Easter holidays - this means 4 days of gaming and relaxing!

Andreas Ludwig and I decided to spend this year's Easter mainly with three different activities:

1) Playing Empire of the Sun (GMT). You can read the report about the disastrous defeat of my US forces in the CSW Empire of the Sun Group in the topic "Japanese Easter Blitzkrieg" ;)
2) (Re-)watching Peter Jackson's Lord of the Ring Extended DVDs for the 6th or 7th time since release...
3) Playing the cooperative tactical third person shooter "Army of Two" on Xbox 360.

And thanks to this videogame, I feel compelled to write my first blog entry ever. I have to warn you. If you are a fan of tactical videogames (for example Call of Duty, Operation Flashpoint and even Halo), you should avoid "Army of Two". I'm not joking. Please take this warning seriously!

Army of Two was announced as a tactical team based shooter with a strong cooperative factor. Andreas and I love cooperative shooters, we played Conflict Desert Storm together, all three Halo games, the Star Wars Battlefront campaign, Doom 3, Marvel Ultimate Alliance and many more games. Usually, we are a quite good team, Andreas being the guy with the heavy MG, much firepower, Anti-Tank weapons and sheer force, while I am the combined Sniper and Shotgun / Claymore close combat specialist. Some of the cooperative games were great (see above), some were horrible (for example all later Conflict titles such as Conflict Vietnam and Conflict Global Storm, Rainbow Six 3 and more games I already pushed away in my mind).

When Army of Two was announced, it sounded like heaven for us coop people: A team of two mercenaries with weapon accustomization, tactical gameplay, flanking maneuver and cooperative moves such as lifting your partner over obstacles or solving puzzles together. The two guys could even tease their partners with funny moves and sayings. The idea of creating a game especially for two players who want to play the story cooperative sounded great and we decided to rent it from the video rental store over Easter.

The game was never published in Germany due to an over-strict and sometimes weird protection of minors law, but this wasn't a problem because the video store offered the EU version (UK/Austria) which even includes a German dubbing (I was somewhat confused by the fact that "my" character, the mercenary Elliot Salem, had the same German voice actor as Dr. Bashir in Star Trek Deep Space 9...). We rented the game and we started to play on Good Friday.

The very first impression was good... the graphics were okay (not a match for Call of Duty 4, though), and the characters were different and distinctive enough to have fun with them and generate some competition and cameradery. In the tutorial level, we learned the various game specific coop moves (push your partner over an obstacle, haul your partner up to your level), and how to tease your partner. The game is a third person shooter, and we got the impression that the controls were somewhat sloppy and imprecise - in contrast to our beloved Call of Duty 4 which is the current reference game in graphics and gameplay. We often lost orientation in fire fights and it took some time to get accustomed to the weapons select wheel and other controls.

"Hey, aren't we coool?"

When the first level was finished, we expected the true game experience to begin. We thought that all events and encounters during the first level were downgraded due to the tutorial character and that we would meet tough enemies which require the well-practiced flanking tactics. The game utilizes a strange concept called "Aggro" where the firing player becomes red over the time and drags all the attraction while the passive player becomes transparent and almost invisible, thus allowing him to sneak behind the enemies and flank them. This appeared to be strange, but it was a design decision and we decided to give it a try. The idea is very arcade-style and not very tactical, accurate, authentical or even a simulation, and it soon became a little bit ridiculous to draw the attention of the enemies to one flaming red player and sneaking around with the transparent one.

We could have lived with this concept, though. There was only one problem: the level design was from outer hell and the enemy AI was the dumbest we ever met over the past few years. And we met a lot of dumb AI in our videogames careers.

