Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 Review
Gearbox Software has done some high-profile work in their last several years of game development - PC ports of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 and Halo, as well as a Half-Life expansion pack come to mind - but until now, they simply haven't gone out on their own to make a whole new game. That all changes with Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30, their attempt to shake up the somewhat old-and-tired World War 2 first person shooter sub-genre. We've seen plenty of games in this niche of niches, and most of them have been great games, but so far they've all been pretty similar. Those of us who have played all the WW2 games so far are itching for something new and different.
Gearbox has come out swinging with Brothers in Arms, as they have put so much effort into making the game as realistic and yet simultaneously fun as possible. And this is a huge feat to accomplish when we're talking about a game taking place in a war. As the game itself puts it, "War sometimes isn't fair, but a video game should be". That quote comes from the option the game will give you to heal your squad up if you die and are forced to load your game repeatedly in one spot. Yet, this same phrase almost seemed to float by as I realized how fun, yet challenging and fair at the same time Gearbox made Brothers in Arms to be.
Your exploits as Army Airborne Sergeant Matt Baker (of the 101st Airborne) will take you from the D-day drop behind Omaha Beach through eight hellish days and through many fortified German positions. Those who have seen the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers can almost consider this game to be a loose adaptation of the same thing - while you won't see any of the real names of real soldiers here, many of the same locales and even situations will come up in Brothers in Arms.
So if this is a WW2 FPS, you might be asking yourself how this game differentiates itself from the Medal of Honor or Call of Duty games. To put it simply, one can look at it as a continuation of the ongoing evolution from classic Quake-style shooter to true war. What I mean is that Medal of Honor had you go out, as a lone soldier fairly often, blowing away dozens of Nazis in rapid succession. The gameplay was fast, tight, and action-packed, and the tactics one used in that game to win were nothing like in real life. Call of Duty had you working with a squad, but at the same time they wouldn't necessarily do much other than follow you around and give you cover fire while you charged the next house, bunker, or field. Essentially, it was still a bit too much Rambo, but at least there were some guys behind you (seemingly with pellet guns sometimes) shooting almost harmlessly at people.
Brothers in Arms changes all that, with a suppressive fire system, great tactical commands for your squad, and situations that will require you to not only work with your squad, but to order them to do the right thing - or you'll all wind up dead. The first thing to notice is that your left trigger will allow you to send context-sensitive commands to your troops: hold the left trigger, point to the ground nearby, release the left trigger, and they'll set up shop right there. Point at an enemy squad taking cover behind a nearby stone wall, and your squad will start laying down suppressive fire (here's where either you charge, or you send someone around to flank them while they are being distracted by your fire). Point it at an enemy squad and hit the charge button, and your whole group will try and use brute force to overpower them. Use the D-pad to get them to follow you, or to retreat. Press the White button to switch between the two squads you can control in many missions - set one up to suppress, while the other goes around to flank your enemy.
It doesn't end here, though, as Brothers in Arms also includes a system called "situational awareness" - this can be used at any time with the Back button, and it will pause the game and give you a top-down view of the area. You can then survey where the enemy troops are, what your objectives might be, and where your own guys are (hopefully) hiding behind cover. This system seems kind of stupid at the start, because it'll only be a couple of guys on each side; you might wonder why you'd even need something like this. But later, as the battlegrounds get more complex and multiple squads start interacting, you'll need this system to determine who's the biggest threat or the easiest pushover for your men.
One important maneuver that's overlooked in a lot of these games is a flank. The game will commonly open up a place for you or your squad to "sneak" in behind the enemy and take them out quickly. The problem comes if you don't have enough guys to maintain suppressive fire while flanking at the same time; in fact, you might want to reload a level despite an automatically saved checkpoint if too many of your squad have been killed. All this time, though, the difficulty that you'll see is not frustrating. Charge an enemy fortified position right up the middle, and you should expect to take some casualties - and of course, if you're one of those casualties, it's game over.
Some have compared Brothers in Arms to a more tactical game like Full Spectrum Warrior, but this game keeps to its first person shooter roots. You will be playing as Sgt. Baker throughout the entire game, and while you'll be directing troops, tank crews, and more, the game is just plain over if you die. There aren't any magical health kits lying around, either, and while you can still take a superhuman amount of damage in normal difficulty (that changes as you turn it up, of course), the lack of ability to heal yourself mid-mission makes the game that much tougher. All through this, the game was pretty tough even in normal difficulty, but I rarely got frustrated or angry at dying.
And this adds up to making Brothers in Arms a better game overall than its other WW2 shooter predecessors. You can still go in alone, guns blazing if you like, but it most likely won't last long unless you've got simply terrific aim. This is also heightened by the lack of a crosshair on the screen - you can still press down on the right thumbstick for a very nice "iron sights" view, which will allow you to aim with precision, but you'll move quite a bit slower. If you want, you can still turn on a crosshair for the non-sights view in the options, but for those with great aim developed from other Xbox shooters, it's like turning the difficulty down a notch. The game's more fun if you go ahead and let your squadmates do what the game intended them to do. You'll be surprised how good a shot they actually are.
