I know, I know—I made a huge deal out of how tired I was of World War II games in my Call of Duty: Finest Hour review, yet here I am once again reviewing another World War II game. Am I a masochist? A glutton for punishment? The low man on the game reviewing totem pole who doesn't get to pick his assignments? Honestly, none of the above—but after hearing all the hype about Gearbox's Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 I let my morbid curiosity get the better of me. Good thing I did, too, because Brothers in Arms is one of the best World War II first-person shooters (FPS) that I've ever played. This is not to say that the game is without flaws—because it has a few that are fairly significant—but the game is so intriguing that it overcomes the majority of its shortcomings without annoying the player in the process.
Gamers take control of Sgt. Matt Baker, a reticent squad leader in the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment of 101st Airborne Division. Based on real-life events, Baker and his fellow soldiers drop behind German lines mere hours before the invasion at Normandy. Their mission is to weaken German defenses and pre-empt various counterattacks in the wake of the beach storming, and eventually take the town of Carenton. Unfortunately, the parachuting behind the enemy lines thing doesn't work according to plan, meaning the various squads are separated from each other and are vulnerable to attack. For the next seven days, players will guide Sgt. Baker and his squad through the countryside, sticking it to "Jerry" at every turn. Missions range from liberating towns to destroying vital bridges, but one thing remains certain throughout: war is hell.
Players who are familiar with games like Call of Duty and the Medal of Honor series are in for a bit of a shock with BiA. Rather than playing an elite super-soldier, Brothers in Arms forces gamers to take a more cautious and squad-based approach to each of the game's objectives. Strategy and careful planning is the order of the day, as running headlong into enemy fire is a good way to get sent back to your momma in a casket. Those looking to run and gun should look elsewhere, because suppression fire is more important than landing headshots in this game.
This squad-based approach is the game's greatest strength. Rather than going it alone, players are given recurring teammates throughout. Dialogue scenes prior to each mission create the illusion that these fellow soldiers are real people and not just human meat shields, something that makes the game significantly more interesting to play. I came to love my squad, and because of this, I spent a ton of time trying to make sure no one died during a mission. If I lost someone, I'd go back and try again. In this regard, the game is the closest thing to Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan that the videogame industry has ever managed to create. Players will truly care for their comrades and the game takes on an added dimension when the gamer is worrying about six people aside from himself.
Since the game is based on true events, Brothers in Arms spends a great deal of time striving for realism, all with mixed results. On one hand, not having an aiming reticle (players can turn it on in the options, but the default setting is reticle-free) and being forced to aim down the sights of a rifle is definitely realistic. On the other hand, having fellow soldiers die in battle only to be resurrected at full health for the next mission is a bit game-like. To their credit, Gearbox has gone out of their way to make the game very customizable. Players who want a full-on authentic war time experience can turn off the enemy indicators, the reticle, and never use the overhead strategy map. Meanwhile, gamers who want an easy or more accessible experience can turn all these little helpers on. I have to say that anyone who can beat this game without using the aiming reticle gets my complete respect; trying to aim using the sights on the gun is rough.
Squad maneuvering will be familiar to anyone who's played Rainbow 6 or Full Spectrum Warrior. The interface is streamlined and easy to use on the fly. Baker can utilize up to two teams (a suppression team and an assault team) in most missions. Sound strategy dictates using the first team to lay down suppressing fire while the second squad moves around to the flank and picks off the bad guys. However, if that's too easy or redundant, players can order squads to charge positions, move separately to another location (as long as Baker can see it), or just follow the leader. Squadmate artificial intelligence (A.I.) is generally quite good, meaning that soldiers will duck for cover, return fire, and usually try to stay alive without a lot of input from the player. Unfortunately, they do occasionally run ahead of the squad and right into enemy fire, or refuse to move into a position where they can actually target the enemy. This is disappointing, but it's not a common occurrence.
Since the game is so heavily slanted toward realism, it makes all the little niggling unrealistic aspects of BiA that much more noticeable. For example, why can't my soldiers crawl on their stomachs in heavy fire? Why is Baker the only guy who can man a German machine gun nest? Why can't anyone lean around a corner? None of these things ruin the game, but they do hurt the immersion factor, serving to remind the player at regular intervals that this is indeed a videogame and not something more.
Yet for every moment like the ones mentioned above, there are at least five others that totally suck the player in. Whether it's taking on a German tank armed with a pistol and a grenade or defending a cathedral from swarms of enemy soldiers with a few squadmates and a sniper rifle, Brothers in Arms will put you in the action. A videogame will never be able to accurately recreate the tension of being in genuine life or death combat, but there were moments in this game where my palms were definitely sweaty.
Graphics are great (save for a few texture issues) and the detailed faces on the character models deserves extra praise(though it's too bad they couldn't synch the lip movement to the dialogue). There's not much music in the game (keeping with the realistic tone), but the spoken dialogue is generally quite good (there are a few overly melodramatic moments though). Players should also be aware there's a glitch in some missions that makes the machine guns in a nest fire continuously—meaning the rest of the mission will feature the jarring sound of a machine gun killed miles down the road firing endlessly.
Finally, a few words about the challenge level. Brothers in Arms is a pretty tough game. It's not a long experience, but players will no doubt add a few hours to the final tally from being killed and having to replay missions. The game features an auto-checkpoint save system that's quite nice, but a lot of times the checkpoint comes immediately after some really difficult objective or firefight. This means if the player fails, he has to do that whole section over again. Fortunately, since the enemies never quite act the same way twice, replaying sections isn't as tedious as it might have been. However, gamers who are used to breezing through FPSs with little difficulty should find this game to be a change of pace.
So, Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 proves that there's still a little life left in the old WWII FPS genre of games. Finding a genuinely good and relatively innovative game in this category is sort of like finding a diamond in an ocean of coal—I'm happy to have found it, but I'm certainly not expecting to find more. If you're in the mood to kill Germans, you can't do much better than this.
A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.
Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.
In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.