Imagine this: a straight level, i.e. a tight corridor filled with obstacles such as misplaced walls, containers, fences or wooden boxes (!). Behind these obstacles, hordes of dumb enemies, sitting there, firing at the red "Aggro", ignoring the transparent player who stands right besides them. Sometimes, enemies run at you, screaming. Sometimes, they run into the obstacles or into a wall. Sometimes, you could stay besides them and they would look the other direction. The lacking AI was compensated by the sheer number of dumb idiots shooting and running at you. Whether in China, in Iraq, on an aircraft carrier, in Miami - the enemy consisted of hundreds of hundreds of hundreds of idiots who had nothing else to do than to sit behind a box or a container in a confined space and wait for YOU to pass by. In addition, the enemy had gun turrets, pointing at the red Aggro player. Gun turrets - in a library, an uninteresting store room or whereever the game forced us to go. The level design was not a single bit plausible and certainly the most primitive one I saw for a long time (since Conflict Global Storm, I guess). Our task was to fight along these roads, corridors, alleys full of misplaced obstacles, generating "Aggro", flanking dumb idiots, killing hundreds of them (just imagine 250 dumb idiots in libraries with gun turrets), sometimes meeting a "heavy" trooper who could only be killed from behind *yawn*.

During the game, we had to endure a very stupid and very outrageous story. As mercenaries, we earned money for completing objectives and could use it to buy and customize new weapons in the store. As a matter of fact, most weapons were of no use due to the stupid straightforward level design full of event triggers. You could not snipe into a room because you had to enter it first in order to trigger the enemies. Many games utilize triggers, this is okay - they need them to tell a story, even Call of Duty does - but players should not realize them or even be forced to search for them. Sometimes, we overlooked an enemy and this blocked the trigger. Without a trigger, we could not leave a room because doors opened miraculously when a trigger was triggered. Only Conflict Vietnam had even worse triggers; each time you hit one, the game announced this with a slow-down.

Me (left) and Andreas (right)

I eventually bought a shotgun and all of its upgrades and painted it golden in a hysterical moment. Andreas bought the heaviest MGs he could find and afford in the store. In addition, we could buy more ridiculous masks for our mercenaries. There were various types of ranged weapons, but it was of no use to snipe in this game. This is always a bad sign.

In the end, we had to force ourselves to play this game to an end (mainly, because I decided I want to blog about it and warn the world. Andreas sacrificed himself and his valuable time to this noble task). The entire game took about 9 hours on medium difficulty level (in the end, we switched to easy because it was too stupid and not the slightest tactical challenge to kill 250 spawning dumb enemies). The auto save check points were unfair and frustrating sometimes, adding to the overall negative impression. The various levels showed no diversity or variety, there were no thrilling tasks or interesting puzzles (they were reduced to "both players press A to open the door") and the entire game consisted of long, long corridors with hundreds of waiting enemies apparently living behind obstacles (wooden boxes or even wicker baskets offered protection against the heaviest weapons!), their only life-task: waiting for you to pass by. The speech samples became repetitive after a while and the main villain wasn't very interesting either due to the dull story. The game even lacked a final boss fight. The only highlight was the healing system - if your partner was wounded, you got 30 seconds to reach him, to drag him out of enemies LOS (the wounded one could fire while being dragged) and then you could apply some medicine which healed him. This was quite nice, but it didn't save a substandard game.

Army of Two is in fact one of the worst "tactical shooters" we ever played. The vast amount of dumb and brainlessly spawning enemies was boring, the level design was without any innovation, implausible, gamey and lacking variety. The graphic was not a highlight either, although utilizing the Unreal Engine. Army of Two becomes repetitive after the first level and didn't surprise nor entertain us during the final levels.

All things considered, the basic idea of a team based tactical shooter is great and the game shows some nice aspects (the coop team system, the healing, the funny teasing, fully customizable weapons), but the entire game is completely destroyed by the dumb level design and the lacking AI which is compensated by ridiculous numbers of spawning enemies.

If you are a fan of tactical, team or squad based shooters (I know some of you are!) - don't buy this game! Don't even rent it from a video store! Don't support such a trash! The game is boring, it's not the slightest bit tactical and it's crap. Save your money, save your time! There are far too many good games out there to waste your time with cheap, uninspired and dumb games like "Army of Two"!

