In crafting a story, there a number of different directions its creator can take in capturing an audience. For the most part, with first-tier games we see consideration paid to the importance of motivation and character development, and a player becoming intimately aware of their avatar's plight. When it comes to EA Montreal's follow-up to their 2008 surprise hit Army of Two, however, any kind of thoughtful storytelling seems to have been thrown out of the window in favor of mindless violence.
That's not to say level-after-level shootouts don't work for Army of Two: The 40th Day, it just means there's nothing else to the game except killing non-denominational, faceless enemies clad in balaclavas, sunglasses, and loads of steel-plated armor. It seems that despite the first Army of Two's success, with its mix of gun-totting action mainly set in the Middle East and bucket loads of jocular banter, it created a bit of a controversy; the game was admittedly not the best delivery for at least some sort of commentary about the privatization of the military and paramilitary activity.
Believing as much might have been reading too deeply into the chest-bumping, two-versus-the-world shooter—but there seemed to be something behind all of the violence, however feigned it might have been. Not so, in the slightest, with The 40th Day treatment.
As we rejoin Salem and Rios in Shanghai, it looks to be a normal day at the office, so to speak: meet up with your contact, set up a pair of transmission beacons, and get paid in time for “beer o'clock.” But things go awry when the city is maliciously bombed, sending planes into buildings and knocking over skyscrapers like dominoes. From then on, it all turns into a game of survival and revenge, while you somehow cash in on merely trying to escape the unaided city.
Though, forget about why Shanghai has all of sudden turned into a war zone. There evidently is a reason behind the 40th Day Initiative's invasion, but you won't find out until the very end of the game. Even then, we still couldn't justify either of the endings as resolutions. The sooner you settle with the fact that all you need to do is shoot the guy who's shooting at you, the sooner you'll figure out if you love or hate the experience: the former being dependent on your affinity for team based action throughout well-conceived arenas; and the latter a sentiment reserved for any who crave something more than moving from one shootout to the next.
It may allude to a type of cinema verité exposition, but The 40th Day comes out feeling more like a B-rate action flick with an inflated budget due to spotty pacing, jarring transitions between levels, and overt machismo. At times the game can be visually stirring with pocked textures covering the pair's armor, and tremendous set pieces playing out across Shanghai's landscape; but, EA Montreal's use of the Unreal 3 engine also allows for some bizarre reactions from dead enemies and animation glitches. Similarly, contrasting the compelling, detailed work on the bulky characters are objects in the world which lack any real dimension or current generation modeling standards.
The great thing about a direct-to-DVD contextualizing of the game, on the other hand, is re-playability through cheap thrills. While the new Morality system adds little overall to an already bland story, or fails to impact your journey with in any heavy repercussions, the animated stills, which play after deciding the fate of a few choice characters, evoke the most emotion throughout the game's duration. Not to mention, certain choices will unlock more weapons to upgrade and tweak.
Being a sequel, The 40th Day reconstitutes a few mechanics from the first game, like co-op sniping and sequences where you and your partner pair up back-to-back to slaughter enemies with an endless supply of ammo. In both cases, each are more refined, organic, and less overused this time around. Adding to the formula, however, Salem and Rios can now fake their own capture in certain instances and deal death upon their would-be captors with mock surrenders. Though, if you're merciful, you can choose to tie up enemy soldiers after they relinquish their weapons by grappling their superior. These mock surrenders are a small addition, but can be a fun distraction to the usual cover-and-flank solution employed when one character has full Aggro, vis-a-vis, the attention of your enemies.
While there have been some good changes since T.W.O.'s debut in '08, it's obvious some things still need to be fleshed out. Most notably, playing a solo campaign is a grab bag of tedium and excitement. At times your partner's AI can be a dutiful compatriot, pulling you to safety and healing you, responding competently to commands, and actually targeting and subduing enemy NPCs. Yet, just as in the first game, your comrade can be a dumb-as-bricks hindrance. In sections where you're required to split up, he's likely to die out of reach, causing you to restart at often ill-placed checkpoints before cutscenes that can't be skipped; or he'll drag you around endlessly, only to be riddled with gunfire himself. Not to mention, sometimes your buddy just won't do what you command him to do, get stuck on an invisible object, and cause you to restart in that same fruitless checkpoint.
These issues are easily reconciled, however, with a real person controlling your partner in cooperative play, though the inability to drop in or out of a friend's session leaves the option less accessible and sometimes a trial in patience.
When you're through surviving Shanghai, you can take your teamwork further into the competitive realm with free-for-pairs matches, or group together with others in four-on-four objective games (all your standard fare). In either case, games can be a blast if you find the right partner and reign over squabbling opponents who fail to grasp the concept of two-man tactics. It would be nice to have weapons be a little more effective, but headshots are extremely satisfying when achieved—obviously there was more than just curb checks, brutish character design, and the Unreal engine borrowed from Epic's playbook.
Also, as a bonus for those who pre-ordered the game, or to those who wait a month after its release, is a survival mode, Extraction. Here, it takes a group of four with good communication and strategy to stay an onslaught of successive waves of heavily armored enemies. After multiple attempts at each of the maps, they shouldn't be difficult to master for any with a memory since the Initiative's AI is scripted to repeating patterns. Ultimately, Extraction turns out to not be the most enticing pre-order gimmick.
When it comes down to it, if you were a fan of the first Army of Two, there's no doubt you'll appreciate and love The 40th Day. There isn't any depth to its storytelling, but its technical execution passes muster and even excels in some areas, leaving it shoulders above its predecessor. Two-man battles make the game's online component especially interesting, but it's distressing to not be able to drop in to a friend's campaign. Tyler Bates effectively picks up where Trevor Morris left off on the soundtrack, with a mix of orchestra and heavy, mechanical guitar riffs set against rhythmic, synthesized percussion. Audio effects also do a great job adding to the atmosphere, but it's a shame there wasn't more substantial dialogue for the industry's favorite voice (Nolan North) and company.
It may not be the most compelling shooter, but it can be an entertaining adventure with a dedicated friend.
Feel like pairing up to cash in at the expense of terrorists with us or other GamersHell readers? Who's slicker: Rios or Salem? Ping us @Gamers_Hell on Twitter