Sunday, 21 February 2010

Army Of Two: The 40th Day

“Yes, you can kill Chinese and destroy their beautiful city in the game, but hopefully they’ll understand it’s entertainment.”

A few words on Army Of Two: The 40th Day.

I reviewed the first game for D+PAD Magazine back in early 2008, and found its “morally dubious” politics – here I am, quoting myself - more noteworthy than the actual gameplay. I wasn’t alone in this of course; for example EDGE’s review began by recalling the ironically patriotic refrain from Team America: “America – fuck yeah!”. While games have always tackled real-world conflicts, and will continue to do so - the forthcoming Medal Of Honor is set in present-day Afghanistan – their position when doing so has always tended to be closer to that of being either apolitical or merely representational; we may be aware of the contexts of most conflicts but our primary motivation when playing, say, Call Of Duty 2 isn’t so much killing the Nazis because they’re Nazis, but because doing so is our only means of progression in the level, the game, and finally completion. In short ideology doesn’t – and perhaps shouldn’t – get a look in.

This is where Army Of Two was troubling, because at times it felt not so much like a war game set in various arenas of conflict – and, er, Miami – but more like a particularly American catharsis, an interactive embodiment of Bush’s foreign policy in which every ‘uncivilized’ Middle Eastern/African country – and, er, China - could be brought around to the ‘right’ way of doing things. And this would all be accomplished by two private military contractors; Dick Cheney couldn’t write a better script. It was the now infamous cut-scene which saw you waking up to breaking news about the Twin Towers that really jarred; if the intention of the developers was to incite feelings of hurt and a subsequent desire for revenge then, for me at least, it was a badly misjudged, somewhat cheap appropriation of 9/11 without the intelligence to either a) acknowledge the medium’s focus on activity over passivity (and the implications of this), or b) at least make the player question their actions. It was this absence of wit and perspective that really stained what was otherwise an unspectacular if relatively solid third-person action game.

Which brings us to Army Of Two: The 40th Day. If the first game was very much a product of the delirious, troubling reign of Dubya – and it was – then there’s a case, without going too overboard, to say that The 40th Day is the first title to reflect the Obama era: more self-aware, acknowledging of past mistakes and slightly humble but without losing the image of military power.

You don’t even need to play the game to realise that a slight shift has occurred. In an interview prior to the sequel’s release, EA Montreal’s general manager Alain Tascan – who is also responsible for the rather tongue-in-cheek comment at the beginning of this article – admitted: “People who were sensitive to politics were like, ‘You can’t do that!’ and I understand them…people on the right thought we were on the left, and people on the left thought that we were on the right”. Despite this there is, in The 40th Day, still the tangible spectre of 9/11 in the constant scenes of buildings collapsing and planes crashing (in fact it’s so frequent that it almost turns into a parody of Emmerich-esque disaster porn), whilst others more fanciful than myself would suggest that the idea of Shanghai’s financial district collapsing is almost as much of a right-wing American fantasy as the ability to take digital revenge against Al-Qaeda.

Technically The 40th Day also seems to have built on the same engine as its predecessor. It’s not especially pretty and there were many glitches and instances of the game freezing which suggest there wasn’t much time to add polish before launch. That said, as in the original, it’s at its strongest when expansive environments and the method of marshalling your partner – or even better, working with another real player - coalesce into sustained gunfights of great momentum and realistic tension, where teamwork and patience are paramount. In this respect the game gets better as it goes on.

So, now Rios and Salem have a conscience (they frequently comment on how much they hate their work, which is a marked contrast to the first game’s frat-boy styling), there are moral choices to be made in each chapter that always have consequences (which again prioritises careful consideration over gung-ho impulsiveness in the decision-making process), and – most intriguingly of all – whereas the first game’s conclusion left you in doubt that here was the start of EA’s latest franchise, The 40th Day, without giving too much away, is significantly more ambiguous in its denouement. After the welcome about-turn evidenced here it will be interesting to see just how EA approach the aforementioned Medal Of Honor reboot, given that it takes place in a war that is still very much on-going, albeit one in its end stages if Obama is to be believed. For the debate that surrounds videogames and their approach to the politics of war, it’s definitely not a case of “mission accomplished”.

You can read the original 2008 Army Of Two review by downloading the particular issue of D+PAD Magazine here.

As a side note, in chapter 3 you can take cover behind a DEAD HIPPO, which is almost brilliant enough to forgive all the other FOX News-friendly stuff elsewhere.

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