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Comment by Andreas Ludwig on March 27, 2008 at 12:41pm

although I fully understand that playing a game with your son is great and certainly better than not playing at all with him, it's beyond me how you actually could have fun _with the game_. As Denny said, the AI is horrible (or non-existent) and the whole game is designed in an unbelievable stupid way. Games like AoT don't need much designer skills, just build some generic corridors with the map editor, fill it with obstacles for the 'tactical maneuvers' (or what the designers consider as such) and then pump it all up with hundreds of enemies. There was a time when we were glad to have some games around at all, but today there are enough really good games out there that there is no need to play crap. I personally don't waste my time and money anymore to play games that were rushed out and/or even made without some designer skills behind the concept. Same as with board wargames, too many good ones available these days, so not much tolerance left for shallow ones. :-)
Comment by Denny Koch on March 27, 2008 at 11:12am
No, if you don't have a human partner, the AI will control the other character and you can give him some basic commands (forward, hold, fire etc.). Unfortunately, the AI control never matches a human partner and is suboptimal sometimes, for example in Halo 3. I didn't play GoW alone, so I don't know how intelligent your AI partner acts. The fun in a coop game is mainly based on the "sofa factor" of playing together and blaming your friend for tactical desasters ;) If you play alone and are interested in intense shooters with a strong tactical component, I would prefer some other titles - depending on your favorite field of interest / era / setting. Halo 1-3 and Gears of War are classics, though, and should always be given a try, whether alone or with a friend. The most intense and enthralling single player experience was Call of Duty 4 Modern Warfare, I was under shock and under constant adrenaline while playing the single player campaign. If you are a single player, you should check this game out, it's one of my current favorites and the online multiplayer is great and addictive, too - here you can even play some cooperative team modes.
Comment by Bob Hamel on March 27, 2008 at 11:00am
Thanks on both comments. I had played the original Call of Duty - the one with D-Day invasion then
there was one in pacific with Pearl Harbor attack (#2?) but started to get into areas that were too dark -screenwise - and I couldn't see them. I'll have to check out one of your recommended ones if I can play alone - or do you need 2 people so as not to get slaughtered?
Comment by Denny Koch on March 27, 2008 at 10:21am
Yes, that's right - Halo 1-3 can be played in cooperative offline mode, too - I almost forgot about these classics :) Despite the fact that all three games have some minor drawbacks (many players thought the library in part 1 too repetitive, Part 2 had an unsatisfying ending), these are definitely great offline coop games. I wouldn't call them tactical shooters, though... Halo games are true ego shooters, more mayhem, less tactis, but they are great nevertheless. My main criticism of AoT was the fact that it was announced as a "tactical" shooter with tactical depths and strong cooperative components, but in fact it was nothing but a bloody massive third person shooter, lacking even the most basic enemy AI which is a basic requirement for any tactical component. If you are looking for some massive and uncomplicated killing action on a rainy weekend, AoT might be a good choice, but avoid the game if you are looking for a deeper tactical challenge - and don't listen to the AoT ads ;)
Comment by Denny Koch on March 27, 2008 at 10:11am
A good team-based cooperative 3rd person shooter is "Gears of War" (3rd person as opposed to Ego Shooter, i.e. you see the character you are controlling and not just his weapon from a first person point of view). Obviously, Army of Two was "inspired" by this game and wanted to have a part in the success of GOW by being a cheap clone, this is why I chose GoW as an example for a good game (there are many more out there, but GoW is the closest comparison).

In GoW, the world is invaded by an Alien army and the two players can cooperatively play the parts of two elite soldiers in heavy armor and with even heavier weapons. They have to fight their way through a postapocalyptic US citiy and fight various Alien soldiers and species. Sometimes, they are on their own, sometimes they meet Marines or other groups of soldiers trying to hold important key positions somewhere in the cities or helping them out.

