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Army of Two: The 40th Day (Xbox 360)

Rated: 18.

Story: You are a mercenary hired to do a simple piece of infiltration work in Shanghai. As soon as you pull it off, however, the whole city goes up in flames. You and your partner are left to fight your way to safety through a lawless disaster zone overrun by the private army of a lunatic.

That said, you still find time for witty banter about pandas...

Gameplay: The 40th Day is a shooter where you view the action from over the shoulder of one of a pair of mercenaries. It's essentially a case of working forwards through each level, moving from cover to cover and taking out the enemy soldiers with a selection of sniper rifles, machine guns, grenades and pistols.

In the single-player game, you can order your partner with a tap of a button to advance, stay close or defend their position. A second tap makes them more aggressive, dealing out greater punishment but drawing heavier fire on themselves. While they're busy distracting the enemy, you can flank armoured positions or snipe from hiding.

On occasion, the pace is broken up by opportunities to rescue hostages or steal supplies. This requires a little more stealth and subtlety. You're also given a few situations where you must choose whether to help others or simply look out for yourself.

The game can be played cooperatively by two players (either on the same console or over Xbox LIVE).

Save System: Automatic saving on a regular basis. Checkpoints are only a few minutes apart.

Comments: I wasn't sure what to expect from The 40th Day. I didn't play the original Army of Two but I don't recall the reviews being particularly flattering. It also promised to be a similar ordeal to Gears of War 2 which I got bored with long before the end. I imagined an endless slog through a succession of brown corridors, interrupted only by an occasional irritating boss battle...

I was amazed to discover a colourful and well-paced game involving plenty of blasting and explosions combined with just enough strategy to keep it interesting but not overly taxing.

The game is obviously going to be most fun played with a friend but it's still very enjoyable played solo. The artificial intelligence of your partner is good enough to pull off satisfying pincer movements and gives a genuine illusion of working as a team. An 'Aggro' meter, showing which of you is attracting the most attention, makes enemy behaviour easily understandable. The result is a single-player campaign which is effortlessly more entertaining than either Gears 2 or Resident Evil 5.

The experience is helped by the fact that someone appears to have finally realised that there are a few simple things to avoid when creating a computer game. Joyously, The 40th Day has a lack of pointless padding, irritating alarms and superfluous story. The save system is friendly, you can see what's going on and it's possible to select the difficulty level each time you play. Even better, there are no frustrating, tedious boss battles - only some extra-tough grunts who turn up every so often to force a change in tactics.

From the level design to stage content, there just seems to have been more thought than usual applied to The 40th Day. The hostage rescues and some gung-ho shoot-out sections make a refreshing change from the vehicle and turret interludes that are almost obligatory in the genre. Even the cover system works differently from most other games. Instead of pressing a button to 'stick' to cover, you simply stand or crouch behind it. You then control which way you peer out from behind it by switching your view from one shoulder to another. This takes getting used to but it quickly becomes a very natural way of doing things.

All the care which has gone into the game does make the few minor niggles all the more baffling, though. Why aren't there options for balancing the sound volume between speech, effects and music, for instance? What about subtitles? These are oddly basic omissions. I also encountered a bug in the controls menu. Inverting the y-axis (i.e. making it so that pushing the thumbstick up made me look down) failed to work first time. I was unable to shoot straight until I'd restarted the game and briefly tried the left-handed control setting. After that, inverting worked fine but I'd almost given up on being able to play the game by then.

I'm glad I persevered, though. As a spectacle, Army of Two: The 40th Day has more explosions than most action films and yet still contains more to think about. As a game, it's a linear third-person shooter without many new ideas. Nonetheless, some clever tweaks to the formula make it vibrant and engaging. How often do you get to ponder the failings of modern society while sneakily shooting bad guys in the head from behind a dead hippo?

Conclusion: Explosive, cathartic and really rather good.

Graphics: Technically competent and frequently artistically striking. It may not have the detail of some other similar games but it's a lot more interesting to look at. I kept having to stop to gaze at the scenery.

Length: Short (although the 6 or 7 hours it takes to play through the single-player campaign has become pretty much standard for this kind of thing). Getting to see the outcome of different moral choices encourages a replay.

Rating: 4/5.


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