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In this game, two heads are better than one

Image: Army of Two
Salem directs the enemy into the waiting arms of Partner Rios in ‘Army of Two.’ The war on terror isn't trivialized in this fact-based fantasy; it's just the backdrop to Rios and Salem's buddy tale. Electronic Arts
/ Source: contributor

Multiplayer online gaming can be great fun. The problem is that, for the average gamer, the experience is often marred by immature brats screaming into their headsets and frequent deaths at the hands of super-humanly skilled competitors.

“Army of Two,” available now for Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3, takes a different approach, focusing entirely on co-op (two-person) teams, both online and off. The two-man concept works exceptionally well, adding powerful strategic and emotional elements to the game. The thoughtful and restrained nature of play is rare and refreshing in a shooter.

Instead of “run and gun,” try “think and flank.” I’ve had enough dying in “Halo 3” to fill a cemetery with my virtual selves. Enough, I say! “Army of Two,” either solo or online, gave me the mix of teamwork and gunplay I’ve been missing.

Rangers Lead the Way
The game opens with a compulsory training section. Tyson Rios and Elliot Salem are Ranger recruits prepping for an insertion into Mogadishu, Somalia. Jump ahead to 2001. As the events of 9/11 play out, Rios and Salem are now employed as mercenaries with SSC, a fictitious private military contractor.

Their world tour of death and destruction takes them to Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003 and a near-future China. Along the way they become fall guys in a U.S. senator’s bid to privatize the military.

Electronic Arts wisely chose to center the story on Elliot and Rios instead of the today’s conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The war on terror isn’t trivialized in this fact-based fantasy; it’s just the backdrop to Rios and Salem’s buddy tale.

While humor and armed conflict may seem like strange bedfellows, “Army of Two” manages to pull off some hilarious moments between Rios and Salem. Air guitars and a few too many “dude-isms” aside (maybe I’m getting old), the exchange where Salem asks Rios to pick his favorite member of the Wu Tang Clan — during a firefight, no less — is priceless.

Overall, the banter between the two, and there is a lot of it, is well written, funny and fleshes out the characters nicely. During one cut-scene, Alice Murray, Rios and Salem’s handler at SSC, keeps the boy’s testosterone-fuelled antics in perspective with a roll of her eyes. They may look like monsters in body armor, but they’re just two young dudes at heart.

The excellent voice acting lends emotional impact to their relationship. When Rios goes down and calls “El-l-l-i-i-ot!” for help, it’s genuinely touching.

Rios and Salem’s character designs are first-rate. The decorated protective masks, sci-fi body armor and colorful tattoos are intricately detailed and appropriately fearsome. 

The Many Flavors of Co-op
The main campaign is played one of three ways: solo with a computer-controlled artificial intelligence partner, split-screen co-op with two players or online co-op on Xbox Live. While you can choose Rios or Salem, there are no differences in game play.

In a game touted for online features, I found the single-player experience unexpectedly engrossing. Non-playable characters often act as if brain-dead in games, but there was little evidence of sloppy A.I. in “Army of Two.” There are aggressive and defensive flavors of hold, advance and regroup commands available via the controller’s d-pad, and my partner would respond with complex, uncanny abilities.

The flow of the game is smooth and natural. The Aggro-meter is a display that reflects the aggressiveness of Rios and Salem; whoever’s meter is peaking glows red and draws the enemy’s attention. Likewise, you can order your partner to pull “aggro.” I soon found an easy rhythm of putting Salem in an “aggro” hold position while I flanked tough foes.

Co-op on Live is at its best when both players have gone through the game once solo; you’ll already know the layout of the levels and understand the objectives.

The main multi-player attraction is Versus mode. You and a partner face off against another two-man team in a contest to complete a rotating group of objectives and earn the most cash. While you’re working together to rescue hostages and destroy targets, the other team is racing to beat you to it. All the while, a host of A.I. sharpshooters have you in their sights. If you can find a lull in the action (and good luck with that),  depots with pre-defined kits are available to upgrade your firepower.

Best Supporting Role
Truly, the weapons in “Army of Two” are the supporting characters in the game. From Desert Eagle handguns and Scorpion sub-machine guns to M249 SAWs and M134 chain-guns, you’ll be completing every side mission to earn enough cash to try them all. But choose wisely, since powerful, deadly and costly upgrades are available for each.

I can’t remember the last time I wanted to play a game twice, but I immediately started a new campaign just to try out the M107 .50 caliber sniper rifle.