At an EA event yesterday, I sat down with Alex Hutchinson, Creative Director for Army of Two: The 40th Day. Before picking up a controller, we discussed the faults of the original title. While it enjoyed moderate critical success, most agreed that the game’s tone was twelve kinds of immature and the cooperative gameplay often felt forced. The core principles of a great shooter were in place, but needing to cooperatively snipe or spin in circles in slow motion always felt forced, and got in the way of the game feeling smooth. Alex agreed with all of these points, and cited his experience at Maxis and work on Spore and The Sims as his hearthstone for working on The 40th Day. The situations and stories people enjoy the most are the ones they help create, and that was the goal in the sequel to Army of Two.
They’ve learned from their mistakes, Alex explained, and have built the game in response to criticisms of the first title. One thing he said resonated to me: they want to “embrace the way people already play.”
We moved into some background information, and he explained the framework for The 40th Day. What starts off as a regular mission in Shanghai for the protagonists (and hetero life-mates), Salem and Rios, goes horribly wrong. Buildings collapse, planes crash, there are giant explosions, and no one has any idea why. In fact, it won’t even be directly addressed in the game, something that looks to separate the shooter from its contemporaries.
In my mind, I began to draw comparisons to Valve’s Half-Life 2 and Left 4 Dead series, both of which engage the player in stories that are never fully explained, and don’t need to be. You don’t need to know exactly how the Combine took over Earth in-between the first and second Half-Life games, but reading newspaper clippings and listening to conversations between characters gives a basic idea of what happened. The same can be said about the zombie outbreak in Left 4 Dead. All that you need to know is that they were infected with something, and, in reality, there’s only survival. The destruction of Shanghai works the same way, and it’s a case of wrong place at the wrong time. “It wouldn’t make sense for some evil mastermind to be wringing his hands and leveling the city to find Salem and Rios,” Hutchinson said. “They’re not trying to save the universe, they’re just trying to get out of dodge and save themselves.” It’s in there, he insisted, but you’ll have to look very carefully to find it.
Moving on, I began to play the game, with my co-op partner sitting next to me. For whatever reason, the combat eventually moved to a Shanghai Zoo, where most of the animals had either escaped or been killed, meaning, among other things, I was able to take cover behind a rhino’s corpse. The controls felt nearly identical to the way they were in the original, with a few things cleaned up. The only noticeable change was the weight of the characters, which felt more akin to Gears of War. They had substance, inertia, if all felt more polished and smooth. There weren’t actually many problems with the gameplay in the original game; just that they were cluttered up with superfluous elements meant to shove cooperative play into the players’ faces. This time it’s a cleaner, more focused game, which means clearing rooms of enemies should be easier and more satisfying.
Visuals had been improved significantly since the 2008 release of the original, shedding the somewhat exaggerated style for a more realistic look. Besides enhancements to the engine, which presented some fantastic wind and particle effects, death animations, in general, are also improved significantly over the original. Ever singe rag doll physics first made their way into games, most shooters have had corpses either weightlessly fly through the air or drop like a sack of bricks upon death. The 40th Day takes elements of animation and physics, meaning an enemy might grasp its chest after being shot before tumbling down in a realistic manner. It looks as wonderful as human death has yet, for as morbid as that might sound, and should set the bar for death animation.
After some combat, and when the coast was clear of cleverly dressed enemies, Salem and Rios walked towards each other and opened up the weapon customization screen. It was described, and accurately so, as “Lego with guns.” Instead of just being able to change the attachment or color of a weapon, literally any similar part can be switched between weapons. Any stock, barrel, and scope can be swapped as long as they look like they should be able to fit, which means that there are several thousand possible varieties. Each has its own stats, so there’s a different between them, and it’s more than cosmetic changes. On top of that, a slew of attachments, including a bayonet, a screwdriver, and a soda can silencer, can be thrown onto any weapon, which can then be painted with dozens of different patterns. If players want to take their game seriously, they can throw a knife on the end of their weapon, improve the scope, give it an urban paint job, and move into battle with their squad-mate. Players can also paint it with pink flowers and put a kitchen knife on the end, stomping on the corpses of civilians.
Masks, too, enjoy similar customization options, and in the coming weeks EA will put a program online to let players design their own. Importing images isn’t a possibility, to help quell the influx of cocks that will immediately grace the faces of Salem and Rios, but players will still be able to draw whatever they want on the silly metal masks of the protagonists. Even penises. Well, until they get reported, which EA stressed several times. Still, the idea of being able to design an incredibly bad-ass or silly face mask should be incentive enough to justify messing around with the online tools when they’re released.
This duality represents the largest change in Army of Two: choice. At six or seven times during the game, players will need to make important decisions during key story moments. At first they were referred to as morality moments, but that’s a phrase Alex Hutchinson wishes was never put out. It’s about gray areas in The 40th Day, highlighting the fact that, when put in a situation that’s live or die, difficult choices need to be made. It’s damned if you do damned if you don’t, whereas the term morality assumes there’s a good and a bad. It’s not Fable, where the options are “kill the baby” or “save the world.” We were told of a scenario where the players can either kill a guard and take some weapons, or leave without them. Either player can pull the trigger at any time, effectively making the choice, which should lead to some interesting reactions when playing with strangers or friends. “We want to bring co-op out of the TV,” Alex said, “if we can have people arguing on the couch, we know we did something right.” He wasn’t ready to say he wanted to hear stories of fist-fights, but we could see in his eyes that they were going for emotion.
Other situations will be presented from time to time as well that can be ignored. If players come across a group of soldiers about to kill some hostages, there are a number of ways to approach the situation. An opponent can be taken hostage, which causes the others to drop their weapons and fall to their knees to be tied up or executed; one of the heroes can pretend to surrender while the other finds a spot to snipe from, giving them the upper hand; or they can both go in guns blazing, mowing down friends and foes alike. Afterwards, Salem and Rios can high five, celebrating whatever crimes of war they’ve been responsible for.
The thing that EA has done so right in The 40th Day is truly embracing the core elements of Army of Two while detaching the series from the things that didn’t work. They’re not trying to find better ways of implementing the features that were duds, they’re abandoning them, something many developers are too proud to attempt. When I played the original, my friend and I thought the machismo bromance was hilarious, and spent half of the game fist-bumping and high-fiving. Others didn’t enjoy that aspect so much, and expected a much more serious story. The first was stuck in-between these two ideologies, and never really found much footing in terms of sticking with a mood. This time around, it’s split down the middle, and allows players to do whatever they want. As Alex said, they’ve “embraced the way people already play,” and I couldn’t be any more excited.
Army of Two: The 40th Day is due out on January 12th, 2010 for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PSP.