Reviewed: May 26, 2005
Released: March 1, 2005
Two of my all-time favorite war games are Call of Duty and Full Spectrum Warrior, both for very different reasons. I love the historical aspects of WWII that Call of Duty draws from, and the modern strategic elements of Full Spectrum Warrior hit especially close to home since I actually worked with the real military version that game was based on. Many of the core principles in that game are part of my “active duty” daily life.
I never dreamed it would even be possible to merge the best of both of these worlds together into a strategic action title then blend that with more historical accuracy than any game I have played before, but the boys at Gearbox have done just that with Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30.
When I first heard about this game early in its development I just assumed it was going to be a video game knockoff of HBO’s Band of Brothers, and while the two properties share a few minor similarities, Brothers in Arms tells its own unique and very true story about real people in real places. This is one of the few games where you can “Google” the names of any of the primary characters and find a deep and historical backstory.
You play as Matt Baker, a sergeant in Fox Company, part of the 502nd Parachute Infantry, 101st Airborne Division. The game starts off with one of those cinematic parlor tricks where you start at the “end”, stuck in a trench fighting off German hordes until an incoming tank shell knocks you on your ass. Everything goes black…
The game really begins a week prior to this unsettling event, and we are quickly whisked away to a midnight flight over France where you and your team are preparing to “drop” into enemy territory. Your plane is struck by AA fire and you are knocked out the door. Thankfully you had your chute on and it’s only moments before you hit the ground. Alive but weaponless, you head out in search of any other survivors from the plane.
The rest of the game spans multiple missions spread across D-Day and the seven days after leading up to the events of the opening scene. You will join up with numerous new faces and establish close relationships with your new surrogate family, your brothers in arms.
The missions are all based on historically accurate information. The designers actually went to Normandy, took photos, and interviewed people who still lived there and were firsthand witness to some of the events recreated in this game. The designers fired the weapons and learned the tactics these men used more than 60 years ago. Frankly, you won’t find a more realistic WWII game out there, gameplay, story, or otherwise.
Gearbox had to walk a fine line between historical accuracy and keeping the game fun to play. The damage model is fairly strict but you won’t find the one-shot kills of the Rainbow Six franchise, at least on the lower skill settings. There are several difficulty levels you can choose from and each offers their own unique set of rewards such as movies, interviews, historic photos, and behind-the-scenes for the making of the game.
Best of all, if you play on the higher skill settings and complete the missions you unlock all of the rewards for that level and any lower levels. This means you aren’t forced to replay the game over and over on each skill level to unlock new rewards. If you manage to complete the game on the Hard skill level you can unlock the Authentic level which is perhaps the most difficult experience I have ever undertaken in any military simulation. This level requires you to totally immerse yourself in the character and real military tactics.
The game unfolds much like a journal; where you hear some of Matt’s narrative during the load screens then you meet up with your squad leader who gives you your next set of objectives. At first, you are following orders but soon you are put in charge of one or more teams. This is where the game takes on a strategic element much like Full Spectrum Warrior only this game keeps things on a much more real-time and energetic level.
When you first start off you command a group of guys you can position and use to suppress the enemy while you flank them. There is little stealth in Brothers in Arms, so suppressive fire is the only way you can circle an enemy position. Once you get the drop on the enemy you can put them down then recall your men and move onto the next position.
Later in the game you will command the suppression team as well as an assault team armed with machine guns, grenades, and other weapons that are suited for offensive strikes. You can suppress with one team and order the other team to charge the building, machinegun nest, or whatever position the enemy has taken.
And about halfway through the game you will even get to command some armor (a tank). You can order the tank around just like your men and even use the tank as cover, as you advance your troops down a road or across a hostile area. The tank is great for suppressing soldiers or engaging other tanks, but you do have to keep an eye out for enemy soldiers who have anti-tank weapons.
The interface for doing all of this is outstanding and totally intuitive, whether you come from an RTS or FPS background. Normally, the game plays just like any other FPS game but when it comes time to issue orders you simply select the team with the white button and point your cursor at the enemy. When it turns read you pull and release the left trigger and the men will fire on that target.
The same goes for positioning your men. Just point at the nearest cover and pull and release and your men will scramble for that position, ducking and weaving in proper military patterns until they reach safety. Locking onto a target and pulling the right trigger will order your men to charge the enemy. This is only a good idea if you outnumber them heavily or have them suppressed by another fire team or tank. There is nothing more unsettling that seeing your entire team cut down by a guy in an MG-42 nest.
