The saturation of the World War 2 shooter market is no big gaming secret. Nowadays, when publishers announce a new FPS based on our history’s most profound conflict, it is received by most as little more than a ?me too’ attempt. This wave had grown stale, to say the least. With so many games in this genre, some good, some horrible, it’s hard to imagine a developer breaking new ground and introducing something genuinely unique. Fortunately, with Brothers in Arms: The Road to Hill 30, Gearbox has not only developed a masterpiece deserving its comparisons with the best of the genre, it has also created a masterpiece all self-respecting Xbox owners should experience.
If you’ve been thinking about picking this title up, don’t just sit there; get to your favorite game store now! If you’re tired of these types of games, read on to discover exactly why Brothers in Arms is one of the best on the platform, and why it’s worthy of your time and money.
Gearbox’s intent in this area is crystal clear from the opening scene: delivering the most intensive and realistic experience around. Based on an extremely popular narrative, you’ll be put in charge of a tightly knit group of soldiers living through, and desperately trying to survive, humanity’s darkest hour. The presentation is a gritty, war-torn affair on par with anything the industry has offered to date.
To this end, the game’s presentation succeeds in depicting the desperation of the times, and does a great job at building the camaraderie between the game’s principal characters. Cut scenes, found at both the beginning and end of each of the game’s twenty chapters, fittingly frame the action about to occur, or that has already transpired in the game. While some of these scenes are quite comical from a camaraderie sense, some also capture the troop’s quiet moments and its reflections on the surrounding horrors of war.
Brothers in Arms’ presentation is perhaps best compared to that of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan or HBO’s Band of Brothers, rather than simply to other videogames of this particular style. Though you may have seen the aforementioned cinematic events, you’ll never be quite as close to living them as you are when playing Brothers in Arms.
Brothers in Arms is, at its heart, a tactical shooter (does Ubisoft have this market cornered, or what?). You won’t be an almost impervious lone wolf taking down wave after wave of willing Nazis, a few hits and you’d just be another casualty. The game begins by familiarizing you with control of the main character, but then quickly introduces group dynamics by giving you command over another squad. You’ll eventually be commanding a tank, and then graduate to commanding two full squads of men.
In truth, introducing something new in any genre is a tricky affair. There is a lot of room to muck things up, from impact to control, to the game’s flow; any game can be dragged down by poorly realized design decisions. This is where Brothers in Arms achieves its greatest strength: the ability to easily and effectively control your squads. This control is not a superficial feature. Your ability to properly manage situations through squad movement, suppression fire, and assault, largely determines your success or failure. The developers further enforce this notion by implementing save-games as save-points, instead of user-defined saves. When a player dies, they must redo a portion of the chapter again, which is usually accompanied by an evolutionary realization of how a prior tactical mistake was made.
Enemy A.I. is unforgiving, yet always fair. Enemy soldiers have suppression icons indicating how much fire they are under, as was the case in Full Spectrum Warrior. Most levels require the maneuvering of two friendly units, specialized in suppression or assault, through war-torn countryside, towns, and open fields, dodging from cover to cover while attempting to gain initiative through flanking maneuvers and suppression fire.
Thankfully, squad selection is mapped to the controller’s D-pad, and squad movement and command are accomplished through a simple pull of the left trigger, and a point of the cursor. Commanding your troops is a deep, yet simple pleasure, differentiating the experience from its peers and setting a new standard, which will undoubtedly be emulated by Ubisoft themselves, as well as their competitors.
All these gameplay innovations successfully crank up the game’s intensity and provide the player with great replay value, even from the single-player component. And with the opportunity to open further game features through chapter completion at increased difficulty levels, there is genuine incentive for actually trying to attempt the game’s levels at the hardest difficulties.
Graphically, Brothers in Arms is unfailingly sharp and, indeed, is visually about as good as it gets on Microsoft’s platform. If there is one complaint, though, it’s that the character models could have benefited from a little extra polish. The faces of the soldiers sometimes seem as though they have a far-off expression, looking at nothing in particular in the distance. However, this is a minor complaint, as it doesn’t tangibly detract from the story or action in any way.
Character deaths are appropriately animated and, most notably, taking a hit from a mortar blast gives a great effect. When hit, you’ll be thrown to the ground, disoriented (a la Saving Private Ryan) and temporarily incapacitated. Hearing and vision become muffled, and occasionally comrades will come to your aid and give you a helping hand.
When playing, there is no question that you are actually embroiled in a battle-ravaged environment. Gearbox paid due attention to detail and the environments definitely benefited from this added development attention. There are crumbled walls everywhere, debris in the streets, vehicles and buildings on fire, and warplanes hurtling overhead. Ultimately, you feel like an integral cog in the offensive and part of a much larger conflict being waged all around you.
The sound is as refined as the graphics are sharp. Gunshots from the weapons are fully fleshed out and suitably meaty. You’ll quickly learn which sounds to dread, usually indicating an enemy machine-gun nest, entrenchment, or approaching armor of some kind. Vehicles in the game sound ominously creaky as they roll along, and engine noise changes tone while steering or stopping.
The voice acting in the game really delivers situational severity. The worst thing that could happen to such a game is to include campy voiceovers that rip you from the immersion of the experience. When the characters are angry or annoyed, they’re portrayed as angry or annoyed, instead of an actor deliberately trying to sound that way (a recurring problem in many videogames).
Ubisoft and Gearbox decided to break from the norm when designing the multiplayer component for this title. Instead of including the all too tired ?free-for-all’, or ?team death match’, all multiplayer games are two to four-player objective-based missions. In a four-player game, players are split into one of two teams and each player, in turn, commands their own squad of men. Though a four-player multiplayer game may seem barren and uninteresting, nothing could be further from the truth.
Since each person commands a squad in much the same way as in single player, firefights erupt as though there are many other players involved. The levels are tactical showdowns, with each team fighting desperately to gain advantage through maneuvering troops to key areas on the map. At the end of the day, there is a tremendous amount of depth and replay value for those looking for a more deliberate and tactical on-line experience.
The Final Word
Brothers in Arms is a veritable feast for the senses, and surely an early front runner for game of the year on Xbox. If you’re looking for a great single-player experience, a deep multiplayer mode, or a game where tactics and strategy are more than thinly veiled aesthetics, then this game is for you. Even if you’re tired of WW2 shooters, Brothers in Arms delivers so many innovations that the game still seems fresh. For your money, no other game this year offers so much, and does so much, as Brothers in Arms.