artificial-intelligence partner shot down the bad guys--of course, one person would take each of these duties in co-op. Our AI partner felt quite competent during the first mission we played by ourselves. In fact, we were often inclined to put him on "aggressive advance" position and let him do all the heavy lifting. He also made a solid effort to heal us whenever we went down (though one time he ran straight through the crossfire and got himself killed before he could bring us back).
Another section of the level afforded us the opportunity to use a ripped-off car door as a shield while our partner fired over our shoulder, and we advanced as a unit toward the enemy. At the beginning of the second mission, we played a sequence where Salem and Rios were tandem-parachuting down to a mission site. One player had to steer the descent via parachute, and the other had to try to steady a sniper rifle despite all that jostling, with the aim being to shoot out the rotor on a helicopter that was about to take off. Many of these co-op actions will demand specific inputs from both players, so both of you will have to be on your game at all times. For instance, to boost one character up to a higher ledge, then have him reach down and pull up the second character, both players will have to assume the right positions and hit the right controls at the right times.
We got to see the aggro concept in full effect during our demo. Like in many online RPGs, the character who is dishing out more damage to the enemies will seem to be the greater threat, and thus the enemies will thus focus their fire on that character. You'll see a display (which looks a little like a car's speedometer) at the top of the screen that indicates both characters' aggro; the needle will move toward the character who's generating more of it. Aggro will also be reflected in-game through a red aura around the active character that becomes more intense as aggro reaches max. Consequently, part of the co-op combat experience in the game will revolve around balancing aggro between both characters, so that neither player will draw too much fire. (It's a rare shooter that actually encourages you to shoot less when the action heats up.)
It can also get intense when you or your partner goes down for the count. You'll have to make your way to your fallen comrade, hold down the A button for several seconds (usually amidst a hail of bullets), and then go into a healing minigame where you staunch the blood flow with a tampon or administer CPR, depending on the severity of the wounds. Thankfully, the action stops when you start the healing process and the camera cuts to a minigame view, but if either player misses a single button press throughout the sequence, you'll blow it and the wounded character will still be down. What's more, you can heal your partner only two or three times in a mission before he dies for real, which forces you to start over at the beginning.
At the end of that first mission, certain plot turns will inform Salem and Rios that there's another way--a more profitable way--to earn a living busting heads, which will launch them into the mercenary life they'll lead throughout the rest of the game. We didn't get to play much further into the second mission, but we're told that the subsequent missions will be much longer and more objective-filled than the first tutorial. In fact, many of those objectives will be optional and will net you extra cash for better weapon upgrades. In a surprise twist, Army of Two was just delayed until the first quarter of 2008, so we'll bring you more on the upgrade interface, later missions, and multiplayer in the game between now and then.