Although it offers its share of authentically equipped, WWII shooter action, Brothers in Arms is a squad-based game that requires players to manage and deploy their three-soldier teams intelligently in order to meet mission challenges. Instead of a straightforward run-and-gun progression, the game's situations are designed such that players may need to move their men around the battlefield to recon the surroundings, provide cover fire, and pin down the enemy, before they move in for the final kill.
The adventure begins with the D-day airdrop over Normandy, and missions follow situations faced by various members of the real-life 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment. The player's character, Matt Baker, is also based on the stories of an actual World War II paratrooper.
In addition to its action and tactical challenges, Brothers in Arms also incorporates some role-playing styled decision-making. While the game's AI is intended to provide for competent, self-preserving squad-members, is also endows them with human wants and fears. Baker must consider his teammates interests as if they were real people -- his "Brothers in Arms" -- in order to keep their trust and have them follow his orders effectively.
At first glance, Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 looks like a ton of other first-person shooters. It's set during WWII. It's got pretty graphics and lots of guns. But there's an interesting game ticking under the hood, one that emphasizes tactics and strategy as much as blood and bullets. It doesn't quite reach the epic heights of some other WWII shooters, but Gearbox's squad-based game manages to achieve a double-shot quite rare among videogames these days: innovation and polish.
In terms of story and presentation, Brothers in Arms clearly owes a lot to WWII epics like Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. You play the reluctant and fictional squad leader Sgt. Matt Baker, but the game draws on the true story of the 101st Airborne squad who were shot down and scattered across the French countryside during the D-Day invasion. The game follows Baker over eight days as he attempts to gather his squad and get back into the fray, traveling from Utah Beach to Carentan.
This could have set the stage for a memorable and epic story, but the delivery is merely average. Missions rush by at breakneck pace (more on that in a minute), most of the dialogue is generic and forgettable, and the game shuffles friendly characters in and out of your life so fast that it's hard to care about them as individuals. There's "Mac," your platoon sergeant; Leggett, AKA "that-guy-with-the-glasses"; and then a dozen other soldiers that never really stand out in any way. While it's possible to lose squadmates during missions, they never really "die" unless the script calls for it, which also lessens any emotional attachment you might have with the so-called "Baker's Dozen." The story, which could have been a major asset, is really just an afterthought until the very end.
The good news is that Brothers in Arms features some extremely innovative and engaging gameplay. From one perspective, it plays out like most first-person shooters, with lots of WWII weapons and a variety of objectives that revolve around fighting waves of Krauts in a variety of outdoor environments. In an interesting twist, there's no crosshair to help you aim -- the closest you'll get is the ability to look down your iron sights. You won't find any health kits or armor packs, either; instead of the standard numerical health indicator, a colored icon represents your general health status, and the game gives you visual cues through blurring and blood splattering on the screen, which does a good job of making you feel like part of the action. And it's an exciting battlefield to be a part of, with plenty of explosions and sound bringing the battles to life.
The star of the show and the real innovation, however, is the emphasis on squad combat and way you control your squadmates, who fight with you every step of the way. Like any good game, you're eased into things: you start with a single team at your control, then multiple fireteams, and you'll even get to order tanks around. Early on, the action occasionally stops for quick lessons on using cover, suppression fire, and the nifty "situational awareness view" that allows you to view the situation from above so you can plot an attack. It's all managed by an extremely simple control scheme that takes virtually no time to get the hang of, and your squadmates do an excellent job of taking orders without getting lost.
As a result, Brothers in Arms often feels like a cross between a first-person shooter and a real-time strategy game. Forget about being a hero; the game constantly punishes you for trying to play Rambo and encourages you to utilize your squads as often and strategically as possible. You'll set one team to provide cover and suppress the enemy, then send a fireteam around the side to take them out. Tanks provide both firepower and mobile cover, and you're constantly faced with decisions on whether to send one team charging in or try to move your soldiers to a better location. Unlike last year's Full Spectrum Warrior, you retain full control of one of the soldiers, and your aim can often make the difference between success and failure, but you can still feel a strategy-puzzle element to many of the skirmishes, which gives the game its unique flavor.
For the most part, Gearbox did a stellar job bringing this action-strategy gameplay to life. We've seen other innovative games like Far Cry hurt by basic missteps, like lousy save-point placement or outlandish difficultly settings; Brothers in Arms does its best to embrace you and keep you playing. Checkpoints follow most skirmishes, so you're rarely forced to replay areas you've beaten. Mission too tough? Lower the difficultly setting. Keep getting killed? After three fails, the game offers you the option of restoring fully healed squads to continue with. Heck, the load screen even shows the full timeline of the game so you know exactly where the finish line is from the second you start playing. Unlike many games, which do their best to push you away, Brothers in Arms does everything it can to show you a good time.
Which brings up a point worth talking about: Brothers in Arms is a pretty short game. On "normal" difficulty, I finished the single-player campaign in about seven hours, something that some gamers may take issue with (especially after what some may find an anticlimactic ending). Personally, I wasn't bothered by the length, because what's here is very good. Like Call of Duty (which was also a relatively short game), there's very little filler in Brothers in Arms, and the core gameplay is so unique and enjoyable that it more than offsets the length. There's also DVD-style bonus content you can unlock by beating the missions at higher difficulty settings, offering even more reason to replay the game.
The brevity of the single-player campaign is also leveraged by an equally innovative multiplayer mode, which hopefully won't get overlooked by PC gamers. In some ways, it's similar to objective-based games like Enemy Territory or UT 2004's Assault, with one team trying to achieve a series of objectives and the other trying to defend. The twist here is that it's not just human players running around: each player has their own squad of AI teammates to control, with the same mechanics as the single-player game, and you can even jump into the shoes of a squadmate should your character get killed in combat.
Graphically, Brothers in Arms is an attractive game. It's not so jaw-dropping that it'll sell on the basis of its visuals, and it doesn't have over-the-top ragdoll physics or whatever happens to be the gimmick-of-the-month. What it does have, however, are textures that appear to have been somewhat improved over the Xbox version, and support for resolutions like 1600x1200 and 2048x1536 (widescreen modes like 1280x720 are also supported). It's easy to see the game's console roots in the interface and oversized fonts, but it seems to be a solid port, and it's run extremely smooth for us on a variety of machines without a crash to date.
That said, Brothers In Arms isn't entirely without its issues. The early stages of the game feel a little too linear, and despite the illusion of wide-open areas, the game is loaded with artificial barriers; it's a little irksome when your soldier can't jump a 3-foot hedge, but it borders on the ridiculous when you find completely invisible walls in the middle of fields. Your soldiers repeat the same catch phrases over and over again, which gets annoying, and the action probably could have benefited from a musical score (you rarely hear any music outside of menus and cutscenes). Mostly, my biggest disappointment with Brothers in Arms is that it never provided the same "epic" feel we've gotten from other games like Call of Duty or Medal of Honor: Allied Assault -- while those games made you feel like you were fighting entire armies in the thick of the war, Brothers in Arms feels like a group of more isolated, out-of-the-way skirmishes against smaller handfuls of enemies.
And yet, these turn out to be small nitpicks what's arguably the best new PC game I've played in 2005 to date. With Brothers in Arms, Gearbox didn't just come up with an innovative concept of action and squad-based strategy -- it manages to get a lot of it right the first time out. The squad-based combat is handled elegantly, from the simple control scheme to the ability to switch out to a birds-eye view to strategize, and injects some life into a genre we thought had been milked for good. If you're a fan of WWII games like Call of Duty or Medal of Honor, and don't mind something with a little more emphasis on strategy, it's a game well worth picking up.
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