Your arsenal of weapons will be limited, Halo-style, to the one in your hands and the one strapped to your back (or to your leg, in the case of handguns). This pretty much does make handguns useless, as almost any rifle or submachine gun will be more useful - and since you can take the weapons of your enemies, it won't be long in just about any mission before you can pick up his MP40 or MP44 (both submachine guns) or Mauser 98K or KAR 98K rifle. Of course, there's a full set of American weapons too: the M1 Carbine, M1 Garand, Thompson SMG, and BAR are all available. There are also mounted machine guns, grenades and bazookas
One thing that's always been pretty much absent from WW2 shooters so far is an emotional element. When my buddies died in Call of Duty, I simply didn't care. They rarely said anything unique, nor did they even really look or move differently from one another - even in the cutscenes - so I had zero emotional attachment to them. Brothers in Arms makes significant headway in this direction, though, with unique characters that'll have real personalities both in combat and during cutscenes. Get them killed, and the other guys will react at least somewhat appropriately. The problem is that many of the guys in your squad can come back after you complete a mission, even if you get them killed. Still, this way's better than what other games have done, because otherwise they wouldn't be able to give each guy a real personality.
There are a few spots in the game when specific characters are meant to die, and BiA tries to play these moments up with decent success. At the same time, it's still just not quite enough for me to be satisfied yet. I'm sure that as games continue to get more and more serious (both in terms of subject matter and by way of their budgets), we'll start to see titles with some real, moving drama in them. For now, Brothers in Arms is about as good as you can get from any first person shooter.
The graphics in BiA are plenty impressive, but at the same time the guys at Gearbox were limited on two sides. First, the aging Xbox hardware is starting to show major weaknesses, and on the other side, there's only so much you can do and still stay realistic and authentic. If the game's authenticity element requires simply a field full of grass and a line of trees off in the distance, there's only so much detail that can go into those two rather simple elements on the Xbox (or even PC and PS2, both of which will be available shortly after the Xbox release).
Despite the limitations of the subject matter and the console itself, I still think Brothers in Arms looks great. The water is nearly perfect, and the various villages and houses you'll encounter look picturesque in some places and like an urban wasteland elsewhere - depending, of course, on how much artillery has been sent into the locales you'll be visiting. You'll see some of the best special effects the Xbox can offer, like a bloom effect on anything that's really bright or pixel shaded eye candy for various stuff (like water, or when an artillery blast goes off nearby). The game maintains a pretty solid 25-30 frames per second for all this, even in some of the nastiest firefights.
Multiplayer modes in this game are different than what you might expect. While previous WW2 games' multiplayer modes used the same weapons as their single player campaigns, the gameplay was very different, and mostly resembled a WW2 adaptation of Counter-Strike or something. With BiA, though, the tactical element is still there. All of the 10 multiplayer missions will have you trying to achieve a goal, not just capture a flag or getting as many kills as you can. The things you learned in the single player mode do come in handy in multiplayer, because Gearbox has designed these maps to make sure that tactics will win more battles than aim. These modes can also be done via System Link or split screen modes; while there's no cooperative campaign mode, there is plenty from a multiplayer aspect to be satisfied with.
The sound design in Brothers in Arms is top-notch, with plenty of great effects to go around. More than just about any other game so far, this one has some great weapon sounds that really do seem like they came right out of a big-budget WW2 movie. Explosions will rock your speakers appropriately - there's no doubt about that. There's absolutely no music at all during the game, but the menus all have that same Band of Brothers-esque sad, slow, orchestra style. It's good stuff, but at the same time Gearbox went so far into the authenticity thing that I think they wound up overdoing it with the lack of in-game music.
The voice acting in Brothers in Arms is decent. I didn't notice any major Hollywood roles, but it's pretty good stuff nevertheless, both in combat and during the cutscenes. Your men will shout in battle, both yelling at enemy troops as well as at you when they see new enemy squads roll in. One thing I want to point out is that there is a full line of cussing in this game; I've never understood why a war game should have the equivalent of a PG-13 movie rating when it comes to foul language or violence. Do we really want to see a World War 2 game that's "suitable" for a ten- or even thirteen-year old kid to play? Is there such a thing? I don't think so, so we might as well throw in the gritty violence and a bit of colorful language to make certain scenes more powerful.
Baker, your character, does have a voice, although you won't be hearing it constantly. He'll introduce some missions with a quip or semi-deep reflection of war, and you'll also make hand signals and yell to your troops during firefights. I'm glad they didn't do like most other war shooters, where you get a name and maybe a face but have no voice. I didn't really think about this kind of thing in the context of WW2 shooters until I played Brothers in Arms, and now I realize that it's better in these games to give the player character... well, some character.
Gearbox has put an enormous amount of effort into making Brothers in Arms authentic and realistic, but still fun at the same time. Their brand of tactical action meshes perfectly with the first person viewpoint, and the story and characters are some of the best you'll see in a game like this. With a great single player game and unique multiplayer mode, I can definitely recommend this game to just about any action game fan out there.