Reviewed: November 19, 2005
Released: October 26, 2005
Anyone who read my original Brothers in Arms review earlier this year will know that I was a big fan of the game; especially they way the designers managed to merge strategy and action so seamlessly while telling a compelling story.
Normally, we have to wait at least a year before a sequel comes along, but the boys at Gearbox are determined to keep you in the trenches with Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood, their exciting follow-up to their original WWII shooter.
After coming away from Earned in Blood I couldn’t help but think this was more of a bandage to patch up the few issues from the first game, rather than a full-blown sequel, but in the world of console gaming, you really can’t have expansion packs like the PC to add content and fix problems.
Earned in Blood features another great story that runs parallel with the events of Matt Baker and the boys in the 101st Airborne from the last game. In this sequel you play as Joe Hartsock, or Red to his buddies, as he relates a story that plays out as a flashback of missions spanning the 15 days following D-Day. Earned in Blood does a great job of telling its own story while including enough references to the first game to keep everything tied together.
For those who never played the original, Brothers in Arms is a creative blend of squad tactics and first-person shooter that combines all the best elements from games like Call of Duty and Full Spectrum Warrior. It’s not too strategic nor is it too arcade like.
You play as part of a small team of soldiers and using a command system called “situational awareness” you can slow down the battle and get a birds eye view of the immediate area. This allows you to plot the locations of any known enemies and plan how to attack or distract. Not only has the way you play this game not changed, neither has the game itself. In fact, aside from the new cast of characters and a few new weapons and vehicles you’d be hard pressed to tell which game you were playing. I supposed if you really enjoyed the Road to Hill 30 then more of the same won’t disappoint, but I would certainly have enjoyed exploring some new areas and events from the vast source material that WWI has to offer.
Levels all look vaguely familiar and the mission structure and sequence of waypoints and objectives plays out just like before. You'll be ordered to take possession of a location then defend that location, or perhaps perform escort duties or some other task that is typical of both the military and these types of games.
But while the gameplay hasn’t changed Gearbox did manage to address several of the complaints gamers and critics had with the first title. For starters the enemy AI has been greatly improved making them smarter and more mobile than before. This means that suppression fire alone isn’t enough to guarantee my sneak attack tactics anymore. The enemy will be trying to flank my team while I’m trying to flank them. And whereas before, you could often rush an enemy and slaughter them as they stood fixed in place, they will now retreat for cover when you issue the “charge” command.
This improvement to the enemy AI is a welcome addition to a game that was pretty easy on all but the hardest skill settings. I hadn’t realized how lazy I had become until my first attempt to circle an enemy position failed. Not only is Earned in Blood much harder than the first game, it is much more realistic forcing you to plan your attacks and mix up your tactics.
I wasn’t happy with my own team AI and my men still had trouble finding the best or safest path to my targeted area. There were numerous occasions where they simply refused to take cover and ended up dying, forcing me to restart the mission. I’m the “no man dies – no man left behind” kind of player, and that motto was severely tested in a game where the enemy is smarter than my own men.
While the sense of camaraderie is firmly in place, you never get the sense of loss associated with a soldier’s death since the game allows you to revive any fallen comrades before starting the next. For those who feel this is cheating you can always replay the previous mission and try harder to keep your men alive.
Earned in Blood improves on the multiplayer support despite the four-player cap on matches. The Skirmish mode offers several game types including Tour of Duty, Defense, Timed Assault, and Objective modes for both American and German soldiers. Scoreboards track your progress and keep you competitive with the rest of the Xbox Live community.
Much like its predecessor, Earned in Blood does a superior job of conveying a sense of cold, wet, dirt, mud, and everything else you would expect from a war torn European theater. It does a great job of immersing you in the experience right down to chunks of dirt kicking up and spraying your screen.
The character models are some of the best you are likely to find on the Xbox. Some of the behind-the-scenes bonuses show how they captured real men doing real military movements and blended that movement into the animation of the game characters. Each of the primary characters all have unique faces and expressions and when you engage in conversations it’s like they are all real people.
Subtle details like rain and snow are present and dot the screen, but oddly, these effects continue to dot the screen even when you are indoors or hiding under a bridge. Standing water is very realistic and splashes appropriately when you or your men wade through.
There are some nice atmospheric effects like getting stunned by a mortar or grenade and the whole world blurs along with a ringing in your ears. The borders of the screen will also flash to indicate the direction of incoming fire.
There’s a popular saying in the military, “you never hear the bullet that kills you”, and Brothers in Arms brings this point across wonderfully. You’ll be sneaking through a field and all of the sudden your screen is flashing and your health is going from green to yellow to red. If you are lucky you might hear a few early shots thudding into the ground, kicking up dirt and grass, or possibly ricochet off a wall or building, but you seldom know where that fatal shot came from.
The Dolby Digital sound mix in Brothers in Arms is something you would expect from a feature film. In fact, there were times when I had flashbacks to watching Band of Brothers. Every sound is 100% authentic from the weapons' fire to the growl and clanking of the tanks and the whines of planes as they streak overhead. The AA fire is deafening and will rock any sub-woofer equipped room.
Voice acting is pretty good considering Gearbox chose not to go “Hollywood” with this title. There are some convincing accents and some genuinely funny lines, and you do get a real sense of camaraderie. I did notice that the designers chose to rehash several of the random battle chatter lines from the first game rather than re-record new voices or dialogue. And all of the expected solider-like profanity is back – enough to guarantee an Mature rating despite the lack of any visible bloodshed.
Brothers in Arms delivers a stirring musical score that keeps itself contained to the menus, load screens, cutscenes and a few inspirational gameplay moments, but it definitely delivers the emotional impact it sets out to achieve, then leaves you to relish the horrific sounds of warfare.
As with the first game, you earn medals for completing each mission, and based on your chosen skill level you will also unlock a host of bonus content, movies, screens, etc. This is always a great incentive for replaying the game on harder difficulties.
The multiplayer is still a great way to extend the life of this game and offers plenty of content after the story is over. Whether you are playing split-screen, system link, or online with Xbox Live, there is plenty of challenging gameplay and the promise of more with downloadable content support.
If you’ve already traveled the Road to Hill 30 then continuing the adventure in Earned in Blood is almost a mandatory tour of duty. Everything you loved about the original is back and for the most part the game has seen several improvements including the expanded multiplayer and improved enemy AI.
Yes, a few things still need to be addressed, mainly the squad AI and pathing, but Brothers in Arms still offers one of the most challenging WWII experiences you can take on the Xbox, blending story and action for an authentic and insightful look into an epic war.