The controls in GoW are exemplary and the game introduced a great "cover-system" where the characters could hide hinter various objects in order to seek cover and to give the partner some protective fire. Unlike in AoT, the system felt really good and moving your soldier was smooth and elegant and never chaotic. The storyline was full of surprises and shocking events (definitely an adult game with a high level of violence - which is the reason why it was never published in Germany, so we played the UK version), the encounters with civilians or other soldiers felt good and natural and the level design was intelligent and never repetitive. Although the story and setting was somewhat futuristic, it never felt ridiculous and was always convincing in its own way - in contrast to AoT with a pseudo-authentic modern anti-terror topic.

The game utilized triggers, of course, to tell the story and to surprise the players with shock elements, but these triggers were harmonically integrated into the game and you never felt one being triggered - things happened and they caught you by surprise. The most important aspect was the enemy AI. The enemies consists of various alien races, for example massive and aggressive Brutes, flying swarms of black things attacking you as soon as you left the shadow, insectoid species with aggressive acid, giant but blind berserk monsters who could hear and smell you and follow you by noise alone (!), intelligent Alien officers commanding dumb grunts. The enemies didn't sit behind obstacles and were waiting for you, their appearance at the sceen was always logical and they behaved clever and sometimes awesome. They tried to flank you, to pin you, to concentrate on you while blocking your partner. Sometimes, you were assaulted by waves of the dumber grunts, but it felt right when they did, and it was logical and always included maneuver - in contrast to AoT where stupid human terrorists did this all the time due to their lacking intelligence. Without the need of a stupid "Aggro" system both players could offer protection fire while the other one tried to move from cover to cover. And different kinds of surfaces and material had to be taken into account - as it should be in a modern videogame with enough computing power for correct physics of your surrounding: you could hide behind a wooden box or a wicker basket, as in AoT, but you wouldn't have survived long because bullet penetration would have killed you. Concrete walls offered better protection than iron sheeting or brick walls, the level and all items interacted with you in a physically correct manner and you could shoot at everything or push objects around. Even the NPCs (non-playable characters like the Marines, minor characters or civilans) were intelligent, fought their way, supported you or their comrades, asked for help, and shouted commands.

We completed the game in about 10 hours on high difficulty but didn't have one boring moment. Different levels offered different types of enemies, the story was interesting and the final boss fight was tough. In comparison, GoW did all the things right which AoT did wrong. GoW is my personal reference game for this type of tactical cooperative shooters. I'm really looking forward to Part 2, announced for 2008.

There are tons of single player or online multiplayer tactical shooters out there, if you are interested, some with more realistic settings (Call of Duty Modern Warfare or the classic Operation Flashpoint which is a true military simulation), but in the field of tactical not-too-serious shooters with an offline coop modus (i.e. you can play these games together on one TV in a split-screen mode, sitting on a couch next to your partner) and with a not too realistic topic, GoW is one of the best games.

I hope I could make the differences clear to you :)
Comment by Clint Pewtress on March 27, 2008 at 10:03am
Well, my teenage son & I played Army of Two and had a lot of fun. I think it is very much worth the cost of renting for a weekend of mayhem.

I'm not a big shooter player (in fact, I only enjoy the co-op titles) Aside from AoT, my son and I had a "blast" with Gears of War, and all the Halo series. (though I think the original Halo had the best storyline and left us with the greatest sensation of playing through an expic movie) Lord of the Rings: Battles of the Third Age burned up yet another weekend for us. (I particularly enjoy this time, since it manages to bridge, for a short while, the gap between a teen wanting to do his own thing, and spending time with his old man.)
Comment by Bob Hamel on March 26, 2008 at 8:56pm
Denny, since we have just now hear of this "horrid" game, I like John have not any experience in this
medium (except playing one "round" of a game with my son where all we did was drive around this city in a tank and run over police cars...weird)...anyway, I digress with my question...WHAT is a GOOD, 2 player game and what does that consist of?....could you share a quick explaination of one of your "good" or favorite games?
Comment by John Kranz on March 26, 2008 at 1:23pm
Thanks for sharing your team-based video game experience. I have to admit it opens a whole new world to me, as I've never played shooter games. I flirt aroud with a Wii system and that's about it. Still, it's nice to get an idea of what these video games are all about!

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