There is a very clever gameplay device called Situational Awareness that pauses the game and pulls the camera out to an overhead view of the immediate area. You can then cycle through your men, your objectives, and any known targets. You can’t really issue orders, but it does give you some insight (unfair as it may seem) into enemy positions.
Another feature that could possibly be considered “cheating”, at least by purists, is the suppression indicators, basically a small circle that appears over the head of enemies and changes from red (threat) to gray (suppressed) in a clocklike fashion. Not only does this give you unrealistic awareness of an enemy’s ability to return fire, it also gives you precise locations, even when they would otherwise be hidden from your view. For those who feel this is unfair, you can turn off the suppression indicators in the options.
The HUD contains a wealth of information including your current ammo count, both loaded and in clips, your grenades, a compass with the direction of your next objective, and the relative location of any teams under your command. These team icons snap to the center of the compass if they are formed up on your position. Everything is color-coded to indicate the health of both your character and each team. If your men come under fire their portraits will pop up and a red health bar will slowly deplete.
Health is a precious commodity in Brothers in Arms. There are no medics or med-packs. You basically get the health you start the mission with and that’s it. This definitely puts the pressure on you to approach each situation cautiously. But to keep things fun for the casual gamer the game does checkpoint frequently so you won’t have to replay entire missions, although you do have that option. Additionally, if the game detects that you are restarting too many times it offers to heal you and all your men before reloading the most recent checkpoint.
Death isn’t treated as seriously as I would have liked, but then again, this is a game. While certain men will eventually die it is always within the scripted events and story. If you lost one or more men during a mission they will magically be back and ready for action at the next briefing. Of course, completing a mission with anything less than a full complement of men makes it only that much more difficult, but there is no real sense of permanent loss since you have no real control over who lives or dies.
Even when you are accompanied by up to eight other guys and a tank there is still plenty for you to do. In fact, you will often find yourself doing most of the offensive work while you use your teams for suppression and distraction. In real-life you would actually take the assault team with you, but I found it much more enjoyable to use both teams to suppress the enemy while I went on lone wolf commando missions.
The missions are expansive with wide-open levels that, while linear, manage to hide the fact with multiple paths through large towns, and large open areas and fields leaving you free to plot the path of your own choosing.
Brothers in Arms is relatively bug-free. I did encounter a few minor bugs including having the tank stop on my foot rendering me unable to move. I was able to order the tank to a new location and get going again, but there was another instance with a wagon in a field where I got stuck between the rails and had to restart from the checkpoint. Another small bug sent the chatter of an MG-42 into an endless loop about halfway through a mission. It only faded when the next level loaded.
Visually, Brothers in Arms can best be described as depressing, but in a good way. The game 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.
Oddly enough, for an M-rated game there is a glaring lack of blood. In fact, with the exception of one particularly mangled soldier halfway through the game, most of the blood you will see is on the dead carcasses of cows and horses. It’s obvious the Mature rating was more for the harsh and realistic language.
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. Surprisingly enough, the weakest dialogue is Baker’s Doogie Howser narrative between the missions.
Brothers in Arms delivers a stirring musical score recorded with the famous Prague Symphony. The music keeps itself contained to the cutscenes and a few inspirational gameplay moments, but it definitely delivers the emotional impact it sets out to achieve.
On the normal skill level you can expect about 15-20 hours of challenging gameplay. With the large levels and dynamic enemies the game differs slightly each time you play, and the harder skill levels certainly ramp up the challenge. While a lot of the bonus material is enticing, winning the game on the Authentic level might just be a bit too much for all but the most seasoned veterans.
Brothers in Arms offers a token multiplayer feature that is similar to the single player cooperative experience, however all the enemies are controlled by humans. Like the single player game, players control squads of AI in unique missions. There is no generic capture the flag or deathmatch here, just pure competitive and tactical action, either with split-screen or over Xbox Live. While the four-player cap might seem a bit restrictive, keep in mind that each play can control one or more squads so the battles can get pretty big.
I truly enjoyed my time with Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30. Not only did it offer a refreshingly factual wartime story with real characters, real events, and real places, it put it all inside a highly polished game that blends action with squad-based tactics and strategy.
You can tell that a whole lot of research went into this title and it really pays off in the end. I can only hope that Gearbox will continue to tell more heroic stories and make Brothers in Arms a series that will continue to evolve this unique genre